Psychics vs. Montgomery County: Unpredictable! Nick Nefedro takes on a decades-old ban on fortunetelling

Darrow Montgomery

When Nick Nefedro was a child, growing up in the District and Northern Virginia, his family tried to avoid crossing the border into Montgomery County. Police there tended to stop people of his persuasion, he says, make them turn around and escort them back to D.C.

“I wouldn’t be allowed in a store like this one,” says Nefedro, sitting down one afternoon at a Starbucks in Bethesda. “I wouldn’t be allowed here. It was a known thing through the Romani culture not to go through Montgomery County.”

By Romani, he means gypsy. To some anthropologists, both are proper and interchangeable terms to describe the nomadic tribe of people long thought to have originated in Egypt; others argue against saying “gypsy” because it carries too much cultural baggage and negative connotations. Nefedro uses both.

Like his father before him, Nefedro, now 40, makes his living as a fortuneteller, which is sort of unusual for a gypsy male. “Women do it more because they’re better at it, they’re more accurate at it,” he says. “But I’m into it more in a business sense...I run it.” Over the years, Nefedro has owned psychic shops in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and Key West, where he lived until his mother passed away and he felt he had to leave. He decided to move to Bethesda because he liked the area and liked the way it had changed since he was a kid, he says. But not everything has changed.In 2008, he subleased a space at 8118 Woodmont Avenue. He wanted his new shop to be like the Psychic Eye in Los Angeles—a big store that does psychic readings and also sells New Age books and metaphysical gifts and teaches classes on how to do readings. He even got a sign. Then he went to apply for a business license. A clerk at the counter flatly turned him down, he says, citing a long-standing passage of Montgomery County Code, specifically section 32-7: “Every person who shall demand or accept any remuneration or gratuity for forecasting or foretelling or for pretending to forecast or foretell the future by cards, palm reading or any other scheme, practice or device shall be subject to punishment.”

County officials have long justified the rule as a simple matter of preventing fraud.

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Nefedro suspects there’s an ulterior motive. “They won’t let me operate just for the fact that I’m a gypsy,” he says. “I know this, ’cause I know Montgomery County. I know from my family’s experience. My grandfather used to tell me, when I was growing up, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do nothing in Montgomery County.’”

For nearly two years now, Nefedro has been wrangling with the county in court. His lawyers have argued the fortune-telling law is “unconstitutional as infringing on [Nefedro’s] First Amendment Rights.”

The county insists the law doesn’t prohibit his freedom to make predictions, just his ability to charge money for it—a practice the county considers “inherently deceptive.” In court filings, county attorney Clifford L. Royalty writes, “A business enterprise predicated upon the acceptance of money in consideration for a promise to perform the impossible is not an activity that enjoys constitutional protection.”

Ajmel Quereshi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is backing Nefedro in his lawsuit, disagrees. “It’s understandable that some people may not believe in fortunetelling, might not agree with fortunetelling, from a policy perspective,” Quereshi says. “But there’s lots of types of speech that I might not like or you may not like, but the First Amendment protects. The county can’t ban an entire category of speech.”

In supporting their argument, Nefedro’s lawyers have relied heavily on a fantastically titled California court ruling from 1985—Spiritual Psychic Science Church of Truth, Inc. v. City of Azuza—which found that “a regulation is suspect…if it prohibits protected expression, even though it also guards the public from fraud.”

County lawyer Royalty dismisses the Azusa ruling as “unpersuasive authority,” considering that the decision was “overruled, in part” as recently as 2002. He points to other court decisions in Ohio and Missouri upholding similar fortunetelling ordinances as valid consumer protections against deception and fraud.

Throughout the process, the man at the center of the dispute has bristled at the notion that, as a fortuneteller, he must be up to no good. During interrogatories, court records show, Nefedro objected to questions about possible past aliases and arrests, dismissing them as “irrelevant” to the case. Yet he stated for the record that he has “never been convicted of any felonies.” (An online search of court records and other public record databases by City Paper turned up nothing contrary to Nefedro’s account.)

“My whole entire life, this is what I go through,” he says. “I’m fed up with it. I’m aggravated. I’m not suing for money, I’m suing for my right. You can’t be stamped a criminal because of your race, because of what you believe in. There’s a lot of people giving psychic readings who aren’t gypsies. Jean Dixon is one. She used to give psychic readings for the Reagans. Is she stamped a criminal, or is it just gypsies stamped criminals automatically? That’s my question. Automatically, I’m a thief. Because I’m a gypsy.”

