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You Don’t Need Crystal Ball to See the Proliferation of Fortunetellers

Times Staff Writer

If Rosie Adams was as good a seer as she claimed to her clients, she should have known the police were coming.

Instead, Adams was arrested by Los Angeles police detectives in the cluttered Hollywood cubicle where she told fortunes, charged with stealing more than $400 in cash and services from a gullible immigrant couple.

During a reading, Adams, 66, told the couple they were cursed and that she was the one to lift it, according to police. In return, the husband brought the fortuneteller cash, cans of abrasive cleaner, a box of detergent, aluminum pots and bags of carrots and rice. The wife, too poor to pay more, agreed to work four days as Adams’ housekeeper for free, she later told police.

Detectives outfitted the housekeeper with a hidden tape recorder and sent her back for another encounter with the fortuneteller. This time, according to police, when Adams asked for more money for her battle against the curse--which somehow involved a microscope and a trip to a mountain--detectives moved in. Adams now faces trial on a charge of grand theft.

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Until three years ago, Los Angeles police rarely needed tape recorders to arrest fortunetellers. Backed by a strict city ban against the practice, police were able to take action against psychic readers merely for predicting future events.

Arrests Dwindled

But arrests dwindled in Los Angeles, law enforcement officials say, after a 1985 state Supreme Court ruling in a case brought against the city of Azusa that declared that fortunetelling bans in dozens of California cities were unconstitutional.

Since then, Los Angeles, which never replaced its overturned ordinance, has seen a proliferation of fortunetellers, while several other local communities have managed to keep a lid on the practice, replacing their lost laws with a variety of new licensing fees and zoning requirements.

“They’re a lot more obvious and flagrant now,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Sgt. Jose Alcantara, the department’s fortunetelling specialist for more than two decades.

Fortunetelling establishments have become a common sight in Los Angeles, operating in low-rent commercial strips and on the edges of residential neighborhoods. Their storefront offices are marked by neon signs and hand-lettered posters announcing “psychic readings.” They regularly distribute handbills on Broadway and advertise in Spanish-language television guides.

“There are a lot more signs out there,” San Fernando Valley fortuneteller Linda Kaye said. “Everybody’s trying to learn about themselves.”

One enterprising seer, Wilsonst Donahji, proprietor of the Garden of Allah Botanica on West 7th Street, pitches his services on advertising posters in RTD buses. Donahji, who insists that he is a “spiritual guide” and not a fortuneteller, said he advertises to get a direct message to his customers, whom he describes as “the poor and the immigrants.”

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“Lawyers and doctors advertise, do they not?” he asked. “Why shouldn’t I?”

Like police, Donahji has noticed an increase in competition over the last several years. “Any time you have a large migration into an area, you will have competition,” Donahji said, adding: “If you provide good service, you will always have loyal customers.”

Visual Evidence

Although police investigators do not keep records on fortunetellers, they say there is ample visual evidence of their growing numbers. “Drive anywhere in the city and it won’t be long before you find a place,” Alcantara said.

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Until 1985, police were able to use the city’s ban on fortunetellers to limit the number of practitioners. By making regular misdemeanor arrests to enforce the ordinance, investigators were able to store fresh photograph and fingerprint files on fortunetellers. In 1980, for example, police reported 57 criminal cases involving fortunetellers and the theft of more than $138,500, arresting 18 people.

But after the ban was overturned, police monitoring of fortunetellers was hindered, Alcantara said. Without the ability to make arrests at will, investigators’ files grew dated. Police are now forced to wait for citizen complaints and to rely on undercover arrests to make any headway against fortunetellers.

If police are unhappy about the turn of events, so, reportedly, are some fortunetellers. According to Alcantara, many of the city’s veteran psychic readers would prefer less competition. “I’ve heard from some people that they miss the good old days,” Alcantara said.

Inside View

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Barry A. Fisher, a Century City lawyer who persuaded the state Supreme Court to overturn local bans on fortunetelling, agrees. Fisher has a large number of Gypsy clients, some of whom rely on telling fortunes to make ends meet. He said clients have told him that there is a growing consensus in the Gypsy community for some form of regulation.

“A licensing law would be appropriate and appreciated by long-standing residents of Los Angeles who have engaged in the psychic arts,” Fisher said.

Alcantara argues that licensing fortunetellers is tantamount to licensing con artists. “If you give people the legal right to tell someone else’s future, you’re giving them permission to con people,” he said.

Yet dozens of other California communities have done just that since the 1985 court decision outlawed Azusa’s ban on fortunetellers. In that case, the court ruled in favor of Fatima Stevens, a fortuneteller who was ordered in 1979 to stop working in Azusa.

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In his opinion, Justice Stanley Mosk wrote that fortunetellers “are not acting fraudulently. They are communicating opinions, which, however dubious, are unquestionably protected by the Constitution.”

After the ruling, the Azusa City Council passed a new law requiring that fortunetellers be licensed. Applicants were required to pay a $100 fee for permits, locate their businesses in commercial areas, submit to a criminal background check and be photographed and fingerprinted. Fortunetellers also would have to post a detailed list of their fees.

Several people have since tried to obtain fortunetelling licenses, but Patricia Sperl, an Azusa official, said that no applicant has been granted a license. “This ordinance has obviously served our purposes,” Sperl said.

Other cities have tried similar measures. In Long Beach, according to Detective Roger Rizzi, fortunetellers must pay a $525 yearly application fee and post a $2,000 surety bond--used in case they flee after being charged with a crime. The high bond is justified, Rizzi said, by the possibility that fortunetellers “might tend to injure the public in some way.” As in Azusa, the new law has prevented an influx of fortunetellers, Rizzi said.

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Legal Flaws Claimed

Fisher contends that there are legal flaws in some of these new ordinances. “We have found that some places are charging unconstitutionally high bonds,” he said. “And communities like Long Beach and Huntington Beach are using restrictive zoning to keep people out.”

The lawyer recently won a court case against the city of Fountain Valley, claiming that the community had used a restrictive zoning ordinance to keep Madonna Stevens from opening a fortunetelling business. Though Stevens won the case, Fountain Valley City Atty. Alan Burns said the court had not overturned the city’s ordinance, which restricts fortunetellers to certain commercial areas.

“The City Council has felt that there are appropriate zoning placements for (fortunetelling) establishments,” Burns said. “They aren’t any more restricted than other businesses.”

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