Oscar Paniagua called himself El Mensajero de la Verdad, "The Messenger of Truth," and claimed he could place people's prayers directly in the lap of the Lord. Today, that could be a short trip for him.
Paniagua, who left behind a slew of victims when he fled Denver almost two years ago, was murdered in California last February, shot to death by a reputed drug dealer. His death, according to Denver District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough, was "slow and painful." And that may be the closest to justice that Paniagua's victims ever get.
A charismatic, Venezuela-born "faith healer," Paniagua first appeared in Denver in 1999. He rented an office in a high-rise, bought air time on the Spanish-language Univision television station, and started what would become a lucrative, cash-rich business offering a combination of common-sense counseling and black-magic hokum. He attracted people who were desperate for miracles: women who wanted their husbands to refrain from straying; a mother who wanted her alcoholic son to stop drinking; a woman who wanted to be told that her daughter would live, despite dire predictions from doctors.
Paniagua promised them all that he could help -- for a fee. Paniagua's customers would later tell police that they'd willingly handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars in return for little more than parlor tricks and promises. Paniagua admonished his clients never to speak of what happened in his office. If they did, he said, bad things could happen.
Paniagua might never have come to the attention of the Denver DA's office if not for his inability to keep his hands off his female clients ("The Truth Hurts," August 31, 2000).
In March 2000, a 22-year-old woman contacted Denver police, claiming that Paniagua had assaulted her. She told detectives she'd hoped the faith healer could help her resolve some marital problems. Instead, Paniagua had stroked her derriere and her legs, asked her to hug him so he could feel her husband's "spiritual current," and then said that the only way she could fix her problem was to have sex with someone other than her husband. Paniagua volunteered to perform that service for her.
Because detectives believed Paniagua may have acted inappropriately with other clients, they set up a bilingual hotline and aired public-service announcements on Spanish radio and television programs. Three more women came forward with claims that they'd been sexually assaulted. The most serious accusation involved a then-seventeen-year-old girl who said Paniagua had raped her on his desk while her mother waited in an outer office.
Police arrested Paniagua on April 19, 2000. Initially, he was held on $2 million bail, but Denver prosecutors did not object when Paniagua's attorney later asked that bail be reduced to $40,000. That's because the DA's office had been told that Paniagua had turned his passport over to authorities because the Immigration and Naturalization Service had placed a "hold order" on him, so he wouldn't be going anywhere.
But when police went looking for Paniagua to issue warrants for his arrest on additional theft charges in late July 2000, he was nowhere to be found. The INS information had been incorrect, prosecutors learned.
Deputy DA Geanne Moroye, prosecutor for the sex-assault cases, didn't hear another word about Paniagua until this spring, when a Denver police officer told her that he was dead. "I said, 'Don't joke,'" she recalls. It was no joke, the officer assured her: Police in California had contacted the Denver fugitive unit to report that Paniagua had been murdered in Visalia.
An agricultural town of about 100,000 at the southern end of California's San Joaquin Valley, Visalia sees seven or eight murders in an average year, according to Steve Puder, supervising sergeant for the Visalia Police Department's violent crimes unit. But 2002 is above average. "I think we've had about seven, so far," Puder says.
One of the first was the murder of a man known initially to police as Miguel Cardenas. On the night of February 28, several men forced their way into Cardenas's home in an upper-middle-class subdivision. The intruders, all of whom were wearing ski masks, rounded up the occupants -- including Cardenas, his eight-year-old daughter and two of his friends -- and placed duct tape over their mouths. "They asked Cardenas, 'Where's the money? Where's the money?'" Puder says. "They shot Cardenas in the leg. He was able to break free and run out the back door."
As he ran, one of the gunmen shot him in the stomach. Still, Cardenas was able to scramble over a fence into a neighbor's yard. The neighbor called police.
The hospitalized Cardenas told Visalia officers that one of the masked men had lifted up his ski mask. He identified the man as Federico Velasco, 35, of Kennewick, Washington. Cardenas had recently moved to Visalia from Kennewick; he said he'd known Velasco in Washington.
"Cardenas told us he'd borrowed some money from Velasco to open up a recording studio," Puder says. "His house in Visalia did have a recording studio in it. He also said Velasco may have believed he was having an affair with his wife, but Cardenas said he wasn't."
For a victim, Cardenas wasn't very cooperative, and he refused to allow police to search his home for fingerprints. That left police with just one lead: Velasco. Visalia detectives learned he was a "heavy drug dealer," although his connection to Cardenas was unclear. They obtained a no-bail arrest warrant for Velasco, "but our best information is that he fled to Mexico," Puder says. The other suspects still have not been identified.
As detectives worked to solve the case, Cardenas's condition worsened. On March 7, a week after the shooting, he died of complications from his wounds.
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With Cardenas dead, his ex-wife came to claim their daughter. She told police her former husband's real name was Oscar Paniagua. A search of his home turned up documentation confirming that identity. Visalia police then contacted Colorado authorities, who insisted on obtaining a positive fingerprint identification before going about the business of notifying Paniagua's Denver victims.
It fell to Moroye to find the women in the sex-assault cases.
"Some of them lost contact with us," Moroye says. "We tried to contact them and sent out letters. The people we were able to get ahold of, I think they were relieved. There was no great emotion. My feeling is a lot of these women have already gone through the process of starting to put it behind them.
"But I was relieved to know he wouldn't be doing this to anyone ever again."