The Truth Hurts
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.
Paniagua told Manuel that he was "very, very sick and that there was no time to waste," according to police reports. Manuel was surprised by the diagnosis because he didn't feel sick, but he believed Paniagua anyway. Paniagua told Manuel that he could help, that he would hold thirty prayer masses to cure him. But that, of course, would take lots of money. Did Manuel have any money?
Manuel had several thousand dollars saved at home, he told Paniagua. And so great was the immediate need that Paniagua reportedly left clients waiting in the office while he accompanied Manuel to his home in Federal Heights to retrieve the cash.
Manuel gave Paniagua $6,000, money that Rose says they were saving to buy a house. "Manuel said, 'Here's the money; I don't want to die,'" she remembers. "He said he never had $6,000 before, and he goes over there and it's gone."
Rose doesn't stop at accusing Paniagua of taking money. She also blames him for the breakup of her fifteen-year-old marriage.
"Oscar told my old man I was the awfullest woman who ever walked the earth," Rose says. "He said for him to leave me immediately, that same night. He told Manuel I was a witch, I was a snake."
Hearing of Paniagua's comments made Rose furious and left her feeling betrayed. "When I went to see Paniagua, he told me I was a good woman," she says. "Then he told my husband I was worse than a bitch."
So Rose went back to Paniagua's office, this time accompanied by Manuel. "I wanted to confront Oscar about why he was such a hypocrite," Rose says. "He just stammered and yelled at Manuel, 'I told you not to tell anything!'"
Rose asked for her money. "He said he couldn't give it back," she remembers. "No explanation."
Not long after, Rose and her husband split up. "We're separated now because my husband can't get over that I'm a 'bitch'," she says. "Just on account of Oscar. He devastated a lot of people."
Oscar Paniagua appeared on the Denver scene just a year or so ago. According to court documents, Paniagua, who is now 34, attended two years of college in his native Venezuela before moving to the States in 1991. He settled in New Jersey, where he married an American citizen, bought a condo, had a child, sent money back to his family in Venezuela.
What drew Paniagua here last year isn't clear, although documents indicate that his marriage had ended and the courts had granted him sole custody of his daughter, six-year-old Mileidy.
On August 23, 1999, Paniagua signed a two-year, $987.50-per-month lease for a 790-square-foot office on the fifth floor of a high-rise at 655 Broadway. The building suited Paniagua's needs in at least two ways: It houses offices for an accounting firm, an attorney and a bank, among others, providing a professional atmosphere in keeping with the commercials Paniagua soon would be airing; and it was not far from Paniagua's home address, which he listed as an apartment in the sprawling Parkway Center complex on Speer Boulevard.
Paniagua set up a reception area and decorated his inner office with photos of himself in various poses --one of which showed him in a dark suit, staring off into the distance and holding a book that looks like a Bible. And he had a nameplate put on the door: Oscar El Mensajero De La Verdad. (The first-floor directory listed him simply as "Oscar El Mensajero.")
Although the building manager would not discuss Paniagua's tenancy, it is doubtful that he knew about Paniagua's line of work: Fortune-telling businesses are not permitted in Denver. (There, however, the line between licit and illicit behavior was indistinct. Paniagua never called himself a fortune-teller, Lauricella says, although he "set himself up as someone who foresees the future, as a person who can see things. In addition, city ordinances do allow clairvoyants to accept money if it is applicable to bona fide religious worship.") Denver city council staffers are in the midst of drafting a bill that, if passed, would repeal a decades-long ban on fortune-telling. A similar bill was killed last year in the face of police opposition.
Paniagua next showed up at the Univision station, where he bought time to air the commercials he'd already made elsewhere. Sam Fuller, sales manager for the station, says he no longer recalls how many commercials Paniagua had or how often they ran; the DPD's Lauricella estimates that Paniagua had a half-dozen different commercials that ran three to four times a week.
The ads, all in Spanish, followed a similar script. "He'd be on the phone talking to someone," says Denver police detective Cleo Wilson. Paniagua would discuss an ailment with the caller, and then Paniagua would say he could help. "He didn't say he was a doctor," Wilson notes, "but he said he could help them. Perhaps they had an evil spirit of sorts, that type of thing could be bothering them, and to come on down. On another one, a caller was having problems with her boyfriend, and he said perhaps I can help you with that. Give you some kind of spiritual advice.
"He's very charismatic," Wilson adds, "Even when we had him here. He has the ability to make people feel like he cares and that he's sincere. He was understanding, made you think he could leap tall buildings in a single bound."
But as far as the Denver police have been able to determine, Paniagua has no degree in counseling or psychology, and certainly no license. "We couldn't find any evidence of professional training or accreditation in his office or in any of the common ways you could check in a background investigation," Lauricella says. "If he does have a license, it certainly wasn't displayed, as required."
