By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Oscar Paniagua is charming, articulate and personable, an immaculate dresser, the consummate salesman.
Even the police say so.
And over the past year, investigators estimate, the Venezuela-born Paniagua used that charisma to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients who came seeking advice on marital, financial and health problems, offering up the most intimate details of their troubled lives.
Paniagua drew these people to him through the power of cable, his polished manners and silken delivery seducing them from the small screen. "He hypnotized the people over the TV," is the way one woman puts it. "He must put people under a trance."
Come see me, Paniagua said in his ads, which aired several times a week on Denver's Channel 50 (Univision), a Spanish-language station. Perhaps I can help you, for I am El Mensajero de la Verdad -- the Messenger of Truth.
What Paniagua was selling, police say, was not the truth, but false hope -- and what some people received in return for their money was little more than parlor tricks and promises.
"He came across as part medical doctor, part psychiatrist," says Denver police lieutenant Gary Lauricella. "But he's nothing more than a fraud."
Some of Paniagua's former clients make even more damaging accusations. One woman claims Paniagua raped her; three others say they were fondled by the self-professed "messenger." And at least a dozen people have come forward claiming they were swindled by him.
One woman sought out Paniagua, desperate to hear that the doctors were wrong, that her baby would not die. Paniagua told her the baby would be fine, she says. Her infant died.
One man went to Paniagua's office looking for "good news." Instead, the victim informed police, Paniagua told him he was "dying" and that the only way he could save himself was to give Paniagua all of his money.
As these people and others await their day in court, Paniagua is out of state and out of reach. He bonded out of jail after his initial bail of $2 million was reduced to $40,000 -- in part, prosecutors say, because of misinformation from the Immigration and Naturalization Service regarding his status.
His victims hope Paniagua will come back for trial. But then, they hoped that he would help them, too.
Rose Griego was captivated by Paniagua's tiny, televised image.
"I thought he was great from the story on TV," says 66-year-old Rose. "The commercials -- he had a little drama play. He sat there, and people would call. I think his friends would call him. You never heard the other person's voice. He put on all these stories, and he would say, 'Oh, yeah, he's doing this and that.' It seemed like he could see stuff from one end of the world to another."
So Rose went to see Paniagua in early December. She wanted help for her son, who has a serious drinking problem. "His office was full," she recalls. She waited in an outer room before being summoned into Paniagua's inner sanctum.
"He used this powder, like gunpowder or incense, that lights up when it hits the air," Rose says. "He put a cross on my hand with it, and it burned my palm. It didn't leave a mark, but hours and hours after, it still burned. He said I was bewitched. He said he could communicate with the dead."
Rose told Paniagua that she wasn't looking for help for herself, but that she was worried about her son and wanted him "fixed."
Paniagua said he could help her son, Rose later told police, but that it would take time and cash: $3,000. When she told him she didn't have access to that kind of money, Paniagua said he'd settle for $1,700.
"About a week after that, I gave him all of my money," Rose remembers. "Paniagua said don't tell anyone, and if I did, my son wouldn't get well. He puts you on the spot."
Griego didn't tell her son about her visit to Paniagua then, "and I don't want him to find out," she says, because "he's a born-again backslid Christian, and he doesn't want to know about things like witchcraft."
But she did tell her daughter about Paniagua.
According to police reports, Griego's daughter Shirley (who declined to be interviewed for this story) went to see Paniagua in late January, seeking help for financial and marital problems. Paniagua promised to assist her, Shirley told police, but said he'd need $200 and some jewelry.
When Shirley told him she didn't have any jewelry, Paniagua was willing to negotiate. Okay, he said, give me $300 and bring me a photo of your husband.
Shirley returned to his office three days later carrying the cash and the picture, and Paniagua told her she would start getting along better with her husband and also start getting money. He didn't say how. But she believes in spiritual healing, Shirley told police, and she assumed that Paniagua was going to accomplish what she wanted by "magic."
Then in February, a third member of Rose Griego's family -- Manuel, her common-law husband -- sought out Paniagua.
Manuel later told his wife that he went to see the faith healer because "he wanted to hear something nice." What he heard, though, was exactly the opposite.