Man who pretended to practice witchcraft charged with fraud

After convincing a 56-year-old Toronto woman he could lift her family’s curse for $14,000, a Spanish-language newspaper publisher has been charged with one of the rarest offences in the Canadian criminal code: pretending to practise witchcraft. On Tuesday, Toronto Police announced that Gustavo Valencia Gomez, 40, of Mississauga, had been charged under Section 365 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits pretending to “exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration.”

Mr. Gomez publishes el Negocia Redondo, a newspaper in which he advertised his services as a healer. The ads attracted the attention of a 56-year-old woman who suffered a range of ailments. “Using spells and rituals, the man convinced the woman that she and her family were cursed and that he could remove the curse for a sum of money,” police allege, adding that there may be other victims. He is also charged with fraud over $5,000, false pretences over $5,000 and possession of the proceeds of crime and is to appear in a Toronto court on Dec. 28.

Lodged between laws that prohibit document forgery and “dining and dashing,” Section 365 is a distant descendant of Medieval English laws that sentenced accused witches to burn at the stake. In 1735, long after most Britons had stopped believing in sorcery, King George II amended the law to combat potential fraudsters. More than a century later, Canadian legal framers saw fit to put it in the inaugural 1892 edition of the Criminal Code of Canada. Although Sec. 365 is often cited as the textbook example of an archaic law - particularly when other outdated sections such as anti-dueling laws were weeded out in 1987 - it is still dusted off every few years.

Aside from witchcraft, Section 365 also prohibits undertaking “for a consideration, to tell fortunes.” The measure technically outlaws Toronto’s many professional psychics, Tarot card readers and astrologers, but accused soothsayers can easily avoid a fraud conviction by testifying that they actually believe they can see into the future. “The offence is only committed if the practice is undertaken ‘fraudulently,’ which the law usually defines as involving the intentional and dishonest putting of another person’s interests at risk,” wrote Law Now magazine in a 2011 issue.