When Bruce Wilmot decided to go on “Jilly Juice” last summer, he’d just learned that his pancreatic cancer was back, and it was bad. He’d been through the hell of chemo before, and the last thing he wanted was more treatment.
“My dad was really desperate,” Taylor Wilmot, his daughter, told BuzzFeed News. “He was very sad, and he didn’t want to die.”
Then 55 and living alone in Columbus, Georgia, he stumbled across the Facebook group of Jillian Mai Thi Epperly, a woman from Canton, Ohio, whose tens of thousands of followers swore by her bizarre, dangerous, and entirely made-up science theory: that all diseases — including cancer — are caused by a fungus called candida that lives in the gut.
As Epperly claimed on the group — called Exposing the Lies Candida: Weaponized Fungus Mainstreaming Mutancy — candida attracts parasites, and the only way to health is a severely restricted diet accompanied by large quantities of her signature fermented cabbage juice. Her potion was a purgative, and she said that “healing symptoms” included nausea, headaches, dizziness, and explosive blasts of diarrhea. These “waterfalls” supposedly brought out the parasites, which were visible in the toilet bowl.
For Wilmot, things moved swiftly downhill after his diagnosis. The doctor had given him a few weeks, maybe a few months, according to his rabbi, Brian Hawkins, who told BuzzFeed News he was with Wilmot when he was diagnosed. But within just days, Wilmot found it hard to get around, and a hospice facility sent a bed to his duplex.
“I've been juicing like crazy, Cancer bad juice good,” he wrote in a Facebook post on June 13. “Ime [sic] brewing up some of Jillian Mai Thi's protocol and plan on switching completely over to her diet, ferment etc. as soon as that is ready.” Friends wrote comments of encouragement and said they were praying for him.
Epperly, whom Wilmot had tagged, also replied: “You are amazing If you need a short chat later let me know You will pull through.”
“I might take you up on that,” Wilmot said.
A few days later, friends visited his condo to help make a huge batch of the juice. They followed the recipe described in documents posted on Epperly’s Facebook group: Add a tablespoon of pink Himalayan salt to two cups of water and two cups of cabbage or kale. Puree in a blender, pour into a glass jar, cover, and leave at room temperature to ferment for three days. Drink a few cups nightly — up to a gallon a day.
Wilmot messaged his daughter a photo showing more than a dozen tall jars of the stuff. “Look at my cancer cure,” he wrote to her. “That stuff should work, hope your [sic] doing good today.”
He even bought a second fridge to store it, she said.
In a later video, Wilmot held up a jar of the purple brew, downed some, then addressed Epperly: “Jillian I promised you I’d be drinking a cup, so, first one down.”
Rabbi Hawkins, who had become Wilmot's religious guide and friend in those final months, remembered hearing about the cabbage juice. "If someone had bottled up rat poison and told him, ‘It will heal you,’ he would have drunk it,” Hawkins told BuzzFeed News. “That’s how desperate the man was.”
When Taylor came back to visit her father a few weeks later, she was shocked. “He was totally emaciated,” she said. “He was drinking so much of it, he was basically starving himself. It was all coming out as diarrhea.”
In mid-July, Wilmot's friends found him unconscious on the floor of his apartment, and he was moved to a hospice facility. On July 20, about a month after he was diagnosed and began the juice purge, he died.
Facebook is under scrutiny for its outsized role in spreading political misinformation. But it’s also a platform where pseudoscience, snake oil remedies, and medical falsehoods multiply unchecked. Those have received far less attention, despite carrying the potential for immediate physical harm.
There are countless fake science gurus with large Facebook followings. But Epperly’s is particularly striking, according to Tim Caulfield, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Alberta, because she’s not a celebrity. “She isn’t associated with some well-packaged brand, so it’s interesting that she’s able to accumulate this much interest.”
Epperly is also notable for the stark absurdity of her theory. She says her cabbage concoction will reverse all forms of illness, arrest aging, and even turn gay people straight. These claims are “absolutely dangerous nonsense,” David Seres, director of medical nutrition at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, told BuzzFeed News. “I am almost speechless.”
Epperly has no background in medicine or science. She delivers elements of her theory in rambling videos beamed live from her home. They have an unvarnished reality-TV quality to them: Epperly is often in a T-shirt, hair up, walking through the house as she talks. She is also a prolific Facebook commenter, each missive a stream-of-consciousness word salad. And for $70 an hour, she told BuzzFeed News, she will provide personal phone consultations, talking people through her theory and how to make the recipe.
