Image: Joe Anderson

It was 2007 when the Med Student received what must have seemed like a sign from God. As she wandered into the Galleria, the 27-year-old was pondering everything that had happened to her recently—her mother’s death, her breakup, the fact that she was now alone, a Brazilian immigrant in Houston, praying for guidance—when the girl spied her.

The girl, a teenager with large brown eyes and dark hair, walked up to the Med Student, introduced herself as Jacklyn Miller and, taking in her teary face, invited her to her reading parlor. The crying woman was in trouble, the 17-year-old said. And she was the only one who could help.

By the time Bob Nygaard, a Florida-based former police officer who specializes in investigating psychic scams, was on the case, seven years had passed. Over that period the Med Student had given the psychic—a woman from South Florida whose real name is Sherry Uwanawich—more than $500,000 to rid her of a family curse. (The Med Student, who has gone unnamed in court documents, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

How could such a thing happen? “The psychic is offering a very powerful product,” Nygaard tells Houstonia. “They’re selling false hope. And who doesn’t want to hear that your terminal cancer won’t kill you, that your husband will come back to you, or that you’re going to get a better job than the one you just lost? It’s human nature.”

Think you’d never fall for such a scheme? Nygaard says it can happen to just about anyone. “There’s an art to it, and kids in families that run these kinds of operations start learning how to do it when they’re still toddlers,” Nygaard says. “I’m not saying there’s no such thing as psychic ability. That’s not what this is about. This is about how some people use the promise of these abilities to swindle their victims out of everything.”

Former police officer Bob Nygaard investigates these cases.

Of course, not all of the estimated 85,000 psychics working in the United States are out to manipulate their clients. But as consulting them has become a more common practice—roughly 15 percent of Americans have sought out a psychic at some point, according to the Pew Research Center, and the industry itself now generates more than $2 billion annually, an amount that has doubled since 2005—the chances of fraud have grown too. In recent years stories alleging wrongdoing by Houston-based psychics have turned up with increasing regularity.

There’s a fairly standard set of steps to the con, explains Nygaard. First the psychic must find the right victim, someone who is vulnerable, grappling with difficulties, and searching for a shred of hope. “People don’t realize that it’s a grooming process,” he says. “You start off having the victim pay a small amount, under $100, for an initial reading. They won’t usually say there’s a curse then; they’ll say there’s something wrong, because everybody wants to know what it is, why these bad things happened. Soon they’re paying $900 for the crystals and candles needed to find out.”

Once the psychic has sorted out what the “problem” is—and done some research to see how much money the target has—he or she will begin isolating the victim from friends and family. “They say, ‘If you talk about this, you will die. This is between you, me, and God,’” Nygaard explains. “They know they’re dealing with a vulnerable person, and it’s usually about money, love, or health—the problems that would cause even the most intelligent people to suspend critical thinking.”

Finally the psychic starts forging bonds, calling every evening, sending cards for Christmas and birthdays, essentially becoming closer than a best friend, almost like family. Soon the psychic will know everything that’s gone wrong in the target’s life, all of which, of course, can be linked to “the curse.”

“It’s so simple that it’s genius,” Nygaard says, his voice rising. “You had a car accident? Your ex texted you last night? It’s all because of the curse. And they exacerbate your worst fears. This person will tell you, ‘We have to do something about this, or whatever you’re most afraid of will definitely happen.’ And people are so scared they believe it.”

The way things played out between Uwanawich and the Med Student was textbook. Following the grooming process, the psychic, who claimed to have “God-given powers” to fight curses, per court records, explained that the other woman’s mother had been cursed by a South American witch.

It wasn’t long before the victim was using student loans, inheritance money, and even a side job at a strip club to supply Uwanawich with the funds needed to lift the curse. This continued after the psychic moved to Florida, says Nygaard, where she would conduct readings over the phone, accepting payment via wire transfers and cash stuffed into purses and shipped across the country.

Then, in 2014, Uwanawich appeared to go off-script. She informed her mark that the curse wasn’t real. She had found God, she explained, and could no longer continue to swindle her friend. She regretted her actions and would pay the Med Student back every dime. There was just one thing. The two needed to write a book together, with the help of a ghost writer, one that would tell the world about the dangers of psychic scams and earn them more than $30 million. All Uwanawich needed was $30,000 to hire a contract writer, she said.

After seven years the Med Student realized she’d been had.

The police don’t tend to take these cases seriously. “They assume that if someone gave someone else money of their own volition, no crime has been committed, which is just not true,” Nygaard contends. After the Med Student contacted him, Nygaard pushed her to file charges, which, incredibly, she resolved to do only after discovering that Uwanawich was still working as a psychic. But after Nygaard took the case to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, it sat uninvestigated for years. Only after the FBI contacted him about a similar case did Nygaard get the bureau to look into allegations against Uwanawich.

Federal prosecutors ultimately charged the psychic, who’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia, with three counts of wire fraud. Last year she was convicted on one count in a plea deal, sentenced to 40 months in federal prison, and ordered to pay the victim $1.6 million, although the Med Student is unlikely to see any of that money.

“These are family enterprises, so the money they make is distributed throughout the family where the courts can’t get at it,” explains Nygaard, adding that he’s never seen victims more maligned than those who’ve fallen for these scams. “Law enforcement seems to feel that if you’re foolish enough to give your money to a psychic, they’re not going to help you. They assume it could never happen to them.”

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