I Sense a Future . . . in Jail

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The fortuneteller saw it coming.

Before stepping up to the defense table yesterday morning to take responsibility for bilking clients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Grace Uwanawich hugged her husband and two daughters, knowing she would leave the courtroom in handcuffs.

"I promise in Jesus' name I'm not going to do this again," she said shortly before being sentenced to 18 months in jail. "I know it sounds like I'm using Jesus. I am ashamed."

The plea deal, which includes nearly $257,000 in restitution to four former clients, appeared to end the Montgomery County incarnation of "Mrs. Grace," who had said she was a Native American psychic. Authorities say Uwanawich, 63, defrauded vulnerable middle-aged women by persuading them to hand over tens of thousands of dollars to crush devastating curses.

"This is beyond fortunetelling for entertainment purposes," Montgomery Assistant State's Attorney Carol Crawford said. She compared Uwanawich to a "leech" who drained her victims' wealth by terrorizing them with the prospect of spells and then becoming their only source of solace.

Uwanawich's criminal charges in Maryland were not her first brush with the law. Court records show she was arrested in Chester County, Pa., and later in Philadelphia during the 1990s in connection with similar scams. But the punishment Montgomery Court Judge Eric M. Johnson imposed yesterday appeared to be the most severe the "professional thief" has faced, Crawford said.

Yesterday's sentence followed a guilty plea Feb. 12 to one count of felony theft. She pleaded guilty yesterday to two counts of fortunetelling, a misdemeanor in Montgomery.

Uwanawich's legal fortunes in Maryland began to turn in January 2006 when Montgomery fraud detective Brandon Mengedoht appeared at her apartment in Chevy Chase with an arrest warrant. He had spent hours looking into the case of a 57-year-old Poolesville woman who, over the course of a year, gave Uwanawich more than $160,000 in cash and property.

Their relationship began in December 2004 at Lakeforest Mall, when Uwanawich approached the woman, who was depressed, and handed her a flier promoting her psychic powers.

During meetings at Uwanawich's apartment, the woman, who is of Chinese descent, was told she and her family had a curse that dated to the building of the Great Wall of China. Evidence of the curse came in the form of an egg Uwanawich cracked in front of the woman that had blood and hair and smelled horrid.

Suddenly, the woman said yesterday, Uwanawich and her relatives became like her extended family.

"I loved them," the woman said, breaking down in tears. "I loved every single one of them."

She and the other victim who attended the hearing spoke on condition of anonymity because they said they are deeply ashamed.

After wiping out the Poolesville woman's bank accounts, maxing out her credit cards and tricking her into buying a Mercedes Benz she never got to drive, Uwanawich stopped giving the woman appointments. Uwanawich's daughter, Christine Miller, ended up driving the vehicle. Miller pleaded guilty in February to one count of conspiracy to commit felony theft in connection with the car purchase.

Uwanawich met the second victim shortly after depleting the Poolesville woman's money. When she approached the 43-year-old Silver Spring woman in the parking lot of Congressional Plaza in Rockville in October 2005, Uwanawich told her that she could tell the woman was "not smiling from the heart." The woman said she had just quit her job and was wrestling with uncertainty. The woman said Uwanawich told her that an ailing nephew would die unless she crushed the family's curse. In amounts that grew larger, the woman handed over more than $60,600.

"The one thing she has done is strip us of our dignity," the Silver Spring woman said yesterday.

Both women said they do not think Uwanawich's show of remorse is genuine. "She has done this all her life," the Poolesville woman said. "That's acting."

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