When asked why she presents wild theories with no evidence to back them up, Epperly likened her efforts to a religious conversion. She doesn’t worry, she said, about people who don’t believe.
“We’re using a different context in my world, and the manifestations from the salt and the accessing of the nutrients is gonna give you a different context of what the symptoms are,” Epperly said. “So essentially what it is, is we’re trying to turn an atheist into a Christian.”
More than a dozen people told BuzzFeed News that they complained to Facebook about Epperly and her group, to no avail. The company has fairly lax rules for dealing with pseudoscientific groups. “We remove content, disable accounts, and work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety,” according to its community standards.
But Epperly’s group did not violate Facebook’s rules, a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, and so was not taken down. The company wants to encourage discussion among its users, the spokesperson added, and does not want to censor provocative ideas. Facebook refused to discuss Wilmot’s death with BuzzFeed News on the record.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, Facebook’s relaxed policy means that people making wild health claims — like Joseph Mercola, “Food Babe” Vani Hari, or the makers of the “FasciaBlaster” who injured women with a device that promised to zap cellulite — can thrive. But in Epperly’s case, something unusual happened: Some Facebook users decided to take matters into their own hands.
Motivated in part by Wilmot's death, about a dozen private satellite Facebook groups — the biggest has over 10,000 members — have emerged with the explicit purpose of taking her down. This countermovement has organized to contact journalists, law enforcement, and the Ohio Medical Board about Epperly’s dangerous ideas — and prompted a response from the Ohio Attorney General.
But whether their efforts will make any dent in Epperly’s business — or change Facebook’s stance on enabling fake science — is still very much an open question.
Epperly lays out her personal history in a 106-page book she self-published on Google Drive. She was born in Vietnam, arrived in the US before she turned 2, and was adopted by American parents.
Growing up in the Bay Area, her father worked in biotech, and she points to this as the source of her insider knowledge that the pharmaceutical industry is a scam. She is against vaccines, and presents an argument that’s common among anti-vaxxers: that Big Pharma is in cahoots with doctors to keep Americans sick and addicted to medication. “I realized that vaccines are just one way to inject pollution into a human body,” she wrote.
After bouncing around for college — Epperly told BuzzFeed News she did not graduate — she helped sell insurance. She developed premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. Because it kept her away from work once a month, she said, she had a hard time holding down a job.
She met her husband online, then moved to Ohio to live with him. In their first years together he worked as a trucker and she would travel cross-country with him, listening to radio pundits and conspiracy theorists, like InfoWars founder Alex Jones.
“I was exposed to the anti-vaxx community, the chemtrail community,” Epperly said. Looking for alternate ways to treat her PMDD, she said, “I tried every single detox, pill, powder, supplement, that I had access to, and joined millions of groups that were all promoting their wares.”
She also dabbled in fermentation, trying recipes for kombucha and for pickles. At some point, she decided to swap cucumbers for cabbage, and upped the spoons of salt in the brew. That was the genesis for her theory.
In parallel, Epperly said, she was researching various diseases online, and noticed that candida or other fungi were “always a factor.” Some alternative medicine websites claim (falsely) that yeast in the human gut can bloom and overwhelm the body if it is exposed to the wrong food or chemical. Epperly just amped up that idea, implicating the fungus as the ultimate cause of any and all illness.
Epperly made kale and cabbage versions of her Jilly Juice for the first time in October 2016. By January 2017, she was posting video demos on her personal Facebook page, attracting dozens of comments. She said that her fans convinced her to create a private Facebook group, which quickly grew over the next few months to include thousands of people.
Epperly said that the group was something of a laboratory: She’d watch how “the protocol” affected her followers, and based on their responses, she’d update her ideas. For example, a key aspect of her theory — that the fermented cabbage juice expels parasites that live in the digestive system — only came about after she saw people’s photos of their bowel movements.
“I wasn't aware of parasites in the beginning,” she told BuzzFeed News. “The group actually was a research tool, a database tool, to share what they were passing. And I’m like, Oh my god. That’s coming out of you in waterfalls?”
Many foods — sugars, legumes, grains, anything processed, and all meat except chicken — fed the parasites, she said. Constipation did too. Poop and its passing became a pillar of Epperly’s dictum.
“We are in a poop cult,” she joked in one video, and a post on her Facebook page. “You know why? Because we’re realizing that poop is one of the main things that is feeding the candida and the worms and the parasites.”