(Paniagua could be considered an unlicensed psychotherapist, says Amos Martinez of the state's grievance board for mental-health practitioners. But in Paniagua's case, the board has not acted because "we can't find any victims who want to tell us what he's done. We can't initiate an investigation without a victim coming forward," he says.)
Police suspect that what advice Paniagua did give may have been gleaned from newspapers and magazines. "When we conducted a search of his office, we found clippings from newspapers, articles that say, 'Do this and it will make you happy,' articles on how to give advice," Lauricella says.
Lauricella also suspects that Paniagua may have had a little help in the divining department. Some clients told officers they think an employee might have eavesdropped on their conversations as they waited to be admitted into Paniagua's inner office.
"He stays in his office, but [in the reception area], there's a cubicle with a copier in it, and they think someone may have sat back there, listened to the patients and relayed information," Lauricella says. "We think he takes bits and pieces of information and knows enough about the person that they think he has some insight into their life. We have not yet found the person who listened. It's not been verified yet. But they did say they felt something was fishy when they were there."
If there's a common denominator in all of the complaints made to the police, it is that Paniagua always warned his clients not to speak of what went on in his office.
"He conducted himself in such a way that I think frightened these people and intimidated them," Lauricella says. "He always had an admonishment that bad things could happen if they did not listen to him."
Paniagua was in business for only a short time before coming to the attention of the Denver Police Department. In August 1999, says Lauricella, a woman told police that Paniagua had asked her to disrobe as part of her therapy. Prosecutors declined to accept the case because they felt it did not rise to the necessary level of proof for a conviction. (Lauricella says the DA's office recently accepted the case based on "pattern of conduct.")
Then, in September, Blanca Hernandez went to Paniagua seeking help for marital problems. While she was at his office, according to court records, Paniagua asked Hernandez if her bones hurt. Why, yes, they did, Hernandez said.
Paniagua told her that the reason her bones hurt was because someone had asked a witch to put a spell on her and her husband. That also was the reason her marriage was deteriorating, he explained. Paniagua told her not to worry, because he could help her with a prayer mass, for which she paid $200.
Other cases involving unsatisfied clients did lead to charges being filed:
* A husband and wife who sought help for their son, an alcoholic whose drinking problem is so severe that they sometimes fear for their lives. Paniagua reportedly said it would cost $20,000 to cure their son, but after they told him that amount was way beyond their means and they continued to beg for help, Paniagua lowered his asking price to $700. The son was never cured.
* A Denver man who had been out of work several weeks and was having trouble with his immigration papers. He told police he gave Paniagua $1,170 and that Paniagua said he would pray for him and assured him he was going to get "a big job."
* A Denver man who went to see Paniagua because he'd been feeling ill and had a sharp pain under his ribs. Paniagua allegedly told the man that his ex-girlfriend probably had a voodoo doll that she stuck with a knife to cause his pain. If the man didn't do something about it, Paniagua warned, he would be dead in six months. The client paid a total of $1,039 to have the spell removed.
For the most part, Paniagua's unhappy clients paid him in cash. Clara Salgado is one of the few to leave a paper trail.
Clara and her husband, Silvestre, made an appointment to see Paniagua in early April. Clara had seen Paniagua's ads while watching her favorite Spanish-language soaps. "According to his commercials," she says, "he was supposed to be a very good person, helping with all kinds of things. The way he would talk -- in Spanish, you know -- my goodness, he sounded like an honest person. I think I saw his commercial almost every day on that Spanish channel. Like fools, we went to him."
Clara and her husband were concerned about Silvestre's nephew, who'd left his wife and five children to run away with another woman. Paniagua asked the couple to bring a picture of the nephew and his wife when they came for their appointment.
After they were ushered into his office, Paniagua tore a piece of tin foil from a roll and placed it on top of his desk. "He had me put one of my hands and my husband's hand on the foil, and he wet the top of my hand with water," Clara remembers. When she lifted her hand from the foil, she discovered that her palm print was clearly visible, standing out black against the silver. She was more concerned, however, about a burning sensation on the back of her hand.
"I felt a burn," she says. "It really burned. I said, 'Why does it burn?' And he said it burns because you're the leader of the family, the one that everybody asks for help. Everybody asks you for advice.
"I said, 'That's kind of strange. Why would people want to ask me for advice? I'm not that smart.'"
But Clara was smart enough to want to pay by check, just as she does all of her business.
"He said that our case would cost about $3,000," Clara recalls. "I said, 'I don't know...' and he said, 'But I'll only charge you $300. What more can you give me besides the $300?'
"It's a good thing I only said another $100," Clara says now. "When I started writing the check, he said to make it out to Johnny Rodriguez. I said, 'Why?' He said, 'That's the way it is,' or something like that."
