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Trial begins for psychic accused of conning clients

Facing grand larceny charges, 15 years in prison

NEW YORK — When a heartbroken ballroom-dancing instructor who had just lost a job and a businesswoman with an unrequited workplace crush wandered into a fortune-teller’s Greenwich Village shop, the soothsayer foresaw lucrative opportunities — for herself, prosecutors said.

Conjuring past lives, divining ‘‘negative energy,’’ and promising to banish problems through techniques such as stuffing thousands of customers’ dollars in a jar, Sylvia Mitchell bilked the Singaporean businesswoman out of $128,000 and the Florida-based dance instructor out of more than $10,000, prosecutors said as Mitchell’s grand larceny trial opened Thursday.

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‘‘It’s one of the most humiliating things that’s ever happened to me,’’ dance instructor Debra Saalfield said in recounting how she tapped a credit line on her Naples, Fla., home to hand over $27,000 to a psychic who said Saalfield had been an Egyptian princess in a previous existence.

‘‘The defendant is not in the business of cleansing spirits. She’s in the business of cleaning out bank accounts,’’ Manhattan Assistant District Attorney James Bergamo said. She could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the top charge.

Saalfield, who runs a marketing business and competes in ballroom dancing, said she had never been to a psychic before she went into Mitchell’s chandelier-lit parlor.

After a $75 initial psychic reading, she returned the next week for a $1,000 version — and was told her problems stemmed from being too attached to money in her royal life in ancient Egypt, Saalfield said. She knows of no Egyptian heritage in her family.

Mitchell’s solution: Give her $27,000, just to hold, as an exercise in parting with money, Saalfield recalled.

‘It’s one of the most humiliating things that’s ever happened to me.’

Debra Saalfield, dance instructor 
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She gave Mitchell the sum, quickly regretted it, and asked for a refund. Mitchell said the money wasn’t available, Saalfield said.

After trying unsuccessfully to stop payment on the check, she called police, had a lawyer write letters, and hired a private investigator to try to retrieve her money. Mitchell ultimately gave back about $9,500, Saalfield testified.

Lee Choong, a Singapore native who earned a master’s degree in business in New York, turned to Mitchell in 2007. Choong was grappling with professional demands and a personal problem: She was romantically interested in a co-worker, who didn’t reciprocate, according to prosecutors and Mitchell’s lawyer. Choong hasn’t yet testified.

Mitchell said Choong was surrounded by ‘‘negative energy’’ and could exorcise it by putting $18,000 in a jar that Mitchell would hold, Bergamo said. Choong ultimately gave Mitchell about $128,000 over two years, prosecutors and the defense said.

Mitchell repeatedly offered to repay Choong if she was dissatisfied, Aronwald said.

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