During happy hour on a Wednesday night in 2008, Bob Nygaard, a private investigator, found himself sitting across from two attractive single women at a bar and grill in Boca Raton, Florida. One was a doctor, the other a nurse. It was the pickup spot, Nygaard says. He sipped a Bacardi and Coke, as he told the two women old war stories from his days as a transit police officer in New York City.
One that particularly struck the women’s interest was about a group of five men known as the Parks brothers. They were responsible for a string of home-improvement scams targeting the elderly, along with other confidence schemes around the country.
“I said that one of the types of crimes that I really took an interest in was con artists,” Nygaard says. “I really like to match wits with con artists and cause them to be arrested.”
The trio exchanged phone numbers and left the bar a little later that night. Nygaard did not think too much of his interaction with the women. However, 10 minutes after leaving, he got a phone call. It was the doctor. She asked if he could meet her at a gas station on the corner.
“I didn’t know if she wanted to hook up or what the story was,” he says.
The doctor wanted to tell him something she was too embarrassed to mention in front of her coworker. She had been ripped off for more than $12,000 by a "psychic." She could not believe someone of her intelligence could fall for something like this, Nygaard says.
The doctor asked for his help. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. Playing a character he asked, “Was there a name? Marks?” Shocked, the doctor looked at him and said, “Yes it was. It’s Gina Marks.” She asked how he could have possibly known the name. Joking, Nygaard said, “I’m psychic.”
His work on the Marks case, which ultimately led to her arrest, garnered Nygaard a lot of attention from the press. It was as if floodgates had been opened, he says. His phone was ringing off the hook with calls from people just like the doctor.
Since his first client, he estimates he has recovered more than $3.5 million for 21 victims in 12 different cases. Nygaard found his niche as a private investigator. He recently starred as himself in CBS's new crime series Pink Collar Crimes. The episode is set to air Aug. 11.
He doesn't really believe in the superstition behind psychics, mediums, fortune tellers, etc., but he says he doesn't judge anyone for believing in it themselves. He thinks people should be able to follow whatever faith they want. That's how he was raised.
Born in Queens, New York, he grew up in a middle class home in a suburb of Long Island. He had a good upbringing with supportive parents, he says. They taught him to to be an independent thinker.
“Don’t be a follower. Be a leader,” they would tell him. “Come to your own conclusions and examine the evidence of any situation, and make an informed decision.”
After spending his high school years as an athlete on the baseball and lacrosse varsity teams, Nygaard began to think about college. His dad watched as Nygaard flipped through a book of potential colleges. Nygaard says his dad took away the book and set it aside.
“What are you doing,” his dad said. “The only way to learn anything in life is to go there and see it in person. Experience is the best teacher.”
He was right.
An entrepreneur, his dad often took business trips across the country. He told Nygaard he would start taking him along to check out colleges. His dad had a trip to Dallas coming up, so Nygaard looked into some schools he might want to visit and stumbled upon Southern Methodist University.
When the time came, Nygaard strolled around SMU while his dad went on a business meeting.
He was 17. Some students asked him to join them for lunch. He was surprised by how nice people were. It was his first taste of Southern hospitality. He was not really an assertive person at the time, but when his dad picked him up and told him their plane left at 5 p.m. the next day, Nygaard said they were not going anywhere.
To the surprise of his dad, he had set up an interview to attend the college. Without any reservations, he decided SMU was where he was going.
“I went to the interview, and he pretty much told me, ‘You’re in. This interview went great. You’re comin’ here,’” he says.
Though it was different from New York, Nygaard fit right in, finding his way onto the SMU lacrosse club team.
He never wanted to be a police officer, but in the midst of his college career, Nygaard’s dad suggested he take the civil service test. He was reluctant to do so because he had plans to get into the family business.
“It’s always good to have options,” his dad said.
Once again, he was right.
When he got out of SMU in 1983 with a degree in entrepreneurship, Nygaard was not too excited about the family business. He got a letter in the mail from the New York Police Department asking if he wanted to take the physical exam. He accepted the invitation and passed.
