The Family Behind the Covid Bleach Cure Was Making a Fortune
The Family Behind the Covid Bleach Cure Was Making a Fortune
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Mark Grenon jolted awake in a sweat, his heart pounding. He’d been shaken by a nightmare that his family was about to be captured by armed forces who wanted to put him behind bars for life.
In a rare feat for a false prophet, Grenon’s vision essentially came true. At the break of dawn the next morning, July 8, 2020, as police helicopters circled overhead, a SWAT team appeared in armored vehicles and raided the headquarters of the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing in Bradenton, Fla., which doubled as the family home. Two of Grenon’s sons, Jordan and Jonathan, were arrested.
Grenon, the church’s self-styled archbishop, was also wanted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, along with another of his eight sons, Joseph, but they’d fled for Colombia weeks earlier. For more than a decade, the Grenons had enriched themselves by selling Miracle Mineral Solution, or MMS, a “sacramental” drink that promised to cure ills such as Alzheimer’s and cancer but that scientific consensus holds to be potentially lethal and have no medical value whatsoever. Thousands of people had bought it to bathe in, spray on, or ingest.
Inside a steel warehouse on the church’s property, a hazmat crew seized more than 50 gallons of hydrochloric acid and 8,300 pounds of sodium chlorite, which could be combined to make chlorine dioxide, the main ingredient in MMS. FDA investigators affixed stickers reading “1496” to the blue plastic barrels of sodium chlorite, indicating its classification as a chemical so corrosive it can burn a hole through the throat, perforate the stomach, and cause blindness. Chlorine dioxide commonly serves as an industrial bleaching agent, with applications that include stripping textiles of color and turning wood pulp into paper. When ingested, it can cause irreparable damage to the respiratory tract and other critical organs. In 2019 the FDA warned Americans against the use of MMS, noting that there had been more than 16,000 cases of chlorine dioxide poisoning in the U.S. in the previous five years, including 2,500 cases involving children under 12.
A month after the Florida raid, elite Colombian military operatives arrested Mark and Joseph in the port city of Santa Marta. Mark and his three captured sons were charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and criminal contempt, for marketing and selling MMS as well as for violating an earlier order to cease operations. A statement from Colombian law enforcement at the time of Mark’s and Joseph’s arrests said MMS had been linked to the deaths of seven people in the U.S.
Before the pandemic, the Grenons had earned about $30,000 a month selling MMS to buyers who were sometimes sick or dying, on the false premise that chlorine dioxide could eradicate 95% of known diseases. After the coronavirus outbreak, Mark claimed chlorine dioxide could cure Covid-19, and sales tripled almost overnight, further boosted when then-President Donald Trump speculated absurdly that injected disinfectants might kill the virus. According to bank records reviewed by the FDA, the family was on track to sell more than $1 million worth of MMS in 2020, until Mark and his sons were arrested as part of Operation Quack Hack, the agency’s mission to shut down profiteers pushing dubious medicines.
This account of the Grenons’ rise and fall is based on court documents and audio and video recordings reviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek, as well as on information provided by people familiar with the investigation who requested anonymity because they weren’t allowed to speak publicly. A spokesperson for the FDA declined to make its agents available for comment, citing the administration’s policy of not discussing open cases. The Grenons, who are representing themselves in United States of America v. Mark Scott Grenon, et al., didn’t respond to several attempts to contact them by email and in letters addressed to the jails where they’re being held.
If found guilty, the family members could face life imprisonment. In a podcast recorded the morning of his sons’ arrest in Florida, Grenon imagined an even graver fate. But he also relished the idea that the church’s international network of MMS distributors would carry on the family’s work. “If they kill us, we have so many people trained up all over the world right now in 145 countries,” he said. “That’s probably the best thing that could happen to us. This is not going to stop.”
In 1996, Jim Humble, an Alabama-born ex-Scientologist turned gold prospector who later claimed to be a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda galaxy, was on a mining expedition in Guyana when four members of his crew fell ill with malaria. According to a book he published a decade later, Humble purified their drinking water with the sodium chlorite in his toolkit, curing them instantly. Naming the pale yellow liquid “Miracle Mineral Solution,” he resolved to spread the word of his discovery. Humble set out for Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda, ultimately saying he’d worked with international Christian aid groups to treat 100,000 patients. That MMS was typically 28% sodium chlorite and tasted like rancid swimming pool water apparently proved no limitation.
