The woman wanted advice to help bring up sales at her realty firm, but she wound up losing more than $3,000, terrified that her daughter and husband were in mortal danger.
The 43-year-old mother and native of Colombia, who asked that she not be named because of a combination of fear and embarrassment, appears to be the latest victim of HarperCollins author Regina Milbourne, whose supposedly nonfiction book Miami Psychic is still on the shelves despite the revelation that it is essentially a fraud.
The victim, whom I'll call Patricia, filed a complaint last week with the Plantation Police Department against Milbourne. She says the fact that the author, whom police describe as a classic scam artist, had just released a well-publicized book made her believe in the self-proclaimed psychic more than anything else.
When Milbourne convinced her that her family had a curse upon it, Patricia says she handed over thousands of dollars to lift it.
"My friend told me that she had a book out and that she had been all over the news," Patricia says. "I really believed in her. I feel so stupid."
Milbourne's wrongdoing apparently isn't confined to fortunetelling scams and duping book publishers. Hollywood police believe she also committed a jewelry theft this past October and, again in that case, she boasted to the victim about her then-upcoming book to help bolster her credentials.
Hollywood police spokesman Carlos Negron says his department sent the jewelry-theft case to the State Attorney's Office in January requesting that a warrant be issued for Milbourne's arrest. A call to the State Attorney's Office found that the case is still sitting in limbo.
Well, actually, the warrant won't be in Milbourne's name that's just a name she made up as part of her scam. Her real name is Gina Marie Marks, and the latest findings come after the discovery that the 33-year-old Gypsy had been involved in well-documented swindles of $120,000 from two Californians six years ago. In lieu of criminal charges, Marks paid restitution to the victims [see "Psych Job," July 13].
"She's a highly trained scam artist," says Aventura police Officer Mark Frieder, who has personally investigated Marks and is regarded as South Florida's top law enforcement expert in Gypsy crimes. "She engages in confidence games, and my experience tells me she isn't going to stop."
But you wouldn't get the idea that Marks was a predator if you read her book, co-authored by Yvonne Carey, the Sun-Sentinel's special correspondent in Weston, and released in June by Regan Books, a HarperCollins imprint run by publishing giant Judith Regan.
Marks, under the false name (which she also used with the victims in her criminal cases), writes in Miami Psychic that a near-drowning experience at age 12 gave her the God-given ability to see the future, and since then, she has used the power to "help" anyone that needs it. She portrays herself not as a viper but as a good-hearted spiritual prodigy who is sucked into the unsavory world of corrupt South Florida.
Everyone involved in the publication of the book including Marks, Carey, and Regan has refused to comment on the findings, though Regan publicist Gregg Sullivan did request last week that I fax him the police reports. Miami Psychic is not only still being sold around the country but is still listed as "nonfiction."
The book, meanwhile, has only given more credibility to Marks, whom police deem a "transient offender," their term for Gypsy con artists.
Patricia was referred to Marks in late May by a co-worker. She spoke with Marks on the telephone, but the fortuneteller was too busy with the release of her book to see her. The new author was looking for someone to help her do her hair and makeup for public appearances, including a television interview on NBC-6.
On June 6, Marks and co-author Carey launched the book at the well-known and well-respected Books & Books store in Coral Gables. There was talk of a possible television series and movie.
About a week after that, Patricia went to see Marks at the author's home in Plantation Isles, a nice suburban neighborhood where houses are generally valued at $500,000 or more. She recalls that the driveway was full of Land Rover vehicles (Marks boasts in the book that she drives a Bentley).
As instructed, Patricia had brought along pictures of her 16-year-old daughter and husband. Marks sat her down at the dining room table.
"She seemed like a regular, pretty, short, nice lady," Patricia says. "Then she looked at me and said there was a curse on my daughter and me and that we were in danger. She told me she was going to meditate about that. I was petrified."
She gave Marks her initial fee of $100 and left. The next day, Marks called her on the phone. "She said it was my last chance and that I needed to hurry up or I would be in danger. She said [lifting the curse] would cost $1,500."
