HOUSTON - Houston's most recognized shopping destination draws people from all over the world looking for designer clothes, purses and shoes. But now police have identified a group on the hunt for victims.
"It's easy to get lost in. It's easy to remain anonymous," said HPD officer Gilbert Brillon, describing The Galleria.
The mall boasts an estimated 24 million visitors a year. Brillon said the mysterious suspects he's tracking count on the crowds.
"They might approach 30, 40, 50 people in a day, and if they get one or two people to bite, well ... now they've got a payday," Brillon said.
The detective is investigating three unrelated cases, but the method of operation in all three crimes is eerily similar.
"These three cases almost read exactly the same," Brillon explained. "Just change the names and the offense reports would be almost identical. They even went to the same place to start the scam."
That place was The Galleria.
One woman, who was too embarrassed to show her face or reveal her real name, explained how the crime started for her near the Hallmark store.
"She had a great smile and she said, 'Hey, I think I can help you," said the victim we'll call Vicki.
The woman who approached Vicki was 38-year-old Janet Miller. Over the course of six months, Vicki says Miller befriended her, convinced her to leave her husband and then hand over her all of his "evil" money she got in the divorce.
"She wanted all of it," said Vicki. "She wanted every single penny I had ... and to cleanse it and she said, 'I'll give it back to you.'"
Over a six-month period, Vicki gave Miller $216,000.
"Once the suspect got her hands on the money, she disappeared," Brillon explained.
Brillon was only able to identify Janet Miller because he found a 1998 mug shot from her arrest in Philadelphia on a larceny charge connected to fortune telling.
In another case, a woman named Tammy Johns scored $450,000 from a Houston woman she met at The Galleria, claiming she was a sister in the Catholic church.
A third suspect, identified as 29-year-old Janet Williams, got $67,000 from a Rice University foreign exchange student. Brillon said Williams approached the student at the Starbucks in the mall. Over the course of a month and half, the girl borrowed the money from her family and handed it over to Williams. The student told police Williams claimed the money would help rid her mother in China of a demon.
"You or I might say, 'What a quack'" Local 2's Amy Davis said to Brillon.
"Exactly," he replied. "I might try to run away from that person as fast as I can."
But Brillon said the suspects, who called themselves psychics and spiritual healers, are very good at finding naive targets.
"It's part of their culture," he said. "They learn how to do from the time that they're very young. They may not have a degree in psychology, but they're very good psychologists."
KPRC Local 2 tried to track down Williams. The trail lead the station to a psychic shop on Southmore in Pasadena, where an undercover producer made an appointment for a reading. We didn't find her, but instead found her mom, of the same name. She denied even knowing the woman police say is her daughter.
"You don't know this woman?" Davis asked the older Williams, showing her a picture of the 29-year-old Janet Williams.
"I do not know this woman," she replied.
Brillon said police have not been able to find any of the three suspects in these cases.
"They may very well still be here in town or they've moved on to one of the other locations," he said.
New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Florida, Los Angeles and Houston: Brillon said these states and cities make up the psychic circuit. Houston's Galleria is just a payday pit stop for swindlers looking to make some extra cash, he said.
"They're out to steal your money," said Brillon. "From the time they say 'hello' until the time they cut off their relationship with you, that's their entire goal."
Investigators admit these cases can be difficult to prove. Brillon said the three psychics in The Galleria cases promised to return the money after they prayed over it. Because they made that claim and then didn't return the cash, Brillon said it's flat out theft.
If you've seen any of the women in our investigation, call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.
The General Manager for The Galleria, Greg Noble, sent KPRC Local 2 this statement in response to this story:
"We strive to maintain a safe and comfortable environment for all of our shoppers and employees. Unfortunately these types of incidents can occur anywhere and as always we encourage the public to alert Security if they encounter any situations where they feel unsafe or uncomfortable or observe suspicious activity," Noble wrote.
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