Aug. 24, 2011 — -- Like a victim in one of her best selling romance novels, Jude Devereaux was distraught, lonely and "days away from suicide" when the hero came to her rescue.
Devereaux, a princess of the publishing world with more than 50 million copies of her books printed was victimized by fortune telling con artists who fleeced her out of $20 million over a span of 17 years, according to a detective and court documents.
They preyed on Devereaux's fears stemming from her turbulent marriage, difficulty in getting pregnant and then the death of her cherished son.
"Jude was threatened, she was held almost hostage," said Fort Lauderdale Detective Charles Stack who tracked down Deveraux to a hotel room. "When we found her, she had practically no money left to her name."
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"He is the true hero in all of this," Deveraux said of Stack in an email to ABCNews.com. "When he found me—after much searching—I was in a hotel room, days away from suicide. No made-up hero in any of my romantic novels is as great as Charlie is. [He] has saved a lot of us from what the gypsies did to us."
The image of a terrified and nearly broke woman is a far cry from the photo of a smiling and perfectly coiffed blonde hair and blue-eyed author on her website. Deveraux is an internationally successful author who has written more than 50 romance novels, 37 of which have been New York Times best-sellers.
Deveraux lost "close to $20 million or more" to the 17 year long con, Stack said. The alleged scam ended with an investigation that authorities have dubbed "Operation Crystal Ball."
Stack said that Deveraux is one of between 15 and 18 victims of the family of fraudulent psychics—so far. He has a list of other potential victims that he spends his days trying to contact and worries about whether other victims may even have committed suicide.
For Deveraux, her path to isolation in a hotel room was a long one that began by chance in 1991 when she walked into a psychic parlor in New York, right next to the Plaza Hotel. Troubled by a turbulent marriage and pregnancy difficulties, Deveraux was looking for someone to help her. There, she met a woman who she believed was named Joyce Michael.
For the next 17 years, Deveraux would trust that Michael was her confidant, friend and someone who could solve her problems. Instead, "Joyce Michael," whose real name according to court documents is Rose Marks, would become the source of pain, deception and fraud while trapping Deveraux with threats and the promise of hope.
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Marks, 60, is the matriarch in a family of nine who police say were involved in the swindling scheme, eight of whom were arrested last week. Police are still searching for one family member. A tenth person, Peter Wolofsky was also arrested for allegedly laundering money on the family's behalf.
For 20 years, the family has been telling customers that "money is the root of all evil," according to an indictment released Aug. 16, convincing people to hand over huge sums of money, jewelry and other valuable items that needed to be "purged" before being returned.
"Rose tells me that she and her family believe that they have a gift to heal people," said Fred Schwartz, Rose Marks' attorney. "I don't suggest they didn't profit from their business. Their business was to help people." He compares the situation to people giving money to churches or therapists.
He says Marks feels "betrayed" by Deveraux and said, "Rose basically lived with Deveraux for years, saw her many, many times a week and counseled her through the death of her son."
Schwartz said there will be people in trial who will testify on behalf of the positive benefits of working with Marks.
The family allegedly sought out vulnerable customers looking to cure illnesses, end spells of bad luck or mend broken relationships. They performed Tarot card readings, palm reading, astrology readings, numerology readings and spiritual readings. Stack said that most of the victims were women who fit the same profile.
"They're highly intelligent women, very successful and very vulnerable at the time of the taking," Stack said. "These aren't crazy women."
Many of the victims have suffered a traumatic loss, including Deveraux. In 2005, Deveraux's 8-year-old son died when he was hit by a truck while riding his dirt bike at their home in North Carolina.
When Deveraux told Marks she thought she needed to see a grief counselor, Marks told her that her son was "caught between heaven and hell and needs to be protected," Stack said. Marks said that Deveraux needed to stick with her and they would save the boy.
When Stack found Deveraux in the hotel room, she had hit rock bottom. "She wanted to die and be with her son. She loved him dearly," Stack said.
Over the years, Marks convinced Deveraux to sell her house and all of her assets while isolating herself from all of her family and friends. Stack said that threats were made against her and her family in order to keep the money coming.
"Jude believes that she signed a will," Stack said. "We're desperately trying to find that."
In an email to ABCNews.com, Deveraux said that her 2010 novel "Scarlet Nights" details how the fraudulent psychics work and how they exploit people for money.
"I worked with the police on the story, especially the few pages that tell about the way gypsies give people hope and how they cut them off from everyone. This is all done for money," Deveraux wrote to ABCNews.com.
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In the novel, Deveraux writes about a character named Mitzi, a fraudulent psychic much like Marks is described in court papers.
"What she did took cunning and a total disregard for the quality of human life," Deveraux wrote. She writes about Mitzi's strategy of gaining the client's trust, using religion and faith to create hope and finally taking control of their lives.
"Women in trauma, in grief, whose lives were in chaos, thronged to her, hoping to find answers about what they should do to solve their problems," Deveraux wrote. "Mitzi took the ones who were so desperate for relief that they were willing to pay all they had to get out of the turmoil their lives had become."
In the indictment, Deveraux is identified only by her initials, J.M. Her real name is Jude Gilliam Montassir.
"J.M. would provide Defendant Rose Marks with large sums of money, after Defendant Rose Marks assured her that the money was a sacrifice, not a payment, and promised that the money would be returned," according to the indictment. The money was never returned.
"It's not an easy road. After a while, [the victims] start to sense that something's not right and then when law enforcement comes along, they realize something really is wrong," Stack said. "All of the victims in the end will say, 'I can't believe I fell for this.'"
Stack said part of the problem is that many of victims made civil complaints, but many police officers think that if no one puts a gun to your head, it's not a crime.
"No one put a gun to Bernie Madoff's victims," Stack said referring to the investment banker convicted of bilking millions of dollars from clients. "I don't care how gullible the victim is. A con is a con."
As the investigation continues, Stack is looking forward to the trial. He hopes that all of the victims get to say their piece.
"They all deserve their moments," Stack said. "Every one of these victims are willing to march into court and testify."