Nobody is quite sure when Vera Pratt began to believe that demons had entered her body and lodged near her right shoulder blade. But when they did, Pratt couldn’t help but wonder what part of her life they wouldn’t hurt. She blamed them for erasing her e-mails, interfering with her cellphone signal, and breaking her pellet stove. Most of all, she blamed them for sabotaging the less-lonely future she had hoped for when, at age 70, she moved from Washington, D.C., into a $2 million home on Martha’s Vineyard.
Pratt rarely spent that amount of money on herself, even if she easily could. She was the great-granddaughter of Charles Pratt, a partner at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, whose fortune in 1891 was estimated at $20 million, the equivalent of $576 million today. Although Pratt was an heiress with a sizeable trust, she never felt comfortable with her wealth. Driven instead by a seemingly bottomless generosity, she preferred to enrich others — family, charities, refugees.
But in 2006, Pratt decided to finally invest in herself, buying her 3,000-square-foot home in Chilmark and planning to attune her remaining years to her passions. Of her four bedrooms, she dedicated one to canning food and another to meditation. She gave herself an art studio where she could paint more of her Impressionist landscapes. She aimed to spend her days in her garden planting broccoli, lettuce, and strawberries. She would lend her melodic alto soprano to a local choir, take up dancing again, and — after never marrying due to a lifetime of romantic disappointments — perhaps find a good man.
Those were her plans, but the demons were hijacking all of them.
Pratt found hope one day when she came across an advertisement in a magazine for a Florida woman who went by the name Psychic Angela. Pratt believed in alternative spirituality and healing. She was interested in Eastern medicine and philosophies. She even believed herself to be mildly psychic, but found the prospect too frightening to pursue.
But psychic abilities in others weren’t frightening to Pratt, and her intuition led her to believe that Angela was the person she could trust to restore the promise of her remaining years.
As she prepared to call Psychic Angela, Pratt couldn’t see the future. She couldn’t have known that the woman she would come to share her deepest secrets with was really named Sally Ann Johnson, and that their business arrangement over the next nearly seven years would lead to an investigation that started with a curious Vineyard police officer and ended with the FBI. And she couldn’t have known that Johnson would fail at her goal — to exorcise the demons — despite the more than $3.5 million dollars she would get from Pratt to try.
Vera Christine Pratt was born in New York City on the eve of Valentine’s Day 1935. She was a dutiful child, more likely to follow than lead. As she grew into a young woman, she considered herself plain, but to anyone who ever met her, she was beautiful and tall, with striking bright eyes. She was drawn to the arts — singing, painting, and pottery. A love of the outdoors cultivated on a family farm led to a landscape architecture degree from Radcliffe College in the ‘50s — she’d also earn a degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the ‘70s — and a lifelong passion for walking and gardening.
Pratt also longed to fall in love. She never failed to inspire the attention of suitors, but for reasons only she could know, gravitated toward married or otherwise unobtainable men. Heartbreak hardened a belief that she wasn’t emotionally confident enough to have a loving partnership, and the subsequent hurt led to a loneliness she was sometimes too eager to fill.
The lack of a romantic partner, however, didn’t stop her from living an adventurous life. She traveled the world, visiting Europe and Africa, Asia and South America. She learned about Jungian psychology in Vienna. She studied with Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist experimenting with psychedelic drugs. She befriended Yule Kilcher, a key figure in admitting Alaska as the 50th state and an advocate for nature conservation.
She also continuously left her mark on the world with her generosity. She did so with loved ones, paying the private high school and college tuitions of nephews, nieces, godchildren — all of whom she doted on. She donated to Oxfam and the American Civil Liberties Union, and bought houses for Tibetan refugees in New Mexico and Maryland. She also helped fund a holistic facility in Washington, D.C., called the Green Cross Clinic of the Americas (later the Center for Natural and Traditional Medicine), which offered herbal medicine and acupuncture on a sliding fee scale.
“Something that made life meaningful for her was to help people,” says Liz Gude, a childhood friend who became Pratt’s neighbor in Chilmark. But now, in 2006, it was Pratt who needed help.
