She called herself "Senorita Maria" and advertised her faith-healing services in Spanish language television guides. Working in her Echo Park home, she promised to cure illnesses and ease family problems by destroying the evil spirits she said infected her clients' souls.
Senorita Maria would bless the client's money and jewelry, then seal the items in pouches that she would hand back. But when the client would open the pouches, usually after a prescribed period, they found only toilet tissue, authorities said.
When the clients returned to confront Senorita Maria, she had vanished.
In recent weeks, Los Angeles police have taken reports from 12 people in the Echo Park area who said that, altogether, Senorita Maria had taken more than $40,000 from them.
Investigators said the victims looked at photos in the Police Department's "gypsy mug book" and identified the healer as Alicia Pantih, 34. Her picture had been taken by Baldwin Park police after officers there arrested her a year ago in a similar faith-healing scheme. Pantih posted bail and disappeared, authorities said.
Last week, police obtained an arrest warrant on grand theft charges in the Echo Park incidents. But finding Pantih may not be easy. "We don't even know if that's her true name," said LAPD Detective Gary Greubel.
He said Senorita Maria's most recent victims lost an average of $3,500, although one man told police that he was out $11,000.
LAPD Detective Al Ventura, a fraud specialist, said fortunetelling and spiritual-healing scams turn up often, particularly in Latino neighborhoods. He said the healers prey on people who are depressed or have low self-esteem. Many of the clients have marital difficulties, nagging illnesses or money troubles.
Shady spiritualists are usually sleight-of-hand artists, who can switch money bags and make magic symbols appear, Ventura said.
One of the Echo Park victims talked about her experience, on the condition that her name not be used. "I had a lot of personal and work-related problems and some problems with my kids," she said.
The healer, who worked out of a rented apartment, met clients in a room filled with crosses and pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The woman's initial visit cost $10.
The healer told the woman to come back the next day with a scarf, an egg--and $200. When the woman returned, Senorita Maria touched her with the egg, wrapped it in the scarf and broke the egg, the woman said.
"Inside the broken egg was a stone, or something, that looked like it had a skull on it," she said. Senorita Maria told her it was a symbol of death and told the woman to return the next day with another egg, a shirt belonging to one of her children and a large sum of money to be cleansed.
The woman said she withdrew $5,000--most of her savings from the bank--and returned. This time, the woman said, the broken egg contained a hairy figurine of a boy. Senorita Maria said this indicated that the woman's children were in danger.
The healer placed the woman's money in a black bag, dipped the bag in water and urged the woman to pray with her. At one point, the healer asked her to turn around so that she could touch her back as well, the woman said. Then she wrapped the bag in a scarf, tied it tight and told the woman not to open it for two weeks.
About a week later, the woman opened the bag and found toilet tissue inside. Even before her first visit, the woman said, she knew that some faith healers are not trustworthy.
Investigators said Senorita Maria advertised in free Spanish language television guides, including "Teleguia," that are widely distributed in the Los Angeles area.
Because of the police investigation and complaints from readers, "Teleguia," which distributes 150,000 copies a week, will no longer carry ads from fortunetellers and spiritualists, said spokeswoman Mayra Silva.