LOS ANGELES (AP) — Bryan James was having a tough time. His finances weren’t in order. His emotional health wasn’t great. And his love life needed a boost.
That’s when the 25-year-old Los Angeles man met Michelle Morgan, who worked in the San Fernando Valley at an office with a neon sign out front proclaiming “Psychic Readings.”
All he had to do to solve his problems was to get a pesky curse removed, but it would cost him plenty, according to a private investigator who James hired to look into the psychic.
Two years later, authorities say, James is out nearly $1 million. And Morgan, whose real name is April Lee, and her husband, Michael Johnson, are free on bail after they were charged with grand theft, attempted grand theft and extortion. They are due in court Dec. 19 for a pretrial hearing.
They were arrested in November when Lee and James traveled to San Jose to collect a final payment of $500,000 his mother was supposed to give them after selling her house. Instead, authorities said, the psychic was surprised to find police waiting for her.
Lee’s attorney, James E. Silverstein, declined to discuss the allegations in detail Friday, but said his client maintains her innocence.
“It’s not a crime to be a psychic,” Silverstein said.
Prosecutors say whatever the job or title it’s a crime to steal someone’s money.
“You have to get away from thinking of it as proving or disproving spirits and curses and look at the fraud,” Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Cherie Boulard told the Los Angeles Daily News, which first reported the story.
James was having emotional, financial and relationship issues, said New York private investigator Bob Nygaard, who ultimately helped him build a case against Lee, 28, and her 32-year-old husband.
“So it basically made him the perfect mark,” he told The Associated Press.
He said there was a specific person James had a romantic interest in but the psychic told him he couldn’t approach her until the curse was lifted. “Because if he were to do so, her alleged ‘curse removal work’ would fail and my client’s romantic interest would die,” Nygaard said.
Instead, he said, Lee claimed she would become a go-between for the couple, and sent James text messages from her cellphone that she claimed to have forwarded from the woman. One said the woman couldn’t wait to get together with him once that curse was broken.
James kept forking over money, much of it from his mother’s retirement savings, Nygaard said, until he finally became suspicious and approached the woman directly. When he learned she’d never sent him any messages, he went to the police.
There, he was mocked by an officer, who told him what a sucker he had been for giving money to a psychic, Nygaard said. That’s when he sought out the private investigator, a retired policeman who has recovered tens of thousands of dollars for victims of other psychics.
The initial police response, said both Nygaard and Boulard, wasn’t surprising.
“It’s really common for law enforcement to see it as a civil matter and not criminal,” Boulard told the Daily News. “They think, ‘Oh, well, they gave them the money voluntarily.’”
She added she was happy to take on James’ case because so many similar victims are too embarrassed to come forward.
Lee’s attorney said there may be crooked psychics out there, but his client isn’t one of them.
“No matter which profession you deal with there are always going to be really good folks and some folks that are, you know, they are criminals. But just because you’re a psychic doesn’t mean you’re a criminal,” he told the AP.
“There are plenty of good people, good psychics, who help people,” he added.
Nygaard said it’s too early to speculate on whether James will get any of his money back. He said his client gave Lee and her husband more than $925,000 and that both he and his mother have been financially devastated.
“Bryan is still emotionally fragile, but he’s doing a lot better now that the arrests are made,” Nygaard said.
Associated Press writer Sue Manning contributed to this story.
Information from: (Los Angeles) Daily News, http://www.dailynews.com