Humble never admitted his remedy was toxic, though in a video he later circulated he described MMS use slowing in the African countries he’d visited after “a couple of missionaries decided I was evil.” He nonetheless inspired dozens of imitators around the world, including Javan Ommani, a Kenyan preacher and former member of Parliament who sold MMS through his ministry, which managed hundreds of churches, and Robert Baldwin, a pastor in New Jersey whose nonprofit Global Healing Christian Missions recruited 1,200 Ugandan clerics to sell MMS in return for prizes such as smartphones. (Four of Baldwin’s associates in Uganda were later arrested by local police and charged with conducting illegal trials of harmful substances. Baldwin has denied involvement.) Demand grew in tandem with a broader trend toward suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry. By 2009, MMS was gaining traction in some online communities, promoted by advocates such as actress Lindsay Wagner of Bionic Woman fame, who claimed it treated hives.
No one would spread the gospel of MMS quite so successfully as Grenon’s Genesis II Church. A born-again Christian raised in Massachusetts by Catholic parents who converted to Mormonism, Grenon had long sought to shepherd a flock of his own. Inspired by what he later described as a visitation from two angels in Harvard Square, he tried establishing a church outside Boston, at the back of an Italian social club complete with a bar, but it failed to attract a substantial following. He went on to work as a pilot flying Christian missionaries to and from the Dominican Republic, where he ultimately decided to settle down and build a ministry.
Grenon purchased 50 acres of farmland overlooking the Caribbean Sea near the port city of Barahona and began work on a walled compound that would include two houses, an apartment, a church, and a swimming pool. Facing some financial hardship when the Great Recession struck, he reluctantly put the half-completed estate up for sale for $350,000, but no one made an offer.
Around the same time, according to Grenon’s 2018 book, Imagine, a World Without Dis-Ease: Is It Possible?, his family fell ill with MRSA, a staph infection that’s particularly resistant to antibiotics. None of the medical treatments recommended by local doctors worked, he wrote. Browsing online for home remedies, he discovered Humble’s website and ordered a batch of Miracle Mineral Solution. He said it immediately reduced the family’s fevers and healed their sores. Grenon soon contacted Humble and invited him to the Dominican Republic. By 2010, Humble had moved into one of the ministry’s houses, and he and Grenon began envisioning a windfall.
The idea, Grenon once explained on a podcast, was to elevate Humble’s obscure online operation to the dominant international supplier of MMS, with an emphasis on the developing world, where lower health-care standards might lead people to more readily accept unproven cures. Knowing that such a business would test consumer protection laws in many markets, he and Humble agreed to form the operations under the guise of a church and promote MMS as a ceremonial drink, which they figured would insulate them in countries such as the U.S. that afford religious groups robust freedoms. “Look at the Catholics,” Humble later wrote in a newsletter to his followers. “Their priests have been molesting women and children for centuries, and the governments have not been able to stop it. If handled properly a church can protect us from vaccinations that we don’t want, from forced insurance, and from many things that a government might want to use to oppress us.”
On another podcast, Grenon was unequivocal: “Everything you do commercially is under the Universal Commercial Code, OK?” he said, referring to the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs most transactions in U.S. states. “A church is completely separate from that code, statutes, and laws. That’s why a priest can give a kid wine in church publicly and not get arrested. Because it’s a sacrament. You can’t arrest us for doing one of our sacraments.”
The Genesis II Church of Health and Healing was established and registered locally within weeks of Humble’s arrival in the Dominican Republic. He and Grenon anointed themselves archbishops and began manufacturing MMS, first producing it in kitchen sinks in the church’s walled compound, then in a ramshackle shed in the backyard of the Grenons’ home back in Florida, then in a tent, and ultimately in a custom-built steel warehouse. They marketed the solution on Genesis II’s website as “sacramental cleansing water,” mailing out 4-ounce bottles in return for $20 donations paid to the church.