As her following grew, her theory stretched from the digestive system to sexual preferences. “Is our society ready to accept that gay lesbian and transgender is a mutation of the human body,” she wrote in one post.
When asked to elaborate on this, Epperly told BuzzFeed News by email: “I've had gay people say that their intention is to reverse her health issues but not change their sexual leanings and that is completely fine and they may find that in the process of reversing their health issues it may change their sexual desires so it's all a possibility.”
In July of last year, Brandi Burns from Boyd, Texas, was browsing a Facebook group where she and other moms discussed natural foods and therapies for their kids.
“Somebody shared a webpage, something about a cult,” Burns, a 27-year-old part-time model, told BuzzFeed News. Curious, Burns joined Epperly’s group.
She was amazed by what she saw: Members posted photos of their toilet bowls like they were trophies. Commenters earnestly read the blobs and streaks like tea leaves, pointing out what they thought were tapeworms, fungi, and parasites, and congratulating the posters on taking steps toward better health. Every few days, Epperly herself would appear via a livestream from her home.
Burns’ curiosity quickly turned to anger. “I started watching people drinking it, and using it as an enema, and giving it to babies and children,” she said.
In one video a member had posted, Burns said, a toddler drank a concoction of Epperly’s recipe. “I was just like, ‘Are you serious?’”
Burns looked on Facebook for others who shared her alarm, and found a (now-defunct) group called “Exposing the lies of jillian mai thi & her protocol,” in which people railed against Epperly. Burns kept watching posts in Epperly’s group and began documenting developments regularly.
Aeryale Thomas, a 37-year-old from Grand Rapids, Michigan, founded a similar private group, “Death By Salt: Mainstreaming The Mai Thi Experiment,” last year. She told BuzzFeed News that she was also alarmed that kids were consuming the fermented cabbage juice.
“What caught my eye was a parent putting the protocol, the juice, in a feeding tube of a child that was very sick,” she said. “No one was saying, ‘This is a bad idea.’”
Thomas said she messaged the mother, but the woman blocked her and did not respond. Still, Thomas said she felt she had to warn strangers about buying into Epperly’s fake health claims. “I don’t know these people, but it’s still like watching a child get hit by a car,” Thomas said.
Convinced that poorly fermented products could be making people ill, and that the salt content in the mixture was also bad news, Thomas said that she and several other women began screenshotting posts by Epperly and her followers and posting them in their own group.
“I feel compelled to retain this information just in case something does happen and the authorities need some kind of reference, a reference point,” Thomas told BuzzFeed News.
Epperly told BuzzFeed News that she believes that infants can benefit from drinking the juice in addition to breast milk. She added that, “a baby could potentially live on this along with coconut oil and be fine, and would be able to flourish and grow because they’re getting access to nutrients.“ (Epperly also claimed that Thomas is a “proponent” of giving pregnant women kratom, a plant with some opioid properties. Thomas told BuzzFeed News that she is in a Facebook group about kratom, and she believes the plant may be a better alternative to painkillers.)
By the fall of last year, when word got out that Bruce Wilmot had died, Epperly addressed the tragedy in a video she posted on her Facebook page. In the video, she claimed that she had spoken to Wilmot about how and when to drink the juice. The reason things went wrong, she explained, was that he didn’t take enough of it.
“He stopped. I told him, cut back a little bit if the symptoms get too much — but he really shouldn’t have. He really should have kept going,” she said.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Epperly doubled down on this idea, saying Wilmot had not been “aggressive” enough in following her protocol, and speculating that his death could have also been helped along by his medications, the pineapple juice he drank, or the medical system.
“Nobody looks for my protocol when they are completely 100% well and happy,” she said.
Wilmot’s daughter Taylor watched the video from her home in California a few months after he died. “That really hurt my heart,” she told BuzzFeed News. She found the video after someone had tried to recruit her into the movement to destroy Epperly’s Facebook stronghold. “I was shocked that there was a whole group of people who believed that my dad had died from this,” she said.
She joined several of the opposition groups and wrote a public post describing her dad’s experience. She hoped that people who were thinking about starting Epperly’s protocol would find her note and change their minds.
News of Wilmot’s death enraged Epperly’s critics. By fall, the handful of anti-Epperly groups had multiplied to almost a dozen. (Burns launched her own “anti-juice” splinter group with this stated goal: “We want to take Jillian off Facebook! At least take the children and babies off of this protocol!” It now has more than 420 members.)
But Epperly’s group grew too. Ann Kennedy, a 42-year-old from the Columbus suburbs, told BuzzFeed News she joined the group in late 2017, after she saw a friend post about the protocol.