After they first spoke on the phone, Pratt felt confident that the woman she knew as Angela could help turn her life around. The psychic advertised herself as having two decades of experience helping dignitaries and corporate executives to straighten out their lives and achieve happiness. “I have not failed a case yet,” she wrote on the Yelp page of one of her businesses.
When she first spoke to Pratt, Sally Ann Johnson was in her early 30s, light blond, with a preference for large sunglasses and the high-end pastel clothing common to Florida. Her formal education had stopped at second grade, but she’d made a living in Miami and New York City through her psychic abilities, which she described as rooted deep in her family and American Romani culture. Among the Roma, pejoratively known as Gypsies, psychic and spiritual abilities are seen as God-given gifts that are relatively common among women. Johnson’s grandmother and mother were said to have similar abilities.
After their phone call, Johnson set in motion a course of treatment that would shape Pratt’s life for years. The psychic would dedicate her mind, body, and soul to praying the demons away for hours, sometimes late into the night, and, as she would tell Pratt, at the expense of time spent with her own family. Pratt received instructions to place crystals around her home to ward off negative energy, and to clean them regularly. She should pray and meditate, as well as light incense and ring a gong daily.
Johnson would typically report through phone or e-mail from Florida on her own progress as well as Pratt’s, which she said she could sense from afar. But early into their relationship, Johnson also began making house calls, traveling from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard and back, sometimes several times a month, to manage Pratt’s treatment. These efforts were not free.
Psychic and spiritual healing services can be costly, with some practitioners reportedly earning $300,000 a year or more. A simple tarot card reading in a strip mall may be $25, but prices escalate quickly. A regimen of energy-filled bath salts, necklaces, or candles — often sold by a psychic and meant to aid in battles against negative energy — can cost $1,000. Removing an evil-eye curse costs $2,500. Casting a love spell can go for $12,000. A soul clearing, $20,000. An “image renewal” can run $50,000.
Pratt was familiar with what psychics cost. She had used spiritual healers in the past, so paying thousands of dollars didn’t appear to faze her. She had the money — and wasn’t the happiness of her remaining years worth it?
Pratt’s investment in Johnson also went beyond her services and into companionship. Pratt was a reserved person who kept her inner life private — even from family — but here was someone who knew her hopes and despair, her strengths and vulnerabilities, the way a life partner would. Pratt had spent a lifetime longing to share her life with someone and, though a spiritual healer wasn’t what she had imagined, now she did. She e-mailed Johnson frequently, and spent hours on the phone with her. Pratt shared updates on her family and friends, about which man in her choir she could imagine falling in love with, and described at length her eating and digestion habits. Most of all, she shared with Johnson her optimism that her demons would be expelled, and her life would be hers once more.
Although Pratt saw only intermittent progress in their first years together, her faith in her healer and friend remained undaunted. She saw no reason to doubt Johnson.
“I know we can beat this one. It will just take time and great resolve, and much help from our dear God and holy spirits,” Pratt wrote Johnson in a December 2009 e-mail. “I know you have never failed anyone.”
Among Pratt’s greatest hopes for post-demon living was a “joyous social life.” She wanted to travel again with good company, to have new friendships grow, existing ones flourish, and entertain family in her home. As Johnson remained in her life, however, the opposite happened. Once a fixture in her half-brother’s family, Pratt would suddenly cancel planned visits. Childhood friends she caught up with regularly were dropped because of demonic interference with cellphones. She rejected holiday invitations from her niece, who also lived on Martha’s Vineyard.
Pratt’s personality appeared different, too. On walks with her friend Liz Gude, her tone of voice and laugh seemed to change. Sometimes what she said made little sense, leaving others uncertain how to respond. She began talking about little else but her demons and “Angela.” Pratt sensed the change herself, but seemed unable to attribute any of it to Johnson’s influence. “I felt a hurt, that I do not have such loving friends now — that it seems these days I am not a woman people look forward to being with,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Some wondered if the changes in Pratt weren’t also indicative of a growing dementia. Sometimes she would give her niece’s children hugs, other times she wouldn’t recognize them. She often seemed to struggle to remember something that happened only days before. She would park her car, then require help finding it.
