This story below first appeared in the April 20, 2013 Gallup Independent as “Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters?”
Read Update 8/21/13 Con Man Red Feather took merchants for more than $50,000, wife clears out now. (July 25, 2013, Albuquerque TV station KRQE reported that David A. Rendon, aka David Redfeather, "has disappeared with $20,000 of the Old Town Merchants Association money." I first broke the story here back in April to alert the community that a con man was operating under a false identity in Old Town. Unfortunately, as predicted, it took more people getting hurt for the story to make news. Back in April, I did not have the official Utah state criminal records and so for reasons of liability could not name the person, David A. Rendon, aka Redfeather, but all the information was embedded in the story for those who wanted to know more, it was distributed in the community, and the Old Town Merchants Association and the City of Albuquerque Cultural Affairs office were apprised of his record. Some chose not to listen or heed.)
Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters?
The popular theme song to the 1984 movie Ghostbusters starts out like a commercial jingle: "When there's something weird in the neighborhood, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!"
Unfortunately, in the realm of healers, there is no obvious “ghostbuster” to call in American society when someone is making claims that are questionable, and often they will turn to a newspaper reporter for help. However, until a person has been indicted for or convicted of a crime, a newspaper will be very reluctant to report allegations of fraud or criminal activity.
Con men and women, by definition, are very good at what they do. The sad thing is that they prey on others’ vulnerabilities. Until or unless they do something really criminal and are convicted, it is difficult to stop them. Even then, some of their followers will remain loyal. Usually they are careful about skirting the law, and they know that those they exploit are more often than not too embarrassed or afraid of them to go to the authorities.
I recently got a number of calls complaining about a man who operates a new Native-themed restaurant and gallery in Old Town, the tourist district of Albuquerque, after a write-up in a regional weekly newspaper described him as a traditional Lakota healer and roadman from Pine Ridge, S.D.
The first caller, a highly regarded and decorated Native veteran, said that this man was not known to be Dakota, and that the Native-sounding name he gave in the article was not his real name. The caller was indignant, and said, “We have to stop other Sedonas from happening,” referring to the 2009 incident in Sedona, Arizona where three who paid up to $10,000 for the experience died in an overcrowded Native-styled sweat lodge run by James A. Ray, white son of a preacher out of Oklahoma, and which dramatically exposed the dangers of misguided and untrained New Age practitioners who try to appropriate traditional Native American practices.
I checked the state’s Public Regulation Commission website which showed, under the business name and address, that this owner has a Hispanic family surname different than was reported in the paper.
A quick Internet search of that name turned up a detailed article in an online journal called “Witch Wars” from the pagan community in Salt Lake City, published in 2003. It warned about a man who took over a Wiccan store there called the Mystic Dragon. The article is titled “Sexual Predator/Con Artist in Pagan Community." The name was the same Hispanic surname as the one used on the business registration here.
A week later I received another call, from a former employee of the man’s restaurant, who said she was paid more than once with checks that bounced. She finally got some back pay when her family forced her to quit and to file a complaint with the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, a state agency.
I inquired with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office and an intake worker said that anyone being paid with bogus checks should file a complaint with their office and with the police.
I asked the woman why she had kept working for him as long as she did. She said that he knew how to manipulate her. “He knows how to read people, He used that,” and that by making promises he was able to string her along.
She went on, “I know about lies, con-artists, and it’s hard to fool me. I was brought up by thieves and con-men, but this guy knew how to manipulate me.” She also said he had made sexual advances, that she had been warned that he was a womanizer, and that she was afraid of him.
Then she told me that the man was Jewish. That caught my attention. I told her that I didn’t think he was any more Jewish than he was Lakota. Last month’s newspaper article had said his wife is Mohawk. The store’s business card lists a “Judaic Herbal Store.”
Curious, I asked a rabbi what “Judaic herbs” are. He laughed at the notion, and proffered a ruling on the subject: “There is no such thing,” said the rabbi, “unless you count the two main herbs of Jewish cooking that my grandmother knew: salt, lots of it, pepper, and more salt,” and gestured as if vigorously shaking a large imaginary box of salt into a pot.
I paid a visit to Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld, of Congregation Albert, who after being rabbi in Alaska and then senior rabbi in Buffalo, NY, where he came to know many members of the Mohawk community, in 2011 became rabbi of the largest Jewish congregation in Albuquerque. Rabbi Rosenfeld’s office wall is covered with his many diplomas, including a Master’s degree and Doctor of Divinity from the oldest and most well known rabbinical institutions of learning in this country.
On the subject of what to do about people who make claims to be religious healers, Rabbi Rosenfeld said, “When it comes to clergy and religious practitioners, everyone should just make sure that you know their background and their qualifications, just as you would for any professional.”
Similarly, Navajo healing practitioners have to go through training and be ordained by another practitioner, and be able to verify it. Also, today, roadmen who lead Native American Church services must have a card showing their membership and practitioner status.
Generally speaking, it seems that the best thing to do is to ask around about a person’s reputation, to ask them directly who they received their training from, and to ask them to show some proof of their credentials.
I visited one of the oldest New Age shops in another part of Albuquerque, and asked the owner how they deal with unscrupulous healers in the community. The answer was quick and to the point: “Bless them, and run the other way. Karma will take care of them.” Credentials or licensing was not necessarily going to be the answer.
The veteran who had first called me had another viewpoint about waiting for karma to kick in. “How many people have to get hurt first?” he demanded to know. ###
This story also appeared in the May, 2013 New Mexico Jewish Link, as “Con Man Claims to be Native American or Jewish Healer.”
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