Kennedy had been a dental assistant for a decade and was outraged by the claims. “It was like, whoa, is this real life?” Once in the group, she realized that thousands of people were convinced it was real.
“I joined every anti-Jillian group I could,” Kennedy said. Almost immediately, she was kicked out of Epperly’s group — evidently, Epperly’s followers had covertly joined the opposition forums and spotted her.
Epperly told BuzzFeed News that she knows some of her followers joined anti-juice groups to keep tabs on her critics, but said she didn’t ask or pay them to.
“It’s like spy vs. spy,” she said. “I mean, it’s a war of information.”
Over the past few months, the thousands-strong anti-Epperly movement — on Facebook and elsewhere — has taken real-world actions against her.
In October, an anonymous author created a (now-private) blog and posted systematic and lengthy takedowns of Epperly’s claims, including annotated screenshots of Facebook posts. In a YouTube library, someone catalogued snippets of Epperly’s Facebook videos — proof of her claims in case she shut down her account. A Change.org petition (with 809 signatures as of February) called for Epperly to be banned from Facebook and all social media. In the private anti-Epperly group “Cabbotaging Children & Pets: Reporting Jillian Mai Thi Epperly,” a Google document listed contact information for state and federal law enforcement, attorneys general, and medical boards.
Another group pooled their screenshots and saved them on the photo-sharing site Photobucket, organized in folders by theme, archived in case Epperly’s Facebook group disappeared. (The person behind that account told BuzzFeed News that she spent 25 hours over two weeks working on it.) Jeff Holiday, a 35-year-old from Oregon who makes YouTube videos skewering scammy science, produced a three-part series on Epperly, racking up about 47,000 views in total.
Andrew Stewart, a 32-year-old from Minnesota, joined Epperly’s group in November, after hearing about it on an anti-vaxx group he was trolling. Between jobs, living alone, with time on his hands, he drafted a letter to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office in late December, requesting that the office consider criminal charges against Epperly.
“I would like to ask that the office of the Ohio Attorney General without delay investigate this matter and use every legal option to make this woman stop, and furthermore consider criminal charges,” he wrote. “She is an inherent threat to the safety of others and what she is doing is neither legal nor by any standard morally sound at all.”
A few days later, the AG’s office replied to Stewart, referring him to the state medical board. Over the next few weeks, Stewart said, he also contacted the State of Ohio Medical Board, the criminal investigations division at the FDA, and Interpol.
“I didn't want her to go somewhere she could be immune to prosecution,” Stewart told BuzzFeed News.
Kennedy, meanwhile, filed a complaint with the Ohio Medical Board, asserting that Epperly was dispensing medical advice without a license.
She also turned her efforts online. “I googled ‘cults,’” she remembered, looking for ways to take down organized groups led by scam artists. She tried a local news station in Ohio, but they didn’t bite. She stopped short of calling the police. “I just couldn’t imagine calling the police department and saying these things,” she said. “I feared that they would want to come find me and take me away.”
According to Epperly, others have gone to more extreme lengths. She said she has received spoofed phone calls that appeared to originate from the police department, or the humane society, or the Ohio AG’s office.
Someone told Facebook that Epperly’s husband was dead, so the company turned his profile into a memorial page. (It has since been turned back.) Once, she said, wings and pizzas arrived at her house from an anonymous sender who hadn’t paid for them.
Epperly said she decided to turn her group from public to private for the sake of her moderators, who were also receiving messages from the anti-juice crowd by email and on Facebook.
By the new year, Epperly had had enough of her haters. She put her group on lockdown — no one but moderators could make new posts — and trimmed the membership by about 1,000 members, according to a message she shared with the remaining group.
Epperly explained that she would launch an independent website and host her following there instead of Facebook. She said that the group had become too large, and that her trolls had become too much of a nuisance. “I left the platform because I have people being targeted,“ she told BuzzFeed News. “I've actually had people who were visited by [Child Protective Services] and had to get a note from their doctor to allow them to feed their baby or their child this recipe.”
Jillyjuice.com launched on Feb. 5. Epperly wrote on the homepage: “I have a protocol to reverse 100% all of your health issues from A-Z forever vaccinated or not, except for major organ transplant patients and surrogate mothers until they bring the baby to term!!”
