"Sister Mary," a palm reader and faith healer who formerly operated in St. Mary's County, has vanished, leaving a Clinton woman unable to collect $50,200 that a Circuit Court judge ordered paid to her, a lawyer for the woman said.
The ruling last month from Judge Arthur M. Ahalt against Gardinia Mary Kathryn Ann Ephraim, 39, known as "Sister Mary," was the latest of four dispositions of civil suits brought by clients against Ephraim during the last three years in St. Mary's County.
Ephraim, of Mechanicsville, Md., pleaded guilty to one count of theft and was ordered to pay punitive damages in three other fraud cases, according to lawyers. In the wake of those cases, the county passed a law requiring strict licensing procedures for fortunetellers. It also empowered law enforcement officials to revoke licenses in the case of criminal convictions.
But the new law, which went into effect July 1, came too late to revoke Ephraim's license because all the suits were filed prior to that date, county officials said.
"Frankly, it looks like we're never going to see any of the money," said Joseph Mattingly Jr., who represented Clinton resident Mary Church in the latest proceedings before Ahalt.
Mattingly said Church took Ephraim to court for failure to pay a promissory note after she refused to repay several loans dating from 1982.
Mattingly and others believe that Ephraim, who did not appear at the court proceedings, may be staying with relatives in Hartford, Conn. but say they have not been able to locate her.
Another lawyer, Walter W. Sawyer, has asked the St. Mary's District Court to issue a bench warrant for Ephraim.
Sawyer said that last April, a county judge ordered Ephraim to spend 2,000 days in prison or pay a Brooklyn woman and her sister, a Washington resident, $10,000 each in punitive damages resulting from two 1983 cases in which the women filed fraud charges against Ephraim.
Sawyer said Ephraim promised one of the women, who has multiple sclerosis, that she could cure her condition. She demanded a $3,700 fee from the other woman -- who thought her neighbors were going to poison her -- and pretended to extract three small snakes from the woman's stomach to remedy her situation, Sawyer said.
A third woman, who went to Ephraim complaining of fainting and dizzy spells during pregnancy, was told to chant and wear bags of string around her chest if she wanted her symptoms to disappear, Sawyer said. The woman paid Ephraim $3,000, but later filed suit against the palm reader, charging fraud and misrepresentation. The woman was awarded $10,000 in punitive damages, and has collected half, Sawyer said.
Sawyer said he agreed to Ephraim's release from jail in April after five days when she paid $5,000 to two of the plaintiffs and promised to pay the balance within 90 days.
"We haven't heard from her since," Sawyer said. "The time expired and she didn't pay, hence the bench warrant."
Ephraim, who once drove a rented black Mercedes-Benz convertible and more recently a rented Lincoln town car, left no property behind when she disappeared in late summer, the lawyers said.
" . . . She didn't leave a whole lot of assets down here that we can attach," Mattingly said.
Lt. Gene Pellillo of the county sheriff's department, said Ephraim was the county's only known commercial palm reader.
Under the new law, any would-be fortunetellers must pass a criminal background check, and be fingerprinted and photographed before they can secure a license to set up a business in the county, Pellillo said.
The same law enables county officials to revoke the license of any fortuneteller convicted of a crime in connection with their work. Officials were powerless to do that in Ephraim's case, even though she had had a total of $33,600 in fines, judgments and penalities levied against her between 1983 and 1984 not including the most recent $50,200 judgment.
"We couldn't revoke her license retroactively because she was arrested and sued before the law went into effect," Pellillo said.
But neither Mattingly nor Sawyer believes the new law will fully protect people from swindlers.
"When you've got people promising others that they can make them mentally or physically well by rubbing eggs on their stomachs or chanting, there will always be believers," Sawyer said. "Most of her clients were referrals, not people that drove by her sign. There will always be criminal false pretense, theft and cheaters."
"Even without a license, people can practice deceit," Mattingly said. "But at least they can't hang a sign out."