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'Psychics' Bilked and Badgered Clients, Indictment Says

March 30, 2002|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two self-described psychics were accused in a federal indictment Friday of conning or badgering clients into paying thousands of dollars in fees to free the customers from bad karma.

Sonia Merino, 50, of Manhattan Beach and her daughter-in-law, Nasta Merino, 23, of Thousand Oaks, were arrested and charged with five counts each of mail fraud.

One client told investigators that he gave Sonia Merino more than $518,000 in checks, a 1999 Volkswagen Beetle, a CD player and a personal computer over a three-year period. The unnamed person said he went to Sonia Psychic Advisor on South Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach for a tarot card reading in 1996 after a failed romance, according to a government affidavit.

The initial fee was minimal, but Sonia Merino told him he needed a series of costlier sessions, the affidavit said.

Ultimately, she asked the man for $750,000 to pay a group of psychics to conduct all-night meditations on his behalf, according to the affidavit.

After paying most of what she demanded, the man happened to watch a television expose on psychic frauds, the affidavit related. Suspicions aroused, he began investigating on his own and discovered that on a night when Sonia Merino was supposed to be meditating with other psychics, she was at home, the affidavit said.

The man then went to the Manhattan Beach Police Department, which began an investigation with the criminal branch of the Internal Revenue Service. In addition to mail fraud, Sonia Merino, along with her husband, Steve, 44, was charged with tax fraud for allegedly underreporting $750,000 in income from 1995 through 1999.

Tony Capozzola, attorney for Sonia and Steve Merino, reacted angrily to their arrest, saying they had been cooperating with investigators.

He said many of Sonia Merino's clients testified before the federal grand jury that they were helped by her psychic healing powers. "It's a matter of belief," he said.

The government affidavit said Sonia Merino also sold clients what she described as "holy water" from the Vatican. Analysis showed it was Manhattan Beach tap water, authorities said.

Nasta Merino was accused of selling at least one person "holy water" from Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupre, site of a Catholic shrine near the city of Quebec, Canada, frequented by invalids seeking miracle cures. It, too, came from a local tap, the affidavit said.

The affidavit said Sonia and Nasta Merino advertised in a South Bay newspaper mailer, offering psychic readings for as little as $10.

The pair would tell clients that additional sessions, ranging up to $20,000, were needed to drive away a curse or some negative spiritual force, the document said.

One victim was quoted in the affidavit as saying that Sonia Merino threatened to put a curse on her when she refused to pay several thousand dollars for a series of sessions.

Another told of being badgered with phone calls every few hours throughout the night.

IRS investigators said they have interviewed more than 40 former clients of the Merinos, most of whom thought they had been victimized. Bond for Sonia and Steve Merino was set at $125,000 each. Nasta Merino's bond was set at $50,000.

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