Pratt’s family began to worry if the deterioration of her mind was putting her at risk of being taken advantage of by her psychic. In the best of times, Pratt could be unquestioning about the people she gave money to. In fact, past psychics had exploited her financially. “Anybody could make an appeal and it could be valid,” Gude says.
Florida criminal defense lawyers Paul Petruzzi and Beatriz Vazquez would later represent Sally Ann Johnson in court. Petruzzi says he “didn’t see any indication from any real source that [Pratt] was incompetent until — at least — the very end of their relationship,” after police became involved. (The lawyers were unable to make Johnson available for an interview. Johnson herself didn’t respond to an e-mail to one of her businesses and was unable to be reached through calls to multiple phone numbers associated with her name in public records.)
In November 2010, Pratt’s older brother, Peter Pratt, raised his concerns in an e-mail after she told him her funds were low. “Unfortunately, it’s happened before and will happen again especially as your healer ups her demands as you become more addicted to her calls,” he wrote. “Although you always feel this one is special, she’s costing you more and more. I hope you at least go for a second opinion before you lose all your friends, family, house and assets. SORRY TO BE DISPARAGING, BUT I’M VERY CONCERNED.”
Vera Pratt appeared to brush the concern aside. “This gal is wonderful, and I don’t mind giving her money,” she responded. If she had any concern about the length of the treatment without anything to show for it, she ascribed it to the difficulty of the demons, not an ineffective treatment.
Going into 2011, some five years into her time with Johnson, Pratt remained optimistic she could still be helped, even as her family’s doubts grew. “This is going to be a wonderful year for me I think,” she wrote Johnson in an e-mail, “and all because of your great efforts.”
Pratt’s loved ones were right to have their doubts. One source of Pratt’s withdrawal was allegedly, at least in part, Johnson telling the heiress that her family and friends were full of negative energy and couldn’t be trusted. The result was that, as early as 2009, Pratt began to depend on Johnson’s approval for any social outing, according to interviews and documents filed in court. She wouldn’t consider having her family over for Christmas dinners, or going to choir practices, unless Johnson said it was OK. (Petruzzi disputes the allegation that Johnson separated Pratt from her family. He says, instead, that it was the family’s longstanding lack of approval of Pratt’s beliefs that caused distance.)
Johnson also dissuaded Pratt from something that was meaningful to her: generosity. Pratt was told not to spend money on others — especially family — because giving it to others would return bad energy.
Money was safe when it came to Johnson’s payments, however. Pratt was instructed to send wire transfers to bank accounts under several different names. Johnson maintained a number of businesses, and also went by the names Sally Reed and Angelia Johnson. Sometimes Pratt made out checks to Johnson. Other times the psychic escorted Pratt directly to Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank to withdraw cash to pay her fees. Dutiful in her gratitude, Pratt obliged. Johnson even had her name added to Pratt’s American Express credit card account, and used it liberally, spending at least $20,000 on entertainment and jewelry alone, according to prosecutors.
Pratt paid the bills, but they were adding up. By February 2011, she was surprised to find her funds running low. “I hadn’t really looked at all I was giving you,” she wrote in an e-mail to Johnson. Still, she said she wanted to keep working together. According to a government sentencing memorandum, nearly two years later, in December 2012, Johnson asked Pratt for somewhere between $125,000 and $175,000. “What [Johnson] asked for to deal with demons was too much,” Pratt confided in her diary. “Apparently, I am getting very low on funds.”
As Pratt’s accounts shrunk, Johnson’s grew. Her lifestyle filled with Celine and Chanel handbags, Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent shoes, and a Porsche Cayenne. In Aventura, Florida, she lived in a 3,270-square-foot, half-a-million-dollar condo. She had a sizeable New York City Flatiron District home with a kitchen that a visiting Washington Post journalist, asking psychics to predict the 2016 election, described as being as big as the reporter’s entire apartment. When Johnson visited Pratt on the Vineyard, she sometimes stayed at the $500-a-night Harbor View Hotel.