Paniagua told Clara and her husband that the "other woman" had put a spell on Silvestre's nephew, making him unable to leave. He promised to remove that spell and said they'd see a difference in a few days. He asked them to return in eight weeks.
Just before they left the office, Clara remembers, Paniagua "called or he rang to other people, his other help, and said, 'Come in here right away. We have some work to do; we have to start this right away.'" At the time, she believed Paniagua and his aides were going to immediately start a prayer session for Silvestre's nephew. Now, however, she believes there's another explanation.
"What he did was they went straight to the bank and cashed the check right away," Clara says. "I called to the bank after I read in the paper [about Paniagua's arrest], and the bank said it was cashed the same day I wrote it." When Paniagua or one of his colleagues presented the check to Clara's bank, the teller asked for a driver's license number and a thumbprint, both of which are on the now-canceled check that Clara turned over to police.
Lupe Almanza is listed as a witness in the theft cases. She paid Paniagua $100, but she says she wasn't unhappy with her experience at his office.
"I brought it upon myself," she says. "He was a very nice guy, to tell the truth."
Lupe went to see Paniagua about seven months ago because she was worried about her daughter, who was ill at the time. "The hospital couldn't figure out what was wrong," Lupe says, "and there is so much cancer going around, and I didn't know...
"He could pray for you if you were sick. I saw his commercial and I said to myself, 'Tomorrow, when I get off work, I'm going to see him.' He didn't charge me a lot of money. He said he would pray for her and she would be well soon. He said she had kidney stones."
Lupe believed Paniagua because he was able to tell her other things about her family. "He said, 'You don't get along with your sister,' which is true," she says. "He said, 'You've had a lot of operations.' I've had four."
Sometime after Lupe's visit to Paniagua, her daughter passed the kidney stones. She got well.
Lupe doesn't think Paniagua is guilty of theft or anything else he's been accused of. "I don't believe he did such things," she says. "He's very polite and talks to you very nice. Where would he rape a person? And he had beautiful secretaries working for him.
"Now, I could be mistaken. But I said to myself, why would he rape somebody? He had really nice-looking secretaries. I wish him good luck, because I don't believe it."
Like Lupe, Marisol Guzmán (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) is listed as a witness in the theft cases. Unlike Lupe, Marisol says she was devastated by her experience with Paniagua.
Marisol was fearful, despondent and pregnant when she went to see Paniagua. Doctors had told her that her as-yet-unborn child would be deformed and that chances for its long-term survival were minuscule.
She went to Paniagua seeking answers. Different answers.
Guzmán, a native of Mexico, related her story to police through a friend and neighbor who served as a translator.
At first, Marisol told her neighbor, Paniagua acted as though he were angry with her for being poor and pregnant. But for $800, Marisol got the answers she wanted; Paniagua reportedly told her the baby would be fine.
If that is what he said, it was a cruel lie. "In her heart, though, this man was right," says Marisol's neighbor. The infant, a girl, was born full-term but weighed just three pounds. There were problems with her lungs, and one of her hands and an ear were not fully formed. Therapists made house calls to help Marisol with the ill child.
But the baby -- whom Marisol named Lupe, after the virgin -- was "beautiful," says the neighbor. "She was so tiny. Maybe sixteen or seventeen inches. Her eyelashes were so long. I can't explain the beauty of this little one."
Her friends didn't believe that Marisol understood the severity of Lupe's problems, and when the baby was a little less than three months old, they took Marisol and Lupe to Children's Hospital in the hope that doctors there could make the situation more clear, "so they could give her peace of mind," the neighbor says.
"She needed help. She needed the true facts with this child. They gave the baby a physical right there and they took her medical history, and when they got done, they told Marisol the extent of it. They told her that some of these babies live five years, some weeks, some days. The doctors said for Marisol to enjoy her and hold her and love her."
And Marisol did.
Marisol never let go of her baby. "She would do dishes and hold her baby," her neighbor remembers. "She wanted to spend time with her baby. She said, 'I want her to be in my arms when she goes; I don't want her to be alone.'"
Lupe died on May 20. Marisol bathed her baby, dressed her in satin and pearls and laid her body on a white towel atop a coffee table.
Marisol did not go to police; they came to her. "The police found Paniagua's books in his office; they found a lot of names," her neighbor says. "She got a call, and an officer came over to the house.
"Marisol started to cry. She said she didn't want to go to court. But then she changed her mind. She said she wanted to stand in front of Paniagua and let him see her face and let him know that her baby was dead."
This spring, a 22-year-old woman told police she'd gone to see Oscar Paniagua on March 23, looking to resolve some marital issues.
"Paniagua said she had a problem with a girl and thought she had put a spell on her, and that's why she and her husband were having problems," says Lauricella. "He locked the door behind him and told her he needed to hug her, and that way it would help him. He said she had to hug him as if she was hugging her husband so he could feel her husband's spiritual current.