This past December, the Montgomery County Circuit Court dismissed Nefedro’s original complaint, ruling that “insofar as the County law does regulate speech, it is narrowly drawn to serve the County’s compelling interest in protecting its citizenry from fraud.”

On March 8, the case came before the Maryland Court of Appeals, where a judge wondered aloud whether the county could instead set up some licensing system for fortunetellers, whereby a psychic would have to accurately predict, say, six out of 10 events in order to obtain a proper permit.

One of Nefedro’s lawyers, Edward Amourgis, argued this solution would unreasonably burden free speech and might also set an unreasonable precedent for other professionals who are allowed to make imprecise predictions about the future. The judge seemed to agree, even opining that many meteorologists might quickly find themselves out of a job should they be required to meet the same standard.

A decision in the case could come at any time. In an interview with City Paper, Nefedro declined to predict the outcome—or do much of anything psychic-ish beyond noting this reporter’s “gray aura.” His attorney Quereshi says, “We have not made any decision as to what to do if the Court of Appeals disagrees with us.”

Passed in 1951, the prohibition on fortunetelling was one of the first laws enacted by the newly created Montgomery County council. The local papers of the time were full of stories about B’nai Brith luncheons, the opening of Negro schools, and whether local loyalty laws did enough to protect the community from the Red Scare. The county was experiencing a tremendous population boom, with hundreds of new apartments under construction in Bethesda alone. How the influx of transient non-property-owners would impact the community was a big issue.

The county is certainly not alone in regulating predictions. There are jurisdictions in Massachusetts, Tennessee, Louisiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Florida, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California, just to name a few, that have similar ordinances. Maryland has a whole host of fortunetelling bans and regulations. Don’t even try consulting your crystal ball or tarot deck in Carroll, Harford, Caroline, and Talbot counties, or in the city of Gaithersburg. At least not for money.

But if, as Nefedro alleges, the aim of Montgomery County’s law is to specifically regulate gypsies, then it does so far less explicitly than other places. Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas, points to a New Jersey law making it unlawful for any gypsies to settle without first obtaining a license to do so; a Pennsylvania statute allowing the department of health to kick gypsies out of the state; a Georgia statute imposing a $250 fee on gypsies who are engaged in trading or selling merchandise or livestock or the practice of fortune-telling, phrenology, or palmistry; and a Texas law charging gypsies $500 to live in the state.

Still, the law may have had the same effect. Montgomery County’s gypsy population was reported by police to be “about zero” when the psychic Sister Kay was ordered out of town in September 1967, according to newspaper accounts. Sister Kay—who was either 22, 23, or 30 years old, depending on who was telling the story—was arrested and tried for fortunetelling in Silver Spring. A judge who heard the case was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying he “didn’t know it was against the law” to tell fortunes until Sister Kay was brought before him.

The judge reportedly gave the busted fortuneteller two options: she could go to jail or leave town. Sister Kay chose option two and left Montgomery County for New York with her family—two daughters, a brother-in-law, and a husband who, it was also reported in the Sun, had “purchased” Sister Kay “for $3,000 from her father when she was 17.”

However, to suggest that the statute has eliminated fortunetelling in Montgomery County, altogether, would be misleading.

A D.C.-based psychic named Jane Doe tells City Paper that she regularly conducts readings in Montgomery County, but only in people’s homes, and that she doesn’t go leaving her card in cafés around the county because she doesn’t want to call attention to herself there.

Doe suggests that there are other psychics who practice in Montgomery County, too. What you don’t find there is the gypsy fortunetellers—the ones with the sandwich boards that say psychic and readings for $5. And that’s a good thing, she says.

Doe contends that gypsy fortunetellers are scammers and the ban keeps the gypsy psychics out of town. The $5 readings are not actually five dollars, according to Doe. The $5 readings are a lure—once you’re in for your reading, the gypsy fortuneteller will start saying things like “your aura is dirty” and “you have a curse on you” and then next thing you know you’re forking over thousands of dollars to have your aura cleansed and curses lifted.

“If you do a Google search for ‘gypsy psychic scam’ you’ll get thousands of results,” says Doe.

One common hit is the Web site of the National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI), described as a group of “over 800 members in law enforcement and related fields devoted exclusively to assist in the identification, apprehension, and prosecution of Confidence Crime and certain other Non-Traditional Organized Crime group suspects.”

The organization is led by a retired Baltimore cop named Jon Grow, who spends his time helping rid the world of con schemes. Grow says he thinks that the fortunetelling bans don’t stop fortunetelling scams, but they do slow down the perpetrators.