Because Patricia didn't have that much money, she withdrew $700 from the bank and took it to Marks with a promise to bring the rest later.
"Then she called me and said it was very hard what she was up against and that I have to bring her a black pillowcase with 43 twenty-dollar bills, 43 ten-dollar bills, and 43 quarters," Patricia says.
The number is based on Patricia's age, and bank records show that she withdrew the money which came out to $1,300.75 on June 26.
"[Marks] blessed the money and had me rub it on my stomach and my back," Patricia says. "I left with it, but the next day she said to bring it back."
She returned with the money in the black pillowcase.
"She took it and said she needed to bless it at the altar," Patricia explains. "I haven't seen it since."
Despite the fact that Marks still had the $1,300, Patricia gave her another $800, for a total of $2,900.
As she tells the story, Patricia constantly repeats that she's embarrassed and that her admittedly stupid actions were out of character. Both her mother and father are medical doctors, she explains, and her family believes deeply in science not superstition.
"It's hard to explain," she says, "but when you are afraid for your own daughter, it makes you crazy."
On July 17, still in the grip of what she describes as terror, she took her mother-in-law to Marks for a reading. Her mother-in-law, who didn't want to be interviewed for this article, gave Marks another $100.
"She told me and my mother-in-law that we needed to act because my husband was going to have a mental breakdown in three weeks," Patricia says.
On July 19, Marks asked her for $350 more, and Patricia delivered the cash. Then, two days later, she brought Marks yet another $400.
"She told me to bring the money and a white egg so that she could 'seal my luck,'" Patricia says. What happened next finally prompted Patricia to wake up. She says Marks blessed the $400 and then literally grabbed it from her hand.
"Something told me that she wanted this money because she had no money at that time," Patricia says. "I left in the car, and I had the worst feeling. I felt like she was going to go shopping."
Patricia told her sister, Zoraida Morales, about it. Morales, who lives in New York, found the original New Times article on the Internet and warned her sister that she was being duped.
The grand total Patricia and her mother-in-law handed over to Marks: $3,750.
"I feel ashamed, but I don't want this to happen to anybody else," she says, "and if I just walk away, I know it will. If you hadn't printed that article, I would have lost another $10,000. I'm sure of it. I have been a nervous wreck. I'm still petrified, even though I know she doesn't have any powers."
Officer Frieder says Patricia's case is terribly common.
"It's always the same: They say something bad is going to happen to their victims, and they say the root of the evil is coming from their money and they need to cleanse the money," the Aventura officer says. "It's the same scam over and over and over, and you know what? It's working over the years."
Frieder knows about Marks firsthand. He worked the jewelry-theft case on her this past fall. A complainant, Laurie Kruss, came to Aventura police saying that a woman had stolen $2,500 worth of jewelry from her home. According to police reports:
Kruss was shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bal Harbour on October 9 when a woman, identifying herself as Regina Milbourne, remarked on her diamond ring. Kruss, who sells jewelry, felt so comfortable with her that she invited Milbourne to come to her upscale home in Hollywood to let her look at her wares.
Two days later, Milbourne arrived at the home driving a BMW and accompanied by her 11-year-old daughter. Kruss laid out jewelry for sale for Milbourne and, at one point, left the room to get more. When she returned, she noticed Milbourne "quickly shove her right hand into her purse." After Milbourne left, Kruss had a "bad feeling" and discovered that jewelry was missing.
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A security guard in Kruss' gated community took down the tag on Milbourne's BMW. Frieder, who assisted Hollywood police in the investigation, was able to trace it to Marks, whom Kruss positively identified from a photo lineup.
Hollywood determined that Marks committed the theft and sent the case to prosecutors. When contacted last week while she was vacationing in Colorado, Kruss had one question:
"Have they caught her yet?"
The answer, of course, is no. But if police are serious about stopping Marks, they might want to call Judith Regan's publicity department. Should be an author's appearance coming up, after all.