Two women and a man in New York have been indicted on charges of stealing $85,000 in cash and jewelry that a Chinese senior citizen allegedly handed over to be blessed in hopes of removing a death curse, the Brooklyn District Attorney announced Wednesday.
One of the two women, 57-year-old Yuqub Liang, pleaded not-guilty in Brooklyn Supreme Court at an arraignment Wednesday on the five-count indictment, which includes charges of second- and third-degree grand larceny, according to the district attorney's office.
Justice Danny Chun ordered Liang held on $500,000 bail, the DA's office said.
A second woman, 46-year-old Yan Chen, was arraigned on the same indictment in August and also pleaded not-guilty, the DA's office said. She was being held on $250,000 bail.
The man, 50-year-old Yacheng Chen, is expected to be arraigned in Brooklyn Supreme Court later this month.
The indictment also includes one count of third-degree criminal possession of stolen property, and two counts of fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property, according to the DA's office.
The incident unfolded on July 29 in the borough of Brooklyn, when Yan Chen and Liang allegedly went up to a 62-year-old Chinese immigrant several times and began a conversation, prosecutors said.
As Yacheng Chen served as a lookout, Yan Chen (no relation) pretended to be a clairvoyant, convincing the 62-year-old that she or a family member would die because of a curse, the district attorney's office alleges.
To remove the evil spirits, the woman was told to gather large sums of cash and jewelry, and to bring both with her to be blessed, the DA's office said in a statement. She later went home, collecting $15,000 in cash and also a key to her safe deposit box, prosecutors said.
From her bank, the woman withdrew another $50,000 and removed around $20,000 worth of jewelry from her safe deposit box, according to the district attorney's office. She was later told to place the cash and jewelry in a bag, and Yan Chen allegedly administered a blessing to remove the curse, prosecutors said.
The defendants, however, are accused of removing the valuables and cash from the bag, which was placed back on the 62-year-old's shoulder, prosecutors said. In order to break the curse, the woman was given instructions not to open it for at least several days, according to the district attorney's office.
But when the woman arrived home later that evening, she opened the bag anyway and discovered that her money and jewelry had been replaced with bottles of water, according to prosecutors. That's when the woman phoned 911.
Attorneys for Liang and Yacheng Chen could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. But Yan Chen's lawyer, Samuel Karliner, dismissed claims his client posed as a clairvoyant and convinced the woman she or a family member would die from a curse, telling NBC News by phone the allegations were "absolutely untrue."
"As I understand the case so far — at least what the district attorney has told me, from what I've seen from paperwork — I don't know (a), what my client did, if anything, to advance this blessing, if you will, if that's what they want to call it," he said. "And number 2, I have some serious questions and reservations if it was a crime."
Karliner said it was the 62-year-old woman who believed she and her family were cursed. "And in order to remove it and receive the blessing, she needed to do certain things," he said. "If the police prevented her from doing that, we'd be calling it a violation of her religious civil rights, right?"
Liang, Yan Chen, Yacheng Chen, and a fourth woman, Xuekun Su, were arrested in August in connection with similar incidents in Manhattan and Queens, according to DNAinfo.
The so-called "blessing scam" has been around in U.S. Chinese communities for years, targeting victims in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Hawaii, according to NBC New York. Following a rash of such incidents in New York City, the New York Police Department began a public awareness campaign in 2013, hitting the streets and tacking up posters in Chinese and English to warn residents.
"People should be aware of these con men and women trying to swindle them out of their hard-earned money," Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said in a statement. "I urge those in the Chinese community to warn their vulnerable family members to avoid falling prey to such schemes."