NABI’s Web site has a whole section devoted specifically to gypsy fortunetelling scams, including the misadventures of a notorious Romani clan named Uwanawich. Over the years, Uwanawiches have been brought up on various criminal charges in Pennsylvania, Florida, California, and, yes, Montgomery County, where just two-and-a-half years ago, Grace Uwanawich (aka Mrs. Grace) was sentenced to 18 months in jail for defrauding “vulnerable middle-aged women by persuading them to hand over tens of thousands of dollars to crush devastating curses,” according to the Washington Post.

“Every state had laws to try to control gypsies,” says Grow. “You’ve got to ask yourself: Why were the laws put in place in the first place?”

Mz. imani, a self-described shaman who works in Montgomery County and uses readings, cards and other devices, as part of her repertoire, thinks it is beyond Montgomery County’s jurisdiction to decide that just because there are some scams, that fortunetelling should be banned wholesale.

It’s “another form of prejudice that is cloaked in protecting the people,” says Mz. imani. “I just really think it’s coming into church and state stuff, and I don’t like that.”

She says that there are ways to police fortunetellers that wouldn’t require all fortunetelling to be banned. There could be a fortunetelling guild—like a bar association for psychics—that keeps track of its own. She adds that clients should also take more care when choosing their fortunetellers, which would also go a long way toward protecting against scam artists, and that would not violate the First Amendment.

“If you’re going to a doctor of spirit for a reading, you should have the same levels of checking up on as if you were going to a doctor of medicine,” says Mz. imani. “One’s physical, one’s metaphysical. I think there’s fraud within any community. It’s not unique to the fortunetelling community. You have to keep your eyes open.”

Nefedro, too, acknowledges that a number of bad actors have sullied the reputations of gypsy fortunetellers everywhere. But he argues that the appropriate punishment should be levied against the individual perpetrators—not the prediction business as a whole.

“Every culture has people who rob, kill,” says Nefedro. “There’s people that sell stock and they go around stealing people out of house and home, out of billions. Are they gonna stop and say that all people who sell stock in Montgomery County shouldn’t sell it anymore? Are you gonna stop all the stockbrokers in Montgomery County like you’re gonna stop me? You catch the person that’s doing the crime, that’s doing the evil. Catch him and arrest him. Catch me and arrest me for something I did. Don’t discriminate against me just for something I am.”

Our Readers Say

Well written and well researched. In related news:

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1355/is_26_112/ai_n24385124/
Aren't these the kinds of cases that give the ACLU a bad name?

More importantly, I'm interested in hearing more from the brother figure.
Ridiculous case - fortune-telling is not real. Gypsies shouldn't be allowed anywhere if they cheat people out of their money like this guy does. And he just adds to what people already think of gypsies - way to make a good name for yourself and your people.
DC 345 - What if people want to do it for fun? Or don't mind giving him their money?
I must say I'm surprised at how much fear can be produced inside a closed mind. Very well researched article. I'm thankful to live in a free county of what I've heard was a free country.
Dixon was not a "gypsy" but a German American. And like "German" and "American", "Gypsy" is a proper noun and needs a capital initial letter.

Jean Dixon’s Early life
Dixon was born as Lydia Emma Pinckert to German immigrants, Gerhart and Emma Pinckert, in Medford, Wisconsin, but raised in Missouri and California. In Southern California, her father owned a car dealership with Hal Roach, an American film and television producer and director. Dixon claimed that while growing up in California, a "gypsy" gave her a crystal ball and read her palm, predicting she would become a famous "seer" and advise powerful people.
The law validates the fortune tellers ability out of fear. It's realty an interactive story telling entertainment with mythic power.

The law could apply to countless economic forecasters. However, the underlying material in finance and commerce is owned. When people try to own thier spirit for the better, with these folks helping them, then it becomes a crime.

The banking system nearly collapsed on bad forecasts.

The legal system probably has about the same false positive rate for convictions as these gypsies do in forecasting. The false positive rate for medical diagnosis can be high too in certain areas, leading to harmful and unnecessary procedures.

Legal, economic and medical folks can have a bias to sell prescribe and sell their own services, just as these gypsies do.

The who issue could be better regulated with proper labeling and ad restrictions. The existing ban is archaic and prejudice.
And I supposed laws against organized crime are anti-Italian?

This guy is the Romanies' worst nightmare: by wrapping his ethnic group in a form of fraud
he puts the "gyp" back in Gypsy.

