A Tarzana psychic and her husband are facing criminal charges for allegedly bilking an emotionally vulnerable San Fernando Valley man out of close to $1 million during the course of a two-year-long scam.
April Lee, 28, and Michael Johnson, 32, are due back in court in San Jose Dec. 19 to answer to charges of grand theft, attempted grand theft and extortion after they were arrested during a sting operation last month in Northern California, according to court filings.
According to investigators, Lee was operating under the alias Michelle Morgan when she first met the victim, Bryan James, 25, in the fall of 2011. Suffering from career and health woes, he went to Lee's psychic business on Etiwanda Avenue at Ventura Boulevard for a reading.
James was also experiencing relationship issues, and Lee allegedly told the victim after his initial visit that she would need to meditate on his love life before offering advice.
"People who do this are always looking for victims who are going through career issues, health issues or love issues," said Bob Nygaard, a private investigator known for handling cases involving psychics, hired by the victim to help him get back the money he lost. "He had all three. So it basically made him the perfect mark."
Nygaard said he advised his client to decline to be interviewed for this article because of the ongoing investigation.
Lee allegedly homed in on the man's romantic issues and told him the reason he couldn't be with the person he was interested in was a love curse had been placed on him. Given time -- and money -- she could break the curse.
Soon, the man was borrowing money from family, including his mother, to break the curse. In two years, he handed over $926,750 to Lee and Johnson, according to the criminal complaint against them.
"They isolated him from everyone he knew," Nygaard said of the couple. "April would say something and Michael would swear to it, making everything seem real. They took him out to dinner on his birthday, he spent holiday meals with them. He really trusted them."
Then came the text messages.
Lee allegedly began texting James from her own cellphone, purporting to be the man's love interest. Lee said the two would-be lovers couldn't speak directly because of the curse, so they had to go through her.
"She was texting him all these things. 'Ooh baby, I can't wait until we're together. Xxoo.' Stuff like that," Nygaard said.
Eventually, the victim's suspicion was raised, and he approached his crush. He soon realized none of it was true.
Messages left for Lee at the psychic business in Tarzana were not returned, and it is unclear if an attorney has been retained for either defendant.
The man went to a local Los Angeles Police Department station, but he felt his complaint was not taken seriously. LAPD officials familiar with his case declined to comment citing the ongoing investigation.
He then reached out to Nygaard and the Santa Clara plan was hatched.
"It's really common for law enforcement to see it as a civil matter and not criminal," said Cherie Boulard, deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County, who is prosecuting the case. "They think 'oh, well, they gave them the money voluntarily.' This is a consensual crime, so you have to get away from thinking of it as proving or disproving spirits and curses and look at the fraud."
Boulard, who has prosecuted dozens of similar cases, said she was willing to help when Nygaard reached out to her. Lee also allegedly operated at Northern California locations in San Francisco and San Bruno in recent years, although there have been no criminal charges filed to date related to those locations.
Lee and Johnson allegedly pressured James for more money and flew with him to San Jose in November with the promise of nearly half a million dollars from the cash sale of a home his mother owned in the area. Lee promised this last amount of money would break the curse once and for all.
Once the set-up transaction occurred, the couple was arrested by local police officers.
The text messages are proof of the fraud, Boulard said.
"Things like that can be found in lots of these cases," she said. "A lot of people don't come forward because they're embarrassed, ashamed, scared. But this is fraud and it's a crime."
Johnson and Lee are now free in lieu of bail, with GPS ankle-monitors in place. They return to court next month to enter a plea, Boulard said.
She said while crimes involving psychics are far more common than most people want to admit, this one is one of the largest she's seen.
"This is very common, unfortunately. A lot of it goes unreported, but when you're looking at $900,000, something has to be done." ___