At different points, Grenon claimed the formula could cure autism, depression, HIV, multiple sclerosis, and more. Instructions were tailored to the affliction: To eradicate kidney stones, ingest three drops every hour for eight hours a day over the course of three weeks. To urgently treat a heart attack, 2 tablespoons. To fight skin cancer, spray the entire bare body. Facebook posts from the early 2010s showed members of U.S. groups dedicated to promoting MMS uploading pictures of what appeared to be chemical burns on their or their children’s arms, legs, and torsos, asking whether they were a sign the sacrament was working.
Grenon and Humble, as well as Grenon’s bishop sons, Jordan, Jonathan, and Joseph, began hosting two-day seminars in hotel conference rooms in Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, the U.S., and other countries. Attendees paid $450 each, or $800 per couple, to be ordained as “health ministers,” trained in manufacturing MMS and approved to dispense it in their local communities. The seminars and the attendant sales boost helped the Grenons start netting at least $100,000 per year, according to bank statements provided by Wells Fargo & Co. to the FDA. (Wells Fargo cut all ties with the Grenons following their arrest.)
To convey their status as archbishops, Grenon and Humble would dress for the seminars in blinding-white starched shirts, trousers, ties, and fedoras adorned with a turquoise-colored stone. One of the PowerPoint slides they showed held that the body was a temple and that believers “need to maintain said temple in a clean manner as God, our Creator, demands”—an appeal to fundamentalist Christian belief. Another slide said that symptoms such as acute nausea and diarrhea were proof that MMS was purging the body of toxins.
By then there was evidence that using MMS could be fatal. In 2009, American retiree Doug Nash and his Mexican wife, Sylvia Fink, embarked on a circumnavigation of the globe aboard their sailboat, Windcastle. On their way to the Solomon Islands, they met a couple, a Belgian man and an American woman, who sold MMS to Fink as a prophylaxis against malaria. On an August morning, after a night of dancing with villagers on the remote island of Epi to celebrate an annual canoe race, Fink added 2 drops of MMS to 10 drops of lime juice and drank the mixture on the boat’s sundeck. Within 15 minutes, she’d started vomiting uncontrollably, continuing until she was throwing up only bile. She also suffered burning urinary pain. Nash radioed for medical assistance, but by sundown Fink had lapsed into a coma. By 9 p.m. she was dead.
The autopsy report noted a significantly high level of methemoglobin in the blood—a symptom of high exposure to chlorite—which would have effectively starved her body of oxygen. “It was a substance, used in the fashion that was being recommended, that was definitely acting like a poison would on your gut,” Nash says of the MMS. “Her body got so dehydrated that her organs started to fail.”
Now in his late 80s, Nash relocated aboard the Windcastle to Honolulu, where he’s writing a book about his wife’s death. He recalls Grenon mocking the incident in early podcasts and even suggesting Nash was somehow to blame. “He’s a crude, vile, dishonest person,” Nash says while discussing Grenon’s arrest. “I have no idea what the penalty should be for what he did, peddling an industrial chemical that’s very dangerous if you use it incorrectly. But he deserves to be punished.”
Fink’s death resonated enough in Oceania that when Grenon and Humble went to Australia and New Zealand to host a dozen seminars five years later, seeking to market MMS as a cure for Ebola, which was then spreading in West Africa, some legs of their tour were shut down by local governments. From 2009 to 2014, the Victorian Poisons Information Centre had attributed at least 10 poisonings in Australia, including four that required hospitalization, to MMS. In one particularly serious case from April 2009, a woman had been fined for injecting cancer sufferers with MMS in her garage, advising them not to seek chemotherapy and charging them as much as $2,000 per shot; one breast cancer patient had to be treated for a life-threatening blood clot afterward. While Grenon and Humble were in New Zealand, lawmakers were seeking to pass a bill that would help regulators ban products such as MMS, but it eventually stalled out.