This is a consumer protection issue. Reputable professions that make forecasts
do so on a sound methodological basis on the basis of verifiable principles
(it's just that meteorology is easier than economics because nature is more
predictable than people)
"some anthropologists, both are proper and interchangeable terms to describe the nomadic tribe of people long thought to have originated in Egypt"

Please journalists, get it right we originally came from India. Now we will have to hear the usual racist stereotypes and racist comments from the peanut galleries all over again. Blah blah!
I've rarely seen a more transparent and self-serving cry of racism. What does race have to do with peddling nonsense?

For the record, in my opinion Jean Dixon should be stamped a criminal and the Reagans were gullible for listening to her unreasoned advice.

The obvious question no one is asking, "Why was Mr. Nefedro surprised when he found out plying his trade in Montgomery County is illegal?" Was it that he couldn't see his own future, or was it more advantageous to make a stink?


Arin Greenwood wasted a rare opportunity to speak factually and not stereotypically about the Roma (the term "gypsy" is truly offensive, much as "negro" is to African Americans). "Gypsies" did not emerge from Egypt. Even casual Wikipedia search would reveal that the Roma were warrior castes who left the Indian subcontinent in the 11th century, seeking relief from constant warfare. The Romani diaspora is worth ponder of survival strategies. "Fortunetelling" is one, and direct reference to religious practice in India. The Roma became hair-trigger astute at divining danger, and would disappear at light of dawn. Understanding human character was essential. It's no more mystical than that. Mr Nefredo proposes himself as businessman; his victim pronouncements are self-serving sideshow. His brethren today in Europe face near-pogrom threat, based on perceptions of "gypsies" as parasites. It is time to look upon this remarkable culture openly and with honesty.


Chad Evans Wyatt

Hi all - thank so much for reading the story. Re: the Egypt issue - my apologies if it's not clear from the context that I know gypsies don't come from Egypt; the line in the story was meant to acknowledge that it was once thought that gypsies came from Egypt, and that's where the name gypsy comes from.

And re: the offensiveness of the word "gypsy" - this is a hotly debated issue and I don't have a position on whether the word is good, bad, or neither. Mr. Nefedro himself uses the word gypsy to describe himself, and that's why I use the word in the story.

