Samantha Stevens, a self-described spiritual consultant, allegedly told a Miami client she knew how to track down relatives in the afterlife and would open the gates of heaven for the client's deceased father, whose soul was trapped. She further pledged to lift a curse that was the source of pain and misfortune suffered by the client's family, federal prosecutors say.
The spiritual assistance would come at a price.
Over a three-year period, the client paid nearly $3.2 million to Stevens in reliance on her preternatural promises. Stevens and her partner, Michael Guzman, spent the money on a Miami townhouse, high-stakes casino games, a new Jeep Grand Cherokee, and a luxury recreational vehicle, prosecutors say.
Stevens allegedly warned the victim that if she did not pay up, the curse would persist. "Failure to do so — the victim was led to believe — would result in harm to her and her family," prosecutors allege.
This week, the Department of Justice announced U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles sentenced
Stevens, 51, to two-and-a-half years and Guzman, 42, to more than three years in prison in connection with the scheme.
Though Stevens had initially tried to fight the charges, both she and Guzman wound up pleading guilty to money laundering in a deal with prosecutors, which helped them steer clear of the maximum sentences: 20 years on their conspiracy charges and 30 years for Stevens on wire fraud charges.
According to court documents, Stevens met the client, a longtime Miami financial advisor, more than 15 years ago at Stevens' psychic booth. After Stevens held herself out as a spiritual guide and an expert in the nether realm, the two women grew close, linking up at Catholic churches around the Miami area.
Stevens said she could break the curse on the client's family if the client forked over her money, which Stevens claimed was "dirty" and needed to be "cleansed." In September 2013, the client began paying the fortuneteller in $200,000 installments using cashier's checks.
The self-styled psychic managed to bilk the victim out of $1.6 million by May 2014, prosecutors say. She allegedly kept the scheme going by telling the woman that another cleansing ritual had to be performed to ward off evil spirits and counteract the curse. In the three years that followed, the victim gave Stevens another $1.59 million through checks and wire transfers.
As the scheme drew to a close, the victim "informed Stevens that she needed to support her mother and that she would have to borrow... against her property to provide Stevens with additional money," a federal indictment states. Stevens broke off contact not long after, the indictment says.
The woman and her attorney contacted law enforcement in 2016, reporting Stevens to the FBI, the Miami Police Department, and the Coral Gables Police Department, according to court documents. No charges were filed at that time, but after a 2020 meeting between the victim and the Internal Revenue Service about the case, federal authorities took action.
A grand jury was convened, returning an indictment in December 2020.
Fashioning herself as a spiritual leader, Stevens argued in court that the client "received exactly what she bargained for."
"There was no agreement that the money would be returned," Stevens' public defender wrote in a motion to dismiss. "When the money was not returned after the first cleansing ritual, the complaining witness, understanding the agreement that she entered, continued to give Ms. Stevens money to use as part of the ritual."
Stevens tried to convince the court that the ceremonies were an expression of her religion as a person of Romani heritage. She claimed the rituals were performed in Catholic churches "with holy water" in the presence of church figures named the "Mother Superior" and "Father." She likened her acceptance of the client's money to Christian leaders taking large donations or contributions from church members.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres was not persuaded.
In May, the judge wrote that even if the client did not expect the money to be returned, prosecutors could prove fraud by showing Stevens was a charlatan who never actually believed in the rituals. On the issue of freedom of religious expression, Torres noted that "there are plenty alternatives for Stevens to practice her religion without engaging in a scheme to defraud."
"Where an individual violates an otherwise valid criminal statute, the First Amendment does not act as a shield to preclude the prosecution of that individual simply because their criminal conduct has a connection to religious activity," Torres wrote.
After the court adopted Torres' recommendation and rejected Stevens' attempt to dismiss the case, the fortuneteller and her husband struck their deals with prosecutors to avoid decades behind bars. In addition to the prison sentences, the duo has been ordered to pay full restitution to the victim for the nearly $3.2 million they took from her.
Guzman claimed during the sentencing phase that he met Stevens at the age of 16 in the Romani community. As a youth, Guzman said, he became reliant on her and her fortune-telling income.
"They were both physically and mentally abusive toward each other. Their heavy drug use also led to the loss of custody of their children," his attorney told the court.
Guzman was ultimately sentenced to a longer prison term than Stevens because of his criminal history, which included battery as well as drug- and alcohol-related offenses.
Spiritually driven fraud schemes are not uncommon in Florida, and many cases involve soothsayers like Stevens targeting vulnerable victims by telling them they have evil spirits haunting them or that their money needs to be cleansed.
In 2019, a Florida woman was sentenced to more than three years
in prison and ordered to repay $1.6 million after she allegedly convinced a woman to pay her large sums of money for items such as crystals and candles for "meditation work" in order to lift a curse. The following year, self-proclaimed psychics Annie Vwanawick, 74, and her daughter, April Miller, 44, were sentenced in West Palm Beach
federal court in a similar scheme.