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Psychics have trouble foretelling when a state law may be used against them

Tuesday, January 19, 1999

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The case of the unfortunate fortune-teller begins with a police sting.

Andrea Kohut, a Lebanon County undercover cop, enters the modest home of "psychic" Marie May and pays her $25 for a peek into the future.

May, a woman in her late 50s, peers at Kohut's palm and at tarot cards and a crystal ball to predict that she will get rich and reunite with her old boyfriend. But the good luck will only come if Kohut pays an extra $79 to remove a "dark aura."

Kohut decides to take her chances and declines the aura-removal service. What happens next is decidedly bad luck - for the psychic.

Within weeks, May - who, like her mother, has been giving readings in her South Lebanon Township home for decades without incident - gets a summons. She is charged with breaking a dusty 137-year-old law that bans fortune-telling.

Busted for fortune-telling???

"Don't you have any real crime?" some angry residents of Lebanon County asked Kohut.

May's attorney, William Costopoulos, puts it another way: "It is not really the crime of the century."

But other people in Central Pennsylvania thought it was just dandy that police had cracked down on a psychic over the summer.

The case, which is expected to be tried in the coming months, may end up being a test of the law. If a plea agreement is not reached, Costopoulos plans to challenge the law, one of 17 state laws banning fortune-telling. Other states have struck them down on free speech grounds. An appellate court in California overturned its fortune-telling law, and Michigan repealed its fortune-telling law.

Whatever happens to Marie May - she declined comment so we can't ask her to predict - the case highlights the arbitrary nature of the law, as well as its rare enforcement, and the strong feelings that psychics evoke.

Here in Pittsburgh, psychics and mystics are making various predictions without worrying about police breathing down their tarot cards. And psychic hot lines are charging by the minute as they forecast passionate love affairs and new careers. A newspaper ad proclaims, "Don't Live in Fear. Let a Psychic Help!!!!"

With the psychic business expected to boom this year before the millennium, most people would never guess that a state law says: "A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree if he pretends for gain or lucre, to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person . . . " Lebanon County police dusted off the law after they got a complaint about May from the state Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

In Allegheny County, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said, "It is rare that we go after a fortune-teller in and of itself. We typically use it to get to a larger scam."

Even so, the mere existence of an anti fortune-telling law adds a chill to a profession that has always had trouble getting respectability.

Pittsburgh psychics say there are plenty of pseudo-psychic phonies out there. Still the law, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, makes them uneasy.

"You can go to a priest and get guidance and counseling," said Paul Hughes, a psychic who lives in Moon. "It is no different than what I do. The law is unfair, and it's a way for the government to mandate what people feel. It goes back to the witch trials."

Here's a look at Hughes and two other local examples, one who assists police, the other a husband-and-wife team.

When Paul Hughes looks at you, it's not a casual glance. You feel as though he is staring at a fire raging inches above your head.

The self-taught 21-year-old says he is actually reading your "aura" or energy field - a rainbow colored energy field that he sees radiating around your body.

That red he's seeing above your head means stress. But wait - there's also orange flashing on your left side. That, he says, means creativity in the future.

Hughes, who grew up in Moon Township and originally sought a more traditional career path in computers, "came out of the closet" three years ago. The psychic closet that is.

"It was even hard for me to tell my family. . . . But I stopped denying who I am. If people don't like it, they don't like it."

Hughes is an up-and-coming young psychic. A red bandanna framing his round face and thick brown eyebrows, he sits in a small carpeted room in the back of the Open Mind Bookstore & Resource Center in Sewickley, reading tarot cards and talking in his soothing voice about "getting back to the child you once were."

His predictions aren't set in stone. "Your free will may come in and may say, 'I don't want that to happen.' "

Usually young white males aren't minorities, but Hughes and his brother and fellow psychic, Scott, 25, are rare among psychics. Most psychics, he said, are older women.

Hughes said he began seeing auras at age 12, but thinks anyone can do it to on some level. In fact, he teaches aura reading classes and guarantees people will see auras or they will get their $40 money back. He gives one-on-one readings for $45 an hour.

Dave Hudacsek, a 37-year-old respiratory therapist from Freedom, said he walked into Hughes' class somewhat skeptically. "It hit me hard - this guy is the real deal. Around him, a very peaceful feeling comes on. It is very profound . . . I believe he can see in the future and see backwards in time."

Hughes also plans to start doing what he believes is a Pittsburgh first - spirit-guided caricatures.

Huh? Sketches of how people looked in a former life or of the angels circling them.