For $30 annually, or $5 monthly, readers could become part of Epperly’s “growing virtual community.” She spent the next couple of weeks explaining to the Facebook group which modes of payment she could and couldn’t take (from credit card and bank transfers to checks mailed to a P.O. box in Canton, Ohio) and posting daily reminders that she would be shutting down the 58,000-member page soon.
Not everyone was happy with the move away from Facebook, but Epperly dismissed them. When group members asked if she would keep her website free, she balked.
“I’m not going to put up with somebody sniveling about how they can’t afford to pay for my site which is only $30 a year which is Pennies on the dollar and believe me if people want to know this information they will find a way to move Heaven and Earth and those who snivel and talk about how poor they are they just need to do the recipe and drink and drink,” she wrote.
In mid-February, just as Epperly had promised, the Facebook group vanished. She told BuzzFeed News that she purged the group of almost all its members, but keeps the archives so she can see old posts when she wants to.
The move did not seem to deter the anti-juice movement. The week the Facebook group disappeared, Thomas of Michigan launched her own anti-juice website, and also submitted a complaint to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, noting that “jillyjuice.com is soliciting donations for medical advice,” according to the complaint provided to BuzzFeed News by the attorney general.
This time, instead of dismissing the complaint, the AG’s complaint specialist, Anne Davis, told Thomas and Epperly to talk to each other to try to reach an amicable resolution.
Instead, Epperly wrote an email to Davis claiming she was “a victim of internet bullying no different than dealing with a school yard bully.” She explained that she had set up the website and its paywalled forum to ward off such “evil and malicious” attacks. And she repeated her claim that her protocol could “potentially reverse Cancer, disease and chronic illness using liquefied sauerkraut.”
Thomas, meanwhile, asked Epperly in an email to disavow the “healing” and “reversing” claims that she had made, and in particular to stop recommending that people feed the salty fermented brew to children. “There are many people who have done your Protocol, both long-term, and short-term, and have drunk the 'jillyjuice' — only to have had impairment, negative reactions and irreparable harm,” Thomas wrote.
Epperly’s reply landed in her inbox minutes later: “Fuck off.”
Thomas forwarded the exchange to Davis.
About two weeks later, a representative from the agency told BuzzFeed News that the complaint had been closed — and passed on to the FDA.
“Our Consumer Protection Section reviewed the information but felt that another agency (in this case the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) may be in a better position to address the concerns presented in this complaint,” spokesperson Kate Hanson told BuzzFeed News by email.
Kennedy and Stewart received identical responses to their complaints submitted to the Ohio Medical Board. The board told them that the query had been directed to the AG’s office — the same office that had just relinquished responsibility to the FDA. (Stewart said he still hadn’t heard back from the FDA or Interpol.)
Despite the best efforts of thousands of people who banded together to boot out Epperly’s fake science news, it still thrives, dodging agency regulations and platform policies. No one seems to be able, or inclined, to make Epperly stop.
Facebook said the group doesn’t violate its policies. When asked if the Federal Trade Commission was responsible, FTC spokesperson Frank Dorman was unsure: “The FTC enforces the FTC Act against deceptive or unfair business practices, so it’s conceivable, but this might be something for the FDA,” Dorman wrote by email.
FDA spokesperson Peter Cassell told BuzzFeed News that the agency has received “at least two complaints” related to Jilly Juice (not including the two that the Ohio Attorney General passed on). He would not comment on whether the FDA is investigating these complaints.
“Marketing unapproved products that claim to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure cancer without evidence is not only a violation of the law, but also can put patients at risk as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective,” Cassell wrote by email.
However, the FDA has not yet determined whether Epperly’s website and videos fall under its purview, since she does not sell a food or drug product.
“It blows my mind that no authority will step in and say, hey lady, you need a license. You need to educate yourself properly. You need to not tell parents to give this to their children behind closed doors,” Thomas said.
Meanwhile, Epperly continues to give juice updates to the 5,000-plus followers on her personal Facebook page. Recently, she explained via live video that she had found affirmation for another of her theories: that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. On her new website, she put up a video claiming that Jilly Juice could possibly prevent autism and obesity in kids.
Much of her Facebook page’s discussion lately has revolved around her upcoming appearance on the Dr. Phil show, where she intends to face her detractors in front of a national television audience. “Let's bring it on baby and I'm only going to go on if I'm allowed to plug my book and my website,” she posted on March 6.
Epperly told BuzzFeed News that going on TV will be an opportunity to get it all out in the open. “It’s gonna be like Jerry Springer — I’m gonna have my haters on there. Hopefully there won’t be any chairs thrown at me.” ●