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2 Gypsy clans' feud over fortunetelling offers rare glimpse into insular culture

Published: Friday, Dec. 7 2007 12:50 a.m. MST

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — A dispute between two Gypsy clans over control of the fortunetelling trade in this Southern California city has spilled into court, offering a rare glimpse of an insular culture that has long settled scores according to its own Old World rules of honor.

The turf war in well-to-do Orange County has unfolded like a gangster movie, with allegations of death threats, a graveside scuffle, and nicknames like "White Bob" and "Black Bob" — details revealed in a police report and requests for restraining orders.

"The older Gypsies are pulling out their hair, not wanting the courts in our business because they'll find out too much about us," said Tom Merino, who is distantly related to one of the clans but has spurned his heritage. "Ignorance is the Gypsies' weapon against the outside world."

The Stevens and Merino clans, like other Gypsy families, have run numerous fortunetelling businesses in Southern California for decades.

The trouble started two years ago when Edward Merino and his wife, Sonia, opened fortunetelling parlors in two trendy resort sections of Newport Beach, not far from where the Stevenses did business.

Members of the Stevens clan promptly broke in, stole a credit card machine and threatened to kill the Merinos if they didn't shut the places down, the Merinos charge in court papers. Since then, the bad blood has only gotten worse.

The Stevenses "are very territorial," Merino attorney Tom Quinn said. "This is crazy stuff."

At the root of the conflict lies a delicate system of intermarriage and social customs that has defused tensions among Gypsy clans for generations, said Anne Sutherland, a University of California, Riverside anthropologist who has studied Gypsies.

Gypsies trace their origins to India more than 1,000 years ago. They migrated to Europe in the 1300s. For centuries, Gypsies were enslaved and persecuted in Europe, where they were scorned as nomadic thieves and con artists skilled primarily at palm reading.

Gypsies — also known as Romany — began arriving in the United States from Romania toward the end of the 19th century. Experts believe there are now about 1 million in America, one-fifth of them in California, where they dominate the fortunetelling and psychic shops in funky beach communities and other neighborhoods.

The Stevens and Merino clans adopted an Old World custom of uniting families through marriage to cope with intense competition, much as European nobility once did to avert war. A Merino married the Stevens patriarch, George Stevens.

But the family bond did not prevent tensions from flaring when, the Merinos say, the Stevenses demanded they pay $500,000 up front and $5,000 a week to open their fortunetelling businesses in the Stevenses' back yard. The Merinos refused to pay and went ahead and opened their parlors. The alleged break-in soon followed.

Gypsies have traditionally resolved disputes in front of a secret council of elders that can impose fines, make territorial decisions or order someone shunned. They don't like to involve non-Gypsies, who are considered impure.

The Merinos, though, went to court after the alleged break-in and obtained a restraining order in 2006 requiring George Stevens to stay a safe distance away.

That the dispute wound up in court reflects an erosion of tradition among the Gypsies, said Ian Hancock, an expert on Gypsy language and culture at the University of Texas.

"It used to be that the Romany world was absolutely insulated from the outside world," said Hancock, a Gypsy himself. "But it's very hard to resist the pressures of MTV, and people are beginning to see alternatives."

He cited cases in which Gypsy women in Houston hired lawyers to get their ex-husbands to pay child support — something previously unheard of.

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