The gypsy elder says there's only one reason he's out to rid South Florida of John Uwanawich and his family of fortune tellers.
"He's giving all gypsies a bad name," said the elder, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity in a Burger King on Griffin Road in south Broward. "We want to set an example in Florida: 'Stop terrorizing people.' We want it to stop."
Sitting next to him was a law enforcement officer who backs up the gypsy, saying that it's time to put an end to the Uwanawich family's scams and that I'm a person who can help.
"You write about them in the newspaper, and then victims come forward," says the lawman, who also asked for anonymity. "We want them to know, 'Now we are looking at you.' "
Targeted by the duo are Uwanawich, his wife, his three sons, and a daughter, Gina Marks. The latter achieved some notoriety when HarperCollins published her book, Miami Psychic, under the alias of Regina Milbourne. Since the book came out in 2006, I've exposed her long history of swindling her customers, prompting several new victims to come forward.
The most recent development, however, involves one of John Uwanawich's sons, Tony Unich. The lawman tipped off another agency, the Florida Highway Patrol, about a false driver's license in the high-living Unich's name, under which he'd allegedly bought a Bentley, a Ferrari, and a Cadillac. Last Monday, FHP arrested Unich at his posh condo at the Trump Palace in Sunny Isles on charges of license and title fraud.
After Unich bonded out of the Broward County Jail, I gave him a call.
"You want a good story?" the 35-year-old Unich asked me. "How about a gypsy who has a crooked cop behind him? There is a gypsy who wants $20,000 from me, and I told him to fuck off. That was before Christmas, and on Monday morning I get woken up by the police and taken to jail for a driver's license that hasn't been valid for eight years."
Unich named the gypsy, whom he says was trying to extort him, and, of course, it was the same elder that I met at the fast food joint. Unich said he didn't know the name of the cop, calling him a "phantom."
It was the phantom who tipped me off.
"A guilty gypsy runs," Unich told me. "I'm not running. I'm staying right here and I'm fighting. This is a war now."
Unich's accusations of police corruption aren't substantiated, but there's one thing he said that rang true: This seemed like the beginning of a gypsy war.
I've written on and off about gypsies — the popular name for the Roma people who dispersed from India many centuries ago — for more than a decade. Because of their secretive, transient, and often criminal culture, it's not easy to get good information from them. Their economic lives are largely based, after all, in tricking outsiders like me, or gadje, as we are known in their language.
Florida is a popular state for gypsies. If you see a fortune telling shop, odds are it's inhabited by a gypsy family. Women work the shops while the men often run small construction companies.
Police agencies routinely warn citizens about their notorious fortune telling and construction scams. Not that all gypsies are criminals, some are law-abiding citizens who make honest livings. But the culture itself is largely built on thievery and likely always will be. And it's notorious for corrupting cops, a phenomenon with which I've had some experience.
In 1999, I wrote about then-Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy John Nicholas, who portrayed himself in the media as a gypsy who left the life and was dedicated to warning people against the scams perpetrated by his people.
The problem was that he was very close to the aforementioned John Uwanawich, whose criminal record includes a charge of bribing a police officer. Nicholas basically used his power as a cop to go after Uwanawich's rivals to protect the gypsy's turf. He resigned from the department not long after an article detailing the relationship appeared in New Times.
One of the sources for that article was then-Delray Beach Police detective Jack Makler. It turned out, however, that Makler himself was corrupt, using his position to help another gypsy, Linda Marks, swindle several fortune-telling clients. He pleaded guilty to federal fraud and corruption charges in 2006 and is currently serving a five-year prison sentence.
That same year, publishing diva Judith Regan put out the book Miami Psychic. I learned that the author, "Regina Milbourne," was actually John Uwanawich's daughter, Gina Marks, and that she had a history of alleged scams and thefts that she conveniently left out of the book.
When I wrote about it, new victims who'd given their savings to Marks in fortune-telling scams came forward. Marks so far has avoided prosecution, in part due to a less-than-aggressive State Attorney's Office and to Marks' agreement to pay restitution.
John Uwanawich's wife, Betty Jo Ephraim, has also been convicted of fortune-telling scams in the past. There's no shortage of swindlers in the Uwanawich clan, and I've seen the pain caused by them firsthand.
So when Phantom, a veteran law enforcement officer in Miami, called me about exposing them, I was immediately intrigued. He quickly put me in touch with his source, the gypsy elder.
"These people drive Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris," the gypsy told me. "They don't just take a little money for readings, they drain people of their savings, and it gives gypsies everywhere a bad name and brings heat on everybody. I'm a roofer, a general contractor, and I work for my money. I drive a Volkswagen. Hah!"
He said he was trying to modernize the entire culture and assimilate with the society at large.
"The old ways don't work anymore," he said. "Gypsies used to travel from town to town with their scams. They have computers now. It [referring to the old scams] doesn't work any more. It's a joke."
When I asked him about Unich's allegation about an extortion attempt, he laughed.
"Let me explain to you how it works with these guys," he began. "As soon as a cop is onto them, automatically they have to say things. Try to put themselves in the clear. Bullshit, man. That's how they talk, 'crooked cop and crooked gypsy.' But what about the money they take? That's the reason for all this."
He told me that he had recently tried to "patch things up" between John Uwanawich, who goes by the name "Johnny Gee," and another gypsy. He denied that he had ever tried to extort Uwanawich. When I reached Uwanawich by phone, though, he backed up his son's story about the gypsy asking him for $20,000 — before hanging up the phone.
"That's what any gypsy will tell you," said Uwanawich's rival (an "elder" who's actually in his 40s). "They don't speak the truth to American people, and you can't trust anything that comes through their mouths."
The lawman who contacted me says he has no idea what might be going on beneath the surface with the gypsies. "I just take the information and work with it," he says. "They complain about me a lot; they've called internal affairs before," he said. "That is their M.O., and they think by doing this that I will back up. It's unfortunate that we have to deal with this and they'll make stuff up."
He says he just wants victims of the Uwanawich family to come forward so justice can be done. And you can't disagree with that.
But you get the sense that this war has just begun.