Once he got through the police academy, he became a transit cop. He asked to be put in District 3 at 145th and Saint Nicholas in Harlem. It was one of the worst areas, he says. The training he obtained during this period would serve him well for the rest of his career, but he soon realized that not every cop does the job to the best of their abilities.
“You have guys that are looking to do the least amount as possible,” he says. “They have the attitude of ‘I’m getting the same paycheck at the end of the week whether I take 10 reports or one report.’”
He thought things would get better, but he dealt with what he calls the civil service mentality for 20 years. Nygaard often got along better with criminals than he did his own brothers in blue because of his work ethic.
In February 2007, he retired from the police department. He thought he would go down to Florida, lie on the beach, go to tiki bars and sail off into the sunset. Three months went by and he was bored out of his mind. He figured getting his private investigator’s license would be an interesting progression, he says.
He started working unclaimed money cases, but that did not excite him. Then, he began to do marital cheating cases, but that got old fast, he says. He hated being the bearer of bad news all the time.
All of this led him to that Wednesday night happy hour to meet the doctor. His naming of Marks that night was nothing more than an educated guess.
Being a member of the National Association of Bunco Investigators, a group of investigators who aim to crack down on itinerant criminals, he knew common family names were associated with these kinds of cons. Nygaard took on the case pro bono, diving into the world of spiritual scamming.
The victims of these psychic scam artists are often so vulnerable they can be persuaded to do anything. In the case of the doctor, she handed over thousands of dollars wrapped in a handkerchief to be blessed at a sacred altar. She gave away her credit card information to buy special candles. All of this was to rid her of a curse placed on her by a jealous coworker who was causing her anxiety, the psychic told her.
When the conned come to Nygaard, they generally feel just as helpless as they did when confronting their psychic. They are sometimes even suicidal when they call him.
One woman reached out to him saying she had given $90,000 to a psychic. She and her husband had saved up the money their whole lives to send their daughter to college, she told him. Crying, she said she was beside herself and did not know what to do. He told her they could meet, and he would help her build a case. She revealed to him she was on the eighth floor of a building in Queens. Standing on the ledge, she told him she felt it would be easier to just take a step and end it all.
These people are being financially destroyed, he says. Most police look at psychic fraud as a joke, turning away people who report it. Those police who attempt to take on the cases are often met with reluctant prosecutors worried about ruining their track record, he says.
Victims are usually told no crime has been committed because they willingly gave away their money.
“When people gave their money to Bernie Madoff, did he put a gun to their head?” Nygaard asks. “If they’re right, and I’m wrong, they ought to let him go.”
When faced with uncooperative prosecutors, he says he often has to turn to the media. In one case involving a woman named Priti Mahalanobis and a psychic who defrauded her out of $136,000, the prosecutor’s office had stopped returning her and Nygaard’s phone calls. A couple of days after an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the police made an arrest and Mahalanobis got her money back.
Though some of the criminals he deals with are run-of-the-mill con artists, Nygaard says many of them are connected to a larger network of Romani-American organized crime. He stresses not everyone from this background is a suspected fraud. It is just a trend he has observed after years of his work.
The people involved in this organized crime have their own language and their own way of doing things, says Michael Barbuck, private investigator and colleague of Nygaard. They have their own courts to settle disputes.
“Let’s say you wanted to open up a psychic parlor,” Barbuck says. “You would have to go to whoever controls that area and ask permission. They’re very organized.”
He and his wife, Melissa, help Nygaard with some cases by going undercover and getting readings done by suspected fraudulent psychics.
The FBI once asked Nygaard to give an expert statement in a psychic scam case. He refused. He does not know if the powers these people claim to have exist. He told them they were approaching the problem the wrong way, according to Miami New Times.
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His time as a police officer, fighting others in the system who did not want to do their jobs, forged him like steel, he says. Because of this, he knows how to navigate the system and get his clients the justice they deserve.
Nygaard challenges anyone who says they would never fall for such scams as his clients did.
“If you think, ‘Well, I’m just not that stupid. It’s never gonna happen to me.’ Don’t be so sure of that,” he says.
Over the years, he has helped prosecute 30 psychics to date. His colleague Barbuck says he hopes the wheels of justice will start spinning and one day put him and Nygaard out of the business of investigating psychics.