|Born||Peter George Popoff
July 2, 1946
West Berlin, Germany
|Spouse(s)||Elizabeth Popoff (1970–present)|
|Children||Amy Cardiff, Nickolas Popoff, Alex Popoff|
Peter Popoff (born July 2, 1946) is a German-born American televangelist, and self-proclaimed faith healer and prophet. He initially rose to prominence in the 1980s, conducting revival meetings and hosting a nationally-televised program, during which he performed seemingly miraculous cures on audience members. After an electronics expert demonstrated in 1986 that his "divine" revelations were being fed to him by his wife via a wireless radio transmitter, Popoff declared bankruptcy the following year. He has since resumed his faith healing sessions "in a manner identical to his method prior to his exposure as a fraud". Researcher and bioethics expert Fred M. Frohock cited Popoff as "one of many egregious instances of fake healing."
Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, which has investigated televangelists since 1987, said, “Most of these guys are fooled by their own theology”, referring to other televangelists he considers scammers, including Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes; but in the case of Popoff, “He’s fundamentally evil, because he knows he’s a con man.”
Early life and career
Popoff was born in West Berlin, West Germany on July 2, 1946, to George and Gerda Popoff. As a child, Popoff emigrated with his family to the United States, where he attended Chaffey College and University of California, Santa Barbara.
Popoff married his wife Elizabeth in 1970 and the couple settled in Upland, California. He then began his television ministry that, by the early 1980s, was being broadcast nationally. His miraculous "curing" of chronic and incurable medical conditions became a central attraction of his sermons. Popoff would tell attendees suffering from a variety of illnesses to "break free of the devil" by throwing their prescription pills on to the stage. Many would obey, tossing away bottles of digitalis, nitroglycerine, and other important maintenance medications. Popoff would also "command" wheelchair-bound supplicants to "rise and break free". They would stand and walk without assistance, to the joyous cheers of the faithful. Critics later documented that the recipients of these dramatic "cures" were fully ambulatory people who had been seated in wheelchairs by Popoff's assistants prior to broadcasts.
In 1985 Popoff began soliciting donations for a program to provide bibles to citizens of the Soviet Union by attaching them to helium-filled balloons and floating them into the country. When skeptics asked him to prove that the money he had collected had in fact been spent on bibles and balloons, Popoff staged a burglary at his own headquarters. On subsequent broadcasts he tearfully begged for additional donations to help repair the damage.
Investigation by James Randi
At the height of his popularity in the 1980s, Popoff would accurately announce home addresses and specific illnesses of audience members during his "healing sermons", a feat that he implied was due to divine revelation and "God-given ability". In 1986, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry charged that Popoff was using electronic transmissions to receive his information; Popoff denied it, insisting that the messages were divinely revealed. Skeptic groups distributed pamphlets explaining how Popoff's feats could be accomplished without any sort of divine intervention. Popoff branded his critics "tools of the devil".
Popoff's methods were definitively exposed in 1986 by the magician and skeptic James Randi and his associate Steve Shaw, an illusionist known professionally as Banachek, with technical assistance from the crime scene analyst and electronics expert Alexander Jason. With computerized scanning equipment, Jason was able to demonstrate that Popoff's wife, Elizabeth, was using a wireless radio transmitter to broadcast information that she and her aides had culled from prayer request cards filled out by audience members. Popoff received the transmissions via an in-ear receiver and repeated the information to astonished audience members. Jason produced video segments interspersing the intercepted radio transmissions with Popoff's "miraculous" pronouncements.
Randi also planted accomplices in Popoff's audiences, including a man dressed as a woman whom Popoff "cured" of uterine cancer. Randi and Shaw recorded Elizabeth Popoff using a racial slur to describe an African-American audience member, and warning her husband to "...keep your hands off [her] tits ... I'm watching you." At another healing session, Elizabeth and her aides were heard laughing uncontrollably at the physical appearance of a man suffering from a terminal stage of testicular cancer.
In May 1986, Randi presented one of Jason's videos on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Popoff initially denied Randi's accusations and accused NBC of "...[hiring] an actress to impersonate Mrs. Popoff on a doctored videotape". Eventually Popoff admitted the existence of the radio device, but claimed that Elizabeth only "occasionally" gave him "the name of a person who needs special prayers". He added that "almost everybody" knew about the wireless communication system. His ministry's viewer ratings and donations declined significantly after the Carson airing, and in September 1987 he declared bankruptcy, listing more than 790 unpaid creditors. Popoff’s attorney, William Simon, “attributed the collapse of his ministry to financial mismanagement more than to disclosures about Popoff.” Jason's video footage was also aired on the NOVA episode "Secrets of the Psychics" in 1991. The episode was released on video as part of a lesson in critical thinking.
Two major films, Fletch Lives in 1989 and Leap of Faith in 1992, both use this scandal as source material for their main story lines, and in doing so demonstrated a number of the techniques Popoff and other con artists used in the 1980s and 1990s and continue to use. Leap of Faith in particular demonstrates how these television personalities were, and are, able to obtain information and present it as a miracle.
