It all started innocently for Jackie Haughn. She was leaving work one day last November and found a flier on her car. It was an ad from a psychic, who called herself "Ann Marie," offering readings at half price. "A couple of weeks later, I called and decided to make an appointment. It sounded interesting. I figured I have nothing to lose," Haughn said.
So the 36-year-old divorced mother of two ventured over to Cresskill, N.J., just north of New York City, to meet with the self-proclaimed psychic.
Haughn told the psychic that she wanted to know if perhaps someone might be coming into her life.
Haughn said Ann Marie offered to light candles to help her meditate and pray for answers to her problems.
"When she said she lights candles, it automatically makes me think it's like a spiritual thing ... a good thing ... you're praying for somebody," said Haughn.
Haughn believed the psychic was sincere and supportive, even though she charged her $25 per candle.
Haughn said she gave the psychic $75 for the candles, because the psychic was empathetic and would do things like hold Haughn's hand and tell her, "God had brought you to me."
After her first session, Haughn felt as if she could trust Ann Marie, and she agreed to come back. During that next reading, Haughn said the psychic told her something dramatic: There was a curse on Haughn and her family.
Haughn said Ann Marie convinced her that by performing a number of rituals, the curse could be removed, a curse that was put on Haughn's family many years ago.
Con Artist, Not Psychic
Detective Norman Saunders of the Cresskill Police Department said the woman Haughn knew as Ann Marie was well known to police as a con artist.
"She has eight different names. Ann Marie is her fortunetelling name and Tammy Mitchell is her real name," Saunders said. "She served time in jail in Florida for the same type of offense. Her goal in life is to scam people."
Saunders said he knew of at least four others in the county who'd gotten scammed for tens of thousands of dollars. "When you first get the statements, you kind of think, how could these people do this? But as you talk to the victims, it could be anyone that this happens to. Anyone who is vulnerable."
According to Michael Shermer, the publisher of "Skeptic" magazine and author of "Why People Believe in Weird Things," Haughn was a prime target for a psychic scam.
Could Happen to Anyone
"All of us are potentially gullible," Shermer said. "Smart people on some level are even more gullible if you can get them past their initial level of skepticism. Because most of what we believe, we believe for emotional, psychological reasons, and then we rationalize the belief after the fact, after we already hold it. Smart, educated people are better at rationalizing these beliefs."
Shermer said Haughn went from rational to gullible the moment she bought the three candles for $75. "She made a commitment that was going to be next to impossible to back out of."
Haughn felt as if Ann Marie had some sort of control over her. She talked to Ann Marie up to five times a day. "I guess I really wanted to believe her."
So much so, according to Haughn, that over the next few months she gave the psychic more and more money to remove the reputed curse.
Haughn said the psychic asked for half of her life savings, and Haughn's fear of the alleged curse compelled her to give the money over to Ann Marie.
According to Shermer, this could happen to anyone after you establish familiarity. "Once you start going down that road and you feel like you need to do this, it's very difficult to get out. Nobody walks into a psychic and in the first five minutes hands over a deed to a house or a hundred thousand dollars."
And it wasn't just cash that Ann Marie wanted. According to Haughn, there was a watch, too.
Ann Marie told Haughn she had to drive her to New York City to buy a watch that would somehow enable her "to reset time" in her life, but it couldn't be just any watch. It had to be a gold Chopard. Haughn said she bought the $20,000 watch for Ann Marie, and has never seen it since.
Apparently, even the $20,000 watch wasn't enough. Soon after, Haughn received a mysterious letter. Police are calling it an overt threat.
"I couldn't believe it," said Haughn. "I kept reading it over." When Haughn read the letter with Ann Marie, the psychic's response was, "Oh my god ... It looks like it's written in blood."
It read in part: "This is the spirit of God, my child. You must follow and obey my word. You must have $63,000 to suffer in place of you. If not, Satan will take someone."
Saunders, the detective on the case, called the letter extortion. "It's putting fear into somebody. I mean, our victims have families, and if they don't give a certain amount of money, this curse will not be lifted and something evil would happen."
"20/20" tried to talk to Tammy Mitchell (aka Ann Marie) about the allegations, but she wouldn't talk to us. Last month Cresskill police officers arrested her.
"We filed extortion charges against Ann Marie and theft by deception. It's two second- or third-degree crimes," said Saunders.
Tammy Mitchell's case will soon go before a grand jury. Jackie Haughn is still angry. "I feel like she brainwashed me."
In the end, Haughn said she gave the alleged psychic a total of $220,000. Now Haughn wants to get her money back and see Mitchell go to prison for a long time.