By Paula McMohan and Sun Sentinel
Federal prosecutors last week quietly dropped a criminal charge against an elderly Boca Raton millionaire they accused of laundering money for a Fort Lauderdale family of psychics charged with fleecing clients.
Peter Wolofsky, 85, had pleaded not guilty to money laundering, and prosecutors formally dropped the charge against him late last week.
“I feel very good that they realized I’m innocent,” Wolofsky said in a phone interview on Thursday. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Wolofsky, the former owner of the exotic car dealership The Auto Toy Store in Fort Lauderdale, was previously accused of laundering money for drug dealers in 2008. He was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $250,000 after pleading guilty to related federal charges a year later.
Wolofsky, who describes himself as a finance and mortgage businessman, said that he knew nothing about the Marks family’s business.
Public records show that he gave a mortgage loan to Rose Marks, who prosecutors say is the matriarch and alleged ringleader of the fortune-telling conspiracy.
Wolofsky said that’s part of what he does for a living and he has given loans to many members of the Roma community, also known as gypsies. He said he fills a gap in the market because many Roma have difficulty getting traditional loans from banks and other financial institutions.
Wolofsky’s attorney, Samuel Rabin Jr., said Wolofsky did only “arms-length financial transactions” with the family and is not expected to testify in the case.
“There was a total lack of evidence against him,” Rabin said. “[Prosecutors] made a mistake in indicting him, but they were receptive to our argument that the charge should be dismissed.”
Prosecutors gave no reason for their decision in an order signed off on by a federal magistrate judge on July 27.
Meanwhile, the nine remaining defendants — all members of the Marks family — are trying to force federal prosecutors to return hundreds of pieces of jewelry and other property seized from their homes, safe deposit boxes and a storage unit when they were arrested nearly a year ago.
Federal authorities have accused the family of operating a multi-million-dollar fraud on clients of their storefront fortune-telling businesses in Fort Lauderdale and across the street from Manhattan’s famous Plaza Hotel.
Authorities seized hundreds of items of jewelry, cars and other property when they arrested the family members in late August 2011.
Attorney Fred Schwartz, who represents Marks, filed court documents in July asking a judge to order prosecutors to return the rest of the property as soon as possible.
The prosecution estimated the items were worth several hundred thousand dollars. Schwartz estimated the value at more than $1 million.
Schwartz said the jewelry and gold coins are mostly precious heirlooms inherited from ancestors or bought with legitimate income — including millions of dollars that Rose Marks said she and other family members won playing slots at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino near Hollywood and a lottery at the old Seminole bingo hall. The family reported the winnings, in excess of $1 million some years, to the Internal Revenue Service, her lawyer wrote.
To bolster his arguments, Schwartz included several photographs — some more than 50 years old — of family members wearing gold jewelry and coins. He also included photos of relatives counting cash paid as part of a traditional dowry.
Under Romani tradition, brides often wear gold coins on their wedding day. The practice dates back in history to when the Roma wanted their assets easily transportable, and also to an age when people didn’t trust banks.
One of the photos shows a deceased relative with jewelry displayed beside her in the coffin.
The family hopes that the judge will accept the photographs as proof that at least some of the jewelry seized could not have been taken from the alleged victims, as prosecutors charged, or that it was owned by the family long before the alleged conspiracy began in the early 1990s.
Prosecutors have not yet responded to the request and a judge has not yet ruled on the matter.
By law, authorities were authorized only to seize items from the family that were either the fruits of the alleged crimes or evidence of criminal acts, Schwartz wrote. Instead, he wrote, they went “on a fishing expedition” and scooped up property without considering whether it could legally be seized.
Prosecutors wrote in court records that the alleged victims turned over jewelry and gold coins to the family to be used in rituals to clear curses. Prosecutors and investigators alleged that several family members took items of value and promised to return them, but then refused or ignored requests from their clients to give back the property.
Earlier this year, prosecutors agreed to return, at least temporarily, a white 1977 Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes that were seized. Prosecutors told the defense they may still seek forfeiture of the vehicles and other property if the defendants are convicted.
Prosecutors have explained that fortune telling alone is not a crime, but said that it became fraud when the psychics took money or other valuables and promised to return the items but kept them.
The defense argues that because at least some of the fortune-telling business was legal and the family earned money gambling, they had legitimate means to buy jewelry, cars and property.
Marks is selling her home on the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale to avoid foreclosure brought on by the criminal case, according to court records. Judges have banned the family members from working as psychics or in any related field while the criminal charges are pending.