In 1998, The Washington Post reported that Popoff was making a comeback, seeking to jump-start his ministry by repackaging himself for an African American audience, buying time on the Black Entertainment Television Network. Popoff, along with Don Stewart and Robert Tilton, received "criticism from those who say that preachers with a long trail of disillusioned followers have no place on a network that holds itself out as a model of entrepreneurship for the black community".
A February 2007 Inside Edition segment reported that Popoff's new infomercials depict him "healing the sick" in a manner identical to his methods prior to James Randi's exposé. Victims were interviewed, including a married couple who charged that Popoff had taken "thousands of dollars" from them. Popoff refused to comment. "Flim flam is his profession," Randi explained to reporter Matt Meaghan. "That's what he does best. He's very good at it, and naturally he's going to go back to it." In May 2007, ABC's 20/20 focused on Popoff's comeback and explored the lives of a few people who felt cheated. Various other media outlets have run similar stories. In July 2008, a Nanaimo, British Columbia resident was reimbursed by Popoff after she went public with her concerns over his fundraising tactics.
Popoff was designated by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) as one of its recipients of the 2011 Pigasus Award for fraudulent practices, along with Mehmet Oz (from The Dr. Oz Show) and CVS Pharmacy. "Debt cancellation is part of God's plan", according to Popoff, who teaches that God will respond to prayer and seed-faith by providing financial blessing. Credit.com wrote a blog post concerning Popoff's claims. However, when Senator Chuck Grassley singled out six US televangelists for investigation regarding mishandling of finances, Popoff's ministry was not included.
In 2008, the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom issued strong warnings to broadcasters for transmitting Popoff's material, which the regulator felt promoted his products "in such a way as to target potential susceptible and vulnerable viewers". These programs included offers of free "Miracle Manna" that allegedly provided health and financial miracles. In 2009, Popoff began running advertisements in UK periodicals offering a free cross containing "blessed water" and "holy sand". The water, he claimed, was drawn from a spring near Chernobyl (site of the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster). Animals and humans drinking from the spring were purportedly spared radiation sickness. Responders to the ad received a small wooden cross bearing the inscription "Jerusalem" and a solicitation for donations, followed by numerous additional solicitation letters.
Popoff continues to offer his Russian "Miracle Spring Water" on late-night infomercials in the US and Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Respondents are promised miraculous protection from disease and disability, along with financial prosperity (which may include "divine money transfers directly into your account"), if they sleep with the water for one night before drinking it, then pray over the empty packet and send it back to Popoff—with a donation. Multiple solicitation letters follow, requesting more donations in exchange for miracles.
Currently, Popoff's "People United For Christ" organization has a "Did Not Disclose" rating with the Better Business Bureau, indicating its refusal to disclose information that would enable BBB to determine adherence to its Standards for Charity Accountability. "Since making his comeback to television," BBB said, in its review, "Popoff appears to have resumed his faith healing sessions in a manner identical to his method prior to his exposure as a fraud."
In September 2015, Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society documented Popoff's latest promises of "fabulous extreme fortune" and "miracles" in exchange for donations to his organization. At a recent London gathering, GTS filmed Popoff "healing" a woman supposedly "wracked with pain", though Marshall and a colleague had previously seen her—in no obvious distress—handing out pens and questionnaires to audience members. Soon after the "healing", they watched her quietly leave the room.
Popoff's longtime assistant Reeford Sherrell, now calling himself Pastor Lee Sherrell, has also begun a televised Texas-based ministry. Like Popoff, he uses an offer of a religious trinket (in this case, a free prayer cloth) to compile an address list. Once a follower requests the prayer cloth and inputs his or her address, letters asking for money are dispatched.
Popoff was collecting almost $4 million per year in the late 1980s, according to Randi. In 2003, his ministry received over $9.6 million, and in 2005, over $23 million. In that year, he and his wife were paid a combined salary of nearly $1 million, while two of his children received over $180,000 each. Financial data is not available for Popoff's ministry since 2005 because Peter Popoff Ministries changed from a for-profit business to a religious organization in 2006, making it tax-exempt. Popoff purchased a home in Bradbury, California, for $4.5 million in 2007. He drives a Porsche and a Mercedes-Benz.
In popular culture
The 1992 Steve Martin dramedy film Leap of Faith was inspired by Popoff and his wife's fraudulent ministry. The film's main character is a faith healer who claims to read people's minds but actually receives intimate details about his victims via a small radio. The film went on to be adapted into a 2012 Broadway musical of the same name, and was subsequently nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Popoff was also the inspiration for a character in the 2012 thriller film Red Lights, a psychic who uses information fed to him via a hidden earpiece to persuade the audience at his shows that he is receiving personal details psychically. The film includes Liz Popoff's infamous line, "Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can't, you're in trouble", nearly verbatim.
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Official and critical
- Peter Popoff Ministries – Official website (Warning: sound)
- More of Popoff's Secrets by James Randi (James Randi Educational Foundation)(archived)
- Inside Edition from James Randi Educational Foundation, 2007[dead link]
- on YouTube
- Skeptics with a K Episode 157 (A special episode covering Marshal Masters visit to Popov's London gathering)