"He grabbed her butt, stroked her legs. He asked her if she had any pains, and she said she did, in her stomach. He rubbed her stomach and pushed on her stomach and pubic area as if conducting a medical exam. He told her the only way to cure her is if she had sex. He told her he could do it," Lauricella continues, "or she would have to have sex with somebody else. He said she could die from the hex, and that's why he tried to convince her to have sex with him. She was told repeatedly not to tell anyone what had happened."
But the woman did, and detectives opened an investigation. They asked Paniagua to come down to have his picture taken for a photo lineup. Paniagua complied. Investigators also obtained copies of Paniagua's commercials from Univision.
Once station managers learned of the investigation, Lauricella says, they pulled the commercials off the air and made public service announcements about the case, asking potential victims to contact police. "The television station was so concerned that they had us contact other Spanish-language radio and TV stations in Denver, and they provided a translation," he adds.
Denver police thought this might be the best and quickest way to reach potential victims, most of whom were Spanish-speaking women from Mexico and Central and South America. In general, Lauricella says of the victims, "they don't trust authority. They trust people like Oscar Paniagua."
Detective Wilson says she believes Hispanics were at particular risk because "they are brought up with folklore passed down from their parents."
Officers also set up a bilingual hotline that victims and tipsters could call to leave information. "We got several calls, and there were additional [sex-assault] charges," Lauricella says. "There were some [victims] that called that did not come down. We tried to set times up with them, and we had Spanish-speaking officers call them back. But not all of them wanted to follow through. In one case, I think the woman was married and probably didn't want her husband to know this had happened."
The police also received a number of calls from people saying they'd been bilked. "The DA agreed to take the cases and investigate them as possible theft," Lauricella says.
The most serious charge brought against Paniagua involves a seventeen-year-old girl who claims he raped her. According to court records, the girl and her mother went to Paniagua's office in late March. Paniagua told the two that the teenager had a bad spirit in her and that it would cost $5,000 for a cure.
The girl's mother went to the bank, withdrew the cash and returned to the office, according to the police report. Paniagua then took the seventeen-year-old into his inner office.
Once inside, the girl told police, Paniagua began kissing her and fondling her breasts and buttocks. Then he removed her clothes. She struggled and tried to escape, she says, but Paniagua laid her across his desk and held his hand over her mouth so she could not scream.
He then raped her, she told police, and told her not to tell anyone what had happened.
Police arrested Paniagua on April 19. He was held on $500,000 bond for each sex-assault charge -- $2 million in all, says Detective David Colaizzi.
"At the preliminary hearing, Paniagua's attorney argued about the bond," Colaizzi says. "There was a gentleman there -- the district attorney said he's kind of a prominent person in the Hispanic community -- I spoke with him briefly, and he vouched for Oscar, said he'd be responsible if he makes bond and that he would see that he doesn't leave the country and that he would not allow him to do counseling work."
The identity of the man who went to bat for Paniagua is unclear -- a prosecutor says she believes it was the president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but that group's president is a woman. Paniagua's attorney at the time, David Givens, confirms that a onetime Rockies baseball announcer appeared in court with Paniagua, but he says the man did not take the stand on Paniagua's behalf.
In arguing for a reduced bond, Givens told the court that his client had no prior felony charges before the sex-assault charges, nor "any reports of misbehavior in which he was performing the same kind of work." In addition, he said, Paniagua had given him his passport to turn over to the "proper authorities" until the cases were settled.
Even Denver prosecutors didn't fight the initial motion to reduce the bond to $40,000. "Apparently Paniagua had already returned for a court appearance, and there was no criminal history," says Lynn Kimbrough, a spokeswoman for the Denver DA's office. "We talked with the INS, and they assured us they had a hold on him. So at the time of the hearing in which lowering the bond was brought up, we did not object."
Unfortunately, the INS information proved incorrect; that agency did not have a hold order on Paniagua. If it had, he would automatically have been turned over to the INS and subject to deportation. Had the DA's office known there was no hold order, Kimbrough says, it might have fought the bond-reduction request.
Instead, Paniagua posted bond and was released from jail June 7.
On July 21, Paniagua's new attorney, Harvey Steinberg, filed a motion with the court requesting that Paniagua be allowed to leave the state. Judge Jeffrey Bayless okayed the request July 27.
The DA's office "did not have a chance to respond to that request," says Kimbrough. "We were not alerted to the defense motion. The first we heard of it was when we got a signed order from the judge."
Since late July, police have been unable to track down Paniagua to serve him with the papers on the theft charges. They've issued an "at-large" warrant for his arrest.
They might have a chance to serve those warrants on September 5, when Paniagua is scheduled for a hearing on the sex-assault charges.
"It's dirty of the law to let him go," says Rose Griego. "I bet if I'd went and slapped him, I'd be in jail for a year."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.