Johnson’s quality of life mirrored that of people believed to be members of her extended family with spiritual abilities. Rose Marks, the mother of Johnson’s life partner, owned a Fort Lauderdale mansion at which one could reportedly find 400 rings, 100 watches, 200 necklaces, several Harley-Davidsons, and a white Rolls-Royce. Gina Marks, Rose’s daughter, co-wrote a book under a pseudonym called Miami Psychic. In it, she boasts of driving Bentleys and Mercedes, wearing $4,000 sundresses, and paying $200,000 for home renovations that included imported goods from Italy, Spain, and Brazil. Both Rose and Gina Marks have served jail time for fraud related to their work as psychics.
Experts say the elderly are often targeted by fraudsters due to common feelings of trust, vulnerability, and isolation. Psychic scammers then persuade their victims that only the psychic has their best interests at heart, and everyone else is out to get them. As the connection with the psychic gets stronger, contact with others gets weaker. The resulting dependency is leveraged to persuade victims that their money is cursed and only safe with the psychic, and that more money is owed because the task is taking longer than expected. If money isn’t paid, victims are warned something bad could happen to them.
Some psychics are also known to solicit offerings of other kinds. Reporting on the Marks family and other psychics showed one asked a client for a gold coin for each year the client lacked faith, resulting in a tally of 32 coins worth over $400,000. Another psychic asked a client to buy her a $28,900 gold Rolex watch as a “sacrifice.”
Johnson’s relationship with Pratt exhibited many of these elements, though she would never be charged with fraud. For example, she had asked Pratt — as Pratt described in her diary — to “every night lay all gold coins on bed [and] lie on them. Pick up all stones, put on altar [and] transfer energy to coins.” Pratt was then told to give Johnson the coins for safekeeping, though it turned out they wouldn’t be returned. “I thought I was going to get some of my money back,” Pratt later wrote.
Petruzzi, one of Johnson’s lawyers, argues that any intimations of fraud “were from the perspective of people who did not share the same type of beliefs in healing that Pratt did.” In court proceedings, he explained, “There are a lot of things that we spend our money on that others would say was a complete waste . . . however, this is what [Pratt] believed, and that’s what made her feel content.”
Pratt didn’t seem to think of herself as a victim. Sometimes she would question Johnson’s methods, even wonder if any progress had come from their work, but, entering the sixth year of their relationship, she was dedicated to continuing it. She kept receiving visits from Johnson and dutifully followed her instructions: spending time among crystals, wearing a special necklace, fasting, and praying in the morning for 30 minutes before eating anything, then imagining the color pink coming in and out of her body.
Meanwhile, the woman Pratt had been all her life was disappearing. Gone was the loving and attentive relative her family knew, the generous philanthropist, the yearning romantic. Despite her promises, Johnson hadn’t saved Pratt’s remaining years. Because of the money she was taking in, she might even have made it necessary for Pratt to be saved.
On Friday, November 8, 2013, a call came into the Chilmark Police Department. Earlier that day, Pratt had asked her goddaughter (who asked not to be named in this story) to help pay her electricity bill. Surprised that Pratt didn’t seem to have money, she set up a three-way call with Pratt’s bank and found out there was a lot of money leaving the account. She decided to involve the police.
The case was assigned to Detective Sean Slavin, who happened to be Pratt’s neighbor, a half-mile as the crow flies. He had often seen her working in her garden. They would wave to each other as he passed by on the road. Soon, Slavin knocked on Pratt’s door and met his neighbor for the first time.
Pratt was inconsistent about how much had gone missing. At one point, she told Slavin the amount had been $500, but later it became $15.
Slavin noticed some disorganization around Pratt’s home, like mail and newspapers piled up on counters. His attention was especially drawn to empty shelves with their books gathering dust in moving boxes.
“Are you going anywhere?” he recalls asking.
“Oh yeah, I’m going to move eventually,” she answered. “Once my healer gives me the OK and all the demons are gone.”
“Do you mean personal demons or demonic spirits?”
“Oh no. Evil spirits,” Pratt said.
Slavin asked Pratt how much she paid her healer, and she said the figure was likely somewhere around $15,000 over the last five years. He left with contact information for her brother, Peter, and half-brother, Johnathan Lash, intent on finding out more. (Johnson’s lawyer says he saw no evidence to support Slavin’s descriptions of his visit with Pratt, as recorded in his police report.)
