The Denver courts put too much faith in Oscar Paniagua.
The self-titled "Messenger of Truth" is officially a fugitive after failing to show up for a scheduled court appearance September 5 ("The Truth Hurts," August 31).
Denver police had predicted just such an outcome following court rulings that reduced Paniagua's $2 million bond to $40,000 and allowed the Venezuela-born faith healer to leave the state. Now Paniagua's fifteen alleged victims -- four of whom claim to have been sexually assaulted -- must depend on the efficiency of an Arvada bail bondsman to get their day in court. "The justice system often frustrates me," Denver police lieutenant Gary Lauricella says. "Sometimes it seems to me that the police are the only advocates for [the victims]."
Between August 1999 and April 2000, investigators estimate, Paniagua reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients seeking advice on marital, financial and health problems. They flocked to him after viewing his TV commercials, which aired several times a week on Denver's Channel 50, a Spanish-language station. But Paniagua was selling false hope, promising to perform miracles by praying for his clients and, police say, emptying their bank accounts. At least a dozen people claim they were swindled for a combined total of more than $13,000.
Paniagua first became the subject of a complaint in August 1999 when a woman told police that he'd asked her to disrobe during a session; nothing came of the allegation. But then last spring, a 22-year-old woman reported she'd been fondled by Paniagua. Investigators, believing there might be more victims, publicized the accusations and set up a bilingual hotline (most of Paniagua's clients are Spanish-speaking) for complaints. The most serious accusation came from a seventeen-year-old girl who claims he raped her. Paniagua was arrested on April 19 and held on $2 million bond, according to Detective David Colaizzi. But at the preliminary hearing, David Givens (who was then Paniagua's attorney) argued that the bond should be reduced, and a man who represented himself as "kind of a prominent person in the Hispanic community," vouched for Paniagua and said he'd be responsible for him and his actions, says Colaizzi.
Prosecutors did not object to the request, in part, says Denver District Attorney spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough, because they'd been told -- incorrectly, it turns out -- that the Immigration and Naturalization Service planned to detain Paniagua. Denver County Judge Doris Burd reduced the bond; Paniagua was released from jail on June 7.
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Six weeks later, Paniagua's new attorney, Harvey Steinberg, asked the court for permission to allow Paniagua to leave the state. Denver District Court Judge Jeffrey Bayless okayed the request on July 27.
Paniagua's next court hearing was scheduled for September 5. He didn't show up. Steinberg didn't appear, either; he sent an associate in his place who, Kimbrough says, didn't offer any explanation as to Paniagua's absence or his whereabouts. "A bench warrant was issued," she adds, "and right now we're trying to get a chance to talk to [Steinberg] about when his client will be coming back."
Lieutenant Lauricella, for one, doesn't believe Paniagua is ever coming back. "My assumption," he says, "is that he would have left the country."