Word of Genesis II’s practices reached the FDA in the early 2010s, according to a person familiar with the subsequent investigation. With MMS adoption rising thanks to Facebook groups and church affiliates, the agency contacted the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, which began working with the Dominican government to halt the distribution of bleaching products marketed for ingestion. A team of local police officers visited Barahona to apprehend Grenon and Humble, the person said, but they left, infuriated and divided on the reach of their authority, when the two men said, “We’re a church.”
In 2015 police forces in the U.K. raided a home outside London where Grenon was meeting with a chapter founded by a couple who manufactured MMS at a Bulgarian ski resort hotel they owned. That year the U.S. government also sentenced Louis Daniel Smith, a Genesis II Church member in Washington state, to almost five years in prison for selling MMS through a business called Project GreenLife, which had masqueraded as a wastewater treatment company to obtain the ingredients necessary to produce chlorine dioxide without the FDA’s notice. According to court records, Smith had emailed his father outlining the economics of selling MMS and associated products, noting that “100,000 bottles at $15 and 100,000 books at $15 is $3 MILLION dollars. Double that and we’re the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MEN.”
Sometime around 2015, Humble and Grenon fell out over what Humble has cast as Grenon hoarding his share of the profits. Humble left Genesis II to build a new life in rural Mexico. In 2016, after being tracked down in Guadalajara by an ABC News team, he became an apostate, writing in a blog post, “Today I declare, MMS cures nothing!” (Humble didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment.)
MMS kept spreading, largely away from the public eye despite the 16,000 chlorine dioxide poisonings taking place in the U.S. from 2014 to 2019. The exact percentage that can be traced directly to MMS is unknown, though in one notable instance from 2017, an autistic 6-year-old girl was hospitalized with liver failure after her parents gave it to her. Genesis II held that, over time, it trained 2,000 ministers globally and sold millions of vials of MMS to members and to online buyers transacting through Amazon.com and EBay. Church-branded MMS hasn’t been listed on those websites since the Grenons’ arrest, but several imitations with names such as “Jim Humble’s Formula” are still available for purchase. (Amazon and EBay said in separate statements that they have procedures and tools in place to monitor and remove listings that don’t comply with laws and regulations. Each company took down a listing for a chlorine-dioxide-based product included in Businessweek’s request for comment.)
In July 2019, Jose Rivera joined the FDA as a special agent after investigating cybercrime and money laundering for the U.S. Secret Service earlier in his career. He was assigned to the Grenon case. According to an affidavit, he visited Genesis II’s website that October and, using an assumed name, ordered a “G2 Sacramental Kit” and had it delivered to an FDA-controlled address. When the kit arrived, a note printed on the bottle of MMS capsules read, “As water needs to be cleansed for health, so must the water of the body, the blood and its tissues be cleansed to maintain health—Archbishop Mark Grenon.”
Rivera sent a message to an email address printed on a pamphlet included with the shipment, asking how often his wife should drink MMS to cure her bladder cancer. Jordan Grenon replied, suggesting two drops per hour. In January 2020, Rivera began staking out the Bradenton address listed on the return label—the family compound. Public records showed that the property, which was adorned with the church’s logo, a globe overlaid with a golden garland reading Genesis II, belonged to Jonathan Grenon.
When the pandemic reached U.S. shores two months later, a flood of civilian complaints about rising sales of unapproved Covid cures and test kits prompted the FDA to introduce Operation Quack Hack, which targeted 700 groups suspected of fraud. With the church’s monthly sales climbing above $100,000 after Mark Grenon claimed in an early March newsletter that MMS could stop the disease, Rivera purchased a second shipment and had it sent to an FDA-controlled address in Atlanta. He reported to his superiors that the instructions advised Covid sufferers to ingest “one 6-drop dose of MMS, then one hour later take another 6-drop dose of MMS. After two 6-drop doses of MMS, go on hourly doses of 3 activated drops in 4 ounces of water hourly. For children, follow the same instructions as above and cut the amounts in half.”
The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission sent a letter to the Grenons on April 8, warning them that their MMS sales violated federal law. The following week a federal court in Florida entered an injunction to halt distribution, vowing to “zealously pursue perpetrators of fraud schemes seeking to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.” But officials couldn’t have anticipated the endorsement these bleach-based remedies were about to receive.