Unlike May, he said he never would never think of removing a dark aura for an extra fee. Even so, he thinks what happened to her was unfair. "It's entrapment."

He said May should have told police what he often tells his clients: It's just entertainment. "I believe in tarot cards. I believe in predicting the future. But that is something we can't go around saying because of the law. We could get sued. Some people get carried away with this."

Nancy Myer's police pals jokingly tell her that she can't go on living in Pennsylvania.

After all, she is a psychic in a state with an anti-fortune-telling law. But here's the irony: Police departments have hired her to help crack tough murders, missing people and other crimes.

"I think the law needs to be removed from the books," said the tall, slim 53-year-old. "It was written for the 1800s. It doesn't fit our lives now."

The psychic sleuth said she has worked with police in over 400 cases both in and out of state during the past 27 years.

"It is difficult thing to do a murder," she said. "You have to go through what they go through. You have to work your mind with the victim's mind. I tried to adopt the point of view of standing beside the victim. "

She usually works from home using a few facts, like the victim's name and date of the homicide and where they were last seen. Does her long-distance telepathy help nab bad guys? She said she always produces new evidence and has helped put some hardened criminals behind bars. But she won't name criminals' names for fear of revenge.

She also won't divulge the police departments she has worked for, saying she is obligated to stay mum. Monroeville police, though, said they worked with her in 1988 after the family of Sylvester Tonet asked her to help find the missing elderly man. She helped direct police to his frozen corpse on a wooded hillside after he apparently wandered off lost. The detective who worked with Myer "doesn't like to believe that stuff but had to admit she put us in the area where the body was found," assistant chief Doug Cole said.

Police work is just a tiny part of her business. More often Myer is seated in the office of her townhouse, talking on the phone to her individual clients. She said her telepathy travels through phone lines. She said she has guided people through career changes, helped track down missing children in a custody battle, and predicted women would have babies after they were told it was impossible.

Myer charges $50 a half-hour. She claims to be mostly accurate, but occasionally is off. "Everyone is wrong. Reporters are wrong. Doctors are wrong. Psychics are wrong. But if a client is mad, I will refund the money."

Even though she has achieved a level of psychic celebrity by writing a book and appearing on "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Paranormal Borderline" TV shows, there's a down side to the job - psychic prejudice. She said she was asked to leave several churches when members found out what she did for a living. "There is a huge amount of prejudice. People ask me, 'When is your next miracle?' I won't respond to that," said Myer, who is also a graduate student in a writing program.

She said there are lots of phony psychics out there, some of them manning hotlines. Reacting to the specifics of the Lebanon County psychic, she said she would never charge money to remove a dark aura. "Any psychic that says, 'There is a curse and you have to pay to lift it' goes into the doubtful category."

What does she think will happen to Marie May in court?

"A plea bargain," Myer said. "That's my psychic prediction."

She is the yin to his yang.

She talks about relating to the internal world and he talks about relating to the external world. She is angular with long dark hair, and he has a beard framing a fuller face.

They are Ruth and Charque Newell, and the husband-and-wife mystic team calls their work "their inner calling." They spark each other on to new spiritual heights as they read an ancient book called I Ching and examine tarot cards.

Sitting by a small heater in a corner of the basement of Mandala Books in Squirrel Hill, Ruth, 53, said in her serene voice: "We work on developing intuition and the voice inside. We look at potential futures."

A less intuitive person might not know - what is the difference between a psychic and mystic?

A psychic, they said, predicts concrete events in the future. "A mystic goes deeper with spiritual realities and gets to the core of what causes psychic," she said.

They also teach people how to read their own tarot cards instead of just paying someone to read them. "We are flooding the market with tarot," Ruth said smiling.

They ask for donations, which range everywhere from nothing to $250 for a reading, giving them enough to live modestly in a Dormont apartment.

The couple has been into mysticism since the '70s, and has seen more people open to it in recent years. "People are beginning to take a more respectable approach," the 56-year-old Charque said. "The old way it was done was closer to a sham, spooky stuff."

Even today, he said, "there is a potential for abuse. People generate a lot of fear and can misuse it. If you can get someone into the idea that you are their salvation, it is very powerful. You can get rich in this business," he said.

Hearing about the Marie May case, Charque said, "It sounds like a con. 'If you pay enough money, I will take this aura off.' "

Even so, Charque wishes there were no state law hanging over his business. "The law can be misused. We are not predicting the future. But some close-minded judge might say, 'You are using tarot to tell fortunes.' Then you would have to fight it with lawyers."

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