'Historical quirk' leads to charges of witchcraft against Toronto woman

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The case of a Toronto woman accused of fraud has shed light on a section of the Canadian criminal code that carries a hint of the Dark Ages: posing as a witch.

Vishwantee Persaud allegedly defrauded a Toronto lawyer of tens of thousands of dollars by telling him she was the embodiment of the spirit of his deceased sister, come back to help him in business. Ms. Persaud now faces charges under a rarely used section of the criminal code for pretending to practice witchcraft.

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"She said she came from a long line of witches and could do tarot-card readings," says Detective Constable Corey Jones, who investigated the case. "It was through this that she cemented [the lawyer's]trust," setting the stage for the fraud to follow, which, according to Det. Constable Jones, included claiming fictitious expenses such as law-school tuition and cancer treatments.

Det. Constable Jones says it's rare to charge someone under Section 365, but the circumstances of this case fit.

"It's a historical quirk," says Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Some sections of the Canadian criminal code reflect offences that were more prevalent centuries ago. When the code was enacted in 1892, witchcraft per se was no longer a punishable offence, he says, but lawmakers wanted to ensure witchcraft wasn't used as a cover for fraud.

Section 365 states that any one who fraudulently pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, or enchantment or who "undertakes, for a consideration, to tell fortunes … is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction."

"It's not really about occult activity," Prof. Young says. "It's about defrauding people."

The lawyer met Ms. Persaud, who claimed to be in law school, in early 2009 and started to mentor her. According to Det. Constable Jones, he probably gave Ms. Persaud more than $100,000 over the year.

Det. Constable Jones says the scheme came to a head when Ms. Persaud said they were going to make money hosting and providing security for certain celebrities at the Toronto International Film Festival. "That's where everything fell apart because of course no Hollywood celebrities showed up," he says.

In fact, he points out, this kind of offence could lead to a simple charge of fraud, which carries longer jail terms and stiffer fines. As it stands, a conviction of pretending to practise witchcraft carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail and/or a $2,000 fine.

"There are probably more cases than we know of," Det. Constable Jones says. He says victims are sometimes embarrassed to report such frauds to police.

Ms. Persaud remains in custody and also faces fraud charges relating to this and other cases. She is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 24.

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