“I see disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute,” Trump said during an April 23 briefing at the White House. “Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that.”
It remains unclear how Trump arrived at the conclusion that injecting disinfectant could offer any medical benefit. Testimonials for bleach-based cures were, to be sure, circulating online among QAnon conspiracy theorists and in vaccine-skeptic circles. But it’s conceivable that Genesis II played a role; certainly, its archbishop took credit. Less than a week before Trump spoke, Grenon had said on his weekly webcast that he’d written to the president about his legal problems, describing MMS as “a wonderful detox that can kill 99% of the pathogens in the body” and “rid the body of Covid-19.” After Trump’s endorsement Grenon claimed, without evidence, that the president had received bleach from more than two dozen church supporters and that Genesis II had a channel to him through a Trump family member.
On a podcast that same month, Grenon declared that he had no intention of complying with the government’s efforts to shut him down. He also offered a warning, invoking the constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms. “You’ve got the Second, right?” he said. “When Congress does immoral things, passes immoral laws, that’s when you pick up guns, right? You want a Waco? Do they want a Waco?” he said, referring to the 1993 U.S. government siege of a Texas religious sect’s headquarters that left 86 people dead.
In May, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams issued a restraining order prohibiting Genesis II from labeling, holding, or distributing any misbranded drug, including MMS. Grenon responded by emailing the judge and U.S. district attorney’s office, saying “you have NO authority over our Church.” In another podcast, recorded shortly before he and Joseph fled for Colombia, he warned, “You could be taken out, Ms. Williams.”
Genesis II did remove the main MMS product page from its online shop, leaving only a broken link that stated the church was temporarily “in prayer.” But according to court documents, the Grenons continued to sell MMS by email and phone, including to additional undercover FDA investigators. The family kept selling right up to the raid in July, which the agency and the county sheriff’s office concluded was urgently needed based on the Grenons’ violent rhetoric, according to a person familiar with the operation. After the arrests of two of his sons, Mark called the FDA “irrelevant” on a podcast, saying he trusted Trump would throw the case out of court. He added that the Department of Justice would regret its role in bringing the case and that, if a trial resulted, the judge and the prosecutors would themselves end up in jail and the FDA would be dismantled.
With Mark and Joseph still awaiting extradition from Colombia, Jonathan and Jordan were arraigned on April 26. They pleaded not guilty. Speaking via Zoom from a gray room near their cells at Pinellas County Jail in Florida, Jonathan began reading a four-page statement laid on top of a leather-bound Bible, opening with a declaration that he was “a son of God.” The judge asked him to stop, and when he carried on, she ordered that his feed be muted.
Jordan introduced himself as “Jordan Paul of the Grenon family, hereby his special divine appearance.” Asked by the judge whether he understood that he had a right to appear in person for the proceedings rather than conduct them by video, he replied, “I only understand God almighty.” He claimed not to have read the 19-page indictment in front of him. As the judge read it aloud, Jordan repeated several times that he was not “the vessel” whose name appeared in all capital letters in the indictment, but only an “executor of the vessel.”
Mark and Joseph will be tried back in the U.S. alongside Jonathan and Jordan in the coming months. If convicted, all four men face up to life in prison. It would be the most severe legal punishment to date for anyone accused of poisoning victims with chlorine dioxide for personal gain.
Yet Grenon’s prophecy that MMS will endure could still prove prescient. The church has recently gained a significant following in some South American countries, according to local reports. Hundreds of buyers have been lining up outside makeshift MMS distribution centers in poor rural communities as the pace of Covid vaccination falls behind that of major cities. The Bolivian health ministry reported 10 chlorine dioxide poisonings stemming from MMS last year, and this February, Argentina opened a criminal investigation targeting a local Genesis II leader following the deaths of a 50-year-old man and a 5-year-old boy who’d consumed the bleaching agent.
The official website of the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing is still online, having migrated to Chilean servers after a U.S. shutdown. Active chapters are listed for Argentina, Australia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ghana, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the U.K., the U.S., and Uruguay. Grenon-trained bishops are standing by to administer the sacrament, in return for a $20 donation.
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