Less than a week later, on November 14, Slavin called Pratt. She mentioned that Johnson was on the island and would be coming by to visit. Slavin decided he wanted to meet this healer himself. He drove to Pratt’s house, backed into a nearby driveway, and waited.
After about 45 minutes, a BMW sport-utility vehicle pulled up. Slavin followed into the driveway. Johnson was already inside when he knocked on the door. Pratt answered, but Johnson quickly intercepted. Whatever questions Slavin could get out, Johnson quickly answered on Pratt’s behalf. Eventually, Johnson stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her, leaving Pratt inside.
Slavin thought Johnson might be surprised, even intimidated, by a police officer asking questions. Instead, she came across as combative. When he asked Johnson what she did for Pratt, she said she was helping. When Slavin asked her how much money she was charging Pratt, he remembers her snapping, “None of your business.”
Slavin dispensed with formalities.
“What you’re doing to her isn’t right,” he said.
“How dare you say that?”
“You’re not going to get away with this,” Slavin promised. “I’m going to find out what’s going on.”
Johnson took Slavin’s promise seriously. That same day, she instructed Pratt not to talk to him again, according to Pratt’s diary. Johnson would also later produce a letter written by Pratt, signed that same day, declaring that any money she had given Johnson so far was a gift, “given with a full sense of generosity.” The date of that letter would cause prosecutors to suspect Johnson manipulated Pratt into signing it. The letter went further, attempting to grant Johnson power of attorney status, authorizing only her to take care of Pratt’s “health, living conditions, and finances.”
Meanwhile, Slavin got in touch with Pratt’s brothers, wanting to find out if they knew what was going on. They did. Because they had power of attorney, the trust and the bank had been calling them, letting them know about money flowing out of their sister’s accounts. They weren’t sure, but believed Pratt may have given as much as $500,000 to Johnson.
Slavin wondered why the family hadn’t put a stop to Johnson’s work, but he didn’t know that both brothers had been agonizing over how to strike a balance between allowing Pratt her independence and protecting her. “I felt we should have done more and sooner, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know whether it was ethical,” Lash says.
Lash’s daughter, Elle, also eventually came to see the difficulty of the situation. “What I didn’t understand at the time is [that you] can’t just say to an adult sibling, ‘Don’t do that.’ They’re an adult person and it’s their life and they’re not necessarily going to listen to you,” she says. “And they may, in fact, say, ‘I don’t like what you’re saying,’ and cut you out [of their life].”
But Slavin’s authority offered Pratt’s family the means to intervene. They informed Pratt’s financial institutions — the Charles Pratt Trust and Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank — that the detective could have access to her financial records.
Slavin spent several weeks looking into how much Pratt had paid to Johnson. By early 2014, he got a number from the bank: It wasn’t $500,000. It was $3.5 million.
After the financial revelations, Pratt’s family hired a caretaker for her named Beth Toomey. A former police chief in West Tisbury, she had been Slavin’s boss when he had worked on the force there. Initially, Pratt wanted nothing to do with Toomey, but eventually came to trust her. So much so that the fog of Johnson’s influence began to lift, and Pratt demonstrated bursts of awareness that her relationship with the psychic had been unhealthy.
When Toomey heard from Slavin in May 2014 about the $3.5 million, she decided to temporarily move into Pratt’s house. Toomey worried what someone might do to preserve such a sizeable stream of income.
Johnson fought her removal from Pratt’s life. She told Pratt they still had work to do, that she should move to Florida, that money was still owed. At one point, Toomey spoke with Johnson on the phone. The psychic insisted that she was the only one who should watch after Pratt, and objected to Toomey’s interference with her phone calls. Johnson asked if Pratt was going to have 24-hour care from now on, Toomey recalls. Toomey, suspecting an attempt to determine when Pratt would be alone, answered “Yes,” and then hung up.
Johnson continued to call until Toomey changed Pratt’s number. They secured a harassment prevention order legally forbidding Johnson from contacting Pratt ever again. After nearly seven years, the relationship between the psychic and the heiress had come to an end.