Again, thanks for reading - and thanks for your comments.
Mr Greenwood - The term "Gypsy" is not "hotly contested" at all. Some Roma call one another "Gypsy," as do some Blacks call one another "nigger." Internal gesture is not available to those external the community. You compound your insensitivity by casual reference that "gypsies don't come from Egypt.." That Mr Nefedro uses the term about himself, does not confer its use to you. The larger, more important, issue is that your article affirms stereotype. While reporting matters of fact, you do not sequester the behavior of one individual from the larger community of Roma, who become tarred by Mr Nefedro's individual disposition. I acknowledge that you report on a rather small slice of Romani experience here in the US, but you should understand that currently in Europe the Roma are the new Jews of this century, and are under unspeakably violent pressure from extremist attack. Your local article has international repercussion, and it would behoove you to look into that before tossing off terms.
Psychic intuitives are gifted people with the ability to "see" things in a spiritual perspective and relay valid, truthful information to those they read. The gypsy con culture exploits genuine spiritual practice to run their criminal schemes by preying on the vulnerable. The only way to get rid of them is through informing people of exactly what is going on. The question is how to do this because for every person that learns what they are all about, there are so many more naive and uninformed people right around the corner waiting to be victimized. Perhaps, there should be lessons in fraud as part of secondary education curriculum just for awareness. There is so much fraud in life in every area. If you read about some of the horrendous victimizations by these gypsies, you'll know something has to be done, but you cannot condemn a whole group of authentic spiritual practitioners along with this con artist culture of gypsy scammers.
they are strictly nothing more than scamming, two-bit conniving cheap hustling cons who only want your hard earned monies for theirselves and their lazy dishonest fat relatives. most of, if not all of these psychics are frauds who will say anything to you to con you out of all your money. FACT!$!$!!!! i know what i'm saying, i was married to a psychic scammer and it was easy living folks. cars, jewelry, etc,etc,etc, you name it, we had it and we rarely used our own money for anything we bought!
. I PERSONALLY have seen what thee fraudulent, scamming lazy, dishonest, lying people/psychics have done to a loved one. They robbed my grandfather blind and over a period of 3 yrs. took every last penny of his........they are a no good group of scammers that should be put in jail for their scamming ways. They lie and put fear in everyone that goes to them. They figure out your weakness's and capitalize on that. They tell you that your family has a bad luck spell put on them and they/the psychic can rid you of that bad luck. I could go on and on and on and on but even this was a waste of my precious time and I only wish there was a law that could stop these low-life scammers who would rather steal your money than have to work for a living.
. I PERSONALLY have seen what thee fraudulent, scamming lazy, dishonest, lying people/psychics have done to a loved one. They robbed my grandfather blind and over a period of 3 yrs. took every last penny of his........they are a no good group of scammers that should be put in jail for their scamming ways. They lie and put fear in everyone that goes to them. They figure out your weakness's and capitalize on that. They tell you that your family has a bad luck spell put on them and they/the psychic can rid you of that bad luck. I could go on and on and on and on but even this was a waste of my precious time and I only wish there was a law that could stop these low-life scammers who would rather steal your money than have to work for a living.
......by the way, the sign out front of their psychic business was >>>> PSYCHIC READINGS in Dallas, Texas and another scamming home of theirs was used to further their dispicable fraudulent trade. You folks ever see a psychic who uses only ONE NAME. They always have at least 2,3,4, names they go by. WHY IS THAT?!?! If you are honest, why the need to continually change your name. There is only one reason these scamming gypsy psychics change their name and that is because they are hiding from those that they have ripped off and scammed. BEWARE OF THESE NAME CHANGES FOLKS because it is very real the way they pull the wool over your eyes, change their name and they will put YOUR money into THEIR fat pockets!!!!! I have joined with some other folks here in Dallas, Texas and we going to put some of these fraudulent, scamming, lying psychics in jail where they belong. I wonder if they can see this coming with their crystal ball.
......by the way, the sign out front of their psychic business was >>>> PSYCHIC READINGS in Dallas, Texas and another scamming home of theirs was used to further their dispicable fraudulent trade. You folks ever see a psychic who uses only ONE NAME. They always have at least 2,3,4, names they go by. WHY IS THAT?!?! If you are honest, why the need to continually change your name. There is only one reason these scamming gypsy psychics change their name and that is because they are hiding from those that they have ripped off and scammed. BEWARE OF THESE NAME CHANGES FOLKS because it is very real the way they pull the wool over your eyes, change their name and they will put YOUR money into THEIR fat pockets!!!!! I have joined with some other folks here in Dallas, Texas and we going to put some of these fraudulent, scamming, lying psychics in jail where they belong. I wonder if they can see this coming with their crystal ball.
hi people. i hope you will stay away from these people who are very very bad. my mother lost money to those people who lied to her. she went back to a psychic who said my grand mother need to have a spell cast out of her. this was a bad evil spell she was told and it cost her five hundred dollars to cast that spell from her soul. it was a lie. all of it was a lie to get my grand mother to give more money and more money and more. stay away from these bad people. they will steal from you everything you have. we are looking for a psychic in texas who robbed us of many money. she is very bad person. her name is nicole.
oh well, just more pandering from another con man who rationalizes everything he does by a justification of laws & a huge ego.
WOW!! I've just seen these by googling "psychic texas scams by nicole" and bingo, your site popped up. A few of these later posts look familiar in regards to a psychic being investigated in Texas; the posts from Marisa and Brian F., I have a friend who went to this psychic's business(PSYCHIC READINGS)and another home on Mockingbird Lane in Dallas. He told me an awful story about his mother in law who went and the amount of money they conned her out of. These people are evil and need to be arrested. Why are there not laws to deal more efficiently with these crimes of deceit and lies? It is dispicable the way these psychic frauds get away with their sordid exploits on the innocent, gullible person who may be at a low point in their lives. i hope people realize how disgusting these psychic soothsayers are and how they only want your money. They will steal every dollar from you if you stick around any length of time. BEWARE OF THESE LOW LOW-LIFE FRAUDS!
WOW!! I've just seen these by googling "psychic texas scams by nicole" and bingo, your site popped up. A few of these later posts look familiar in regards to a psychic being investigated in Texas; the posts from Marisa and Brian F., I have a friend who went to this psychic's business(PSYCHIC READINGS)and another home on Mockingbird Lane in Dallas. He told me an awful story about his mother in law who went and the amount of money they conned her out of. These people are evil and need to be arrested. Why are there not laws to deal more efficiently with these crimes of deceit and lies? It is dispicable the way these psychic frauds get away with their sordid exploits on the innocent, gullible person who may be at a low point in their lives. i hope people realize how disgusting these psychic soothsayers are and how they only want your money. They will steal every dollar from you if you stick around any length of time. BEWARE OF THESE LOW LOW-LIFE FRAUDS!

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