So, too, did Pratt’s time in the Vineyard home in which she’d invested so many of her hopes; her family moved her to an assisted living facility in Falmouth. Pratt’s mental decline had begun to accelerate, and they feared for her safety. About a month after Johnson’s last contact, for instance, Pratt left her home, intending to drive to Cambridge. She believed she still lived in an apartment there she’d called home in her 20s. Toomey rushed after, persuading the harbormaster to hold the ferry before it left.
“I’m really glad you’re here,” Pratt said, sitting behind the wheel of her car. “I don’t remember where I was going.”
By April 2015, Detective Sean Slavin needed backup, but was still struggling to get a government agency interested in investigating Johnson.
It’s not uncommon for victims of psychic scams to encounter dead ends with the legal system. Those who go to the authorities may be told their situation is a civil, not criminal, matter. Some are outright laughed at, says Bob Nygaard, a private investigator in Florida who specializes in helping victims of psychic fraud. He calls this the crime after the crime. “First you have the con artist who cons the victim, and then there’s law enforcement who talk victims into thinking they’re not a victim.” This further enables would-be scammers, allowing them to remain unconcerned about law enforcement intervention. “They know that the victims are going to be met with laughter, misreporting, and ignorance most of the time,” Nygaard says.
Slavin didn’t plan on giving up. “I just couldn’t live with the fact that this person was going to get away with this,” he says.
A breakthrough came when he got in touch with an FBI agent named Sarah DeLair. Slavin learned the FBI couldn’t pursue allegations of psychic fraud — Johnson said she was offering a real service, and Pratt believed she was getting what she paid for. But the FBI could get at the case indirectly by going after the taxes they believed Johnson hadn’t paid. (Johnson’s lawyer objected to this strategy in court, admonishing how “the government is turning the tax case into a fraud case.”) The FBI coordinated with IRS Criminal Investigation to analyze Johnson’s financial history, and the process revealed evidence of income discrepancies. Johnson did not make the $4,100 a month she would later claim in a presentencing report, but often received as much as $50,000 a month from Pratt. The agency also discovered the wire transfers, the payments made out to aliases, the trips to Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, and the charges racked up on the American Express card.
By August 30, 2017, the FBI and IRS-CI had gathered enough evidence for prosecutors to formally charge Johnson with tax evasion. She had failed to pay $725,000 dollars to the IRS on the millions the authorities said she received from Pratt. Although Johnson maintained the money from Pratt was from gifts or for psychic services rendered, she pled guilty to interfering with the administration of the internal revenue laws on October 7, 2017, and awaited sentencing.
To Protect Pratt’s anonymity, nobody was allowed to say her name on January 17, 2018, during a hearing in Boston’s John J. Moakley United States Courthouse. But Sally Ann Johnson was the only one who didn’t really seem to even acknowledge her existence. It was as if Pratt — referred to in court only as “Jane Doe” or by her initials “VP” — didn’t quite register to Johnson.
Johnson was allowed to make a statement before she was sentenced. She apologized for her tax oversights, but only indirectly alluded to Pratt. “I would never do anything deceitful to anybody,” Johnson told the court. “There is nobody that I would ever take for granted.” She was sentenced to 26 months in prison and required to pay restitution of $725,912 to the IRS and $3,567,300 to Pratt. (As of last summer, Johnson, now out of prison, had repaid under $38,000 toward her restitution. Because she had been unable to find full-time work, she has been allowed to pay $25 per month.)
A month after Johnson was convicted, on February 8, 2018, Pratt died at the age of 82. One of the last people to see her was her sister-in-law Elaine. At one point during their conversation, Elaine complimented Pratt’s blouse.
“I want to give it to you,” Pratt said, and began unbuttoning the shirt.
“When you’ve finished wearing it, I’ll take it,” Elaine gently countered.
Pratt insisted, continuing to unbutton, until Elaine spoke to her, as if to a child. “You know what we could do? We could button this back up one button a time.” Pratt did as she was told.
“In those last moments I saw her, I felt really connected to her,” Elaine says.
Her last memory of Pratt was one more act of generosity in a lifetime full of them: Pratt willing to give away the shirt on her back. She was, in a way, truly Vera one last time.
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