|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 American televangelist, self-proclaimed prophet and faith healer. He conducts revival meetings and once hosted a national television program. He initially rose to prominence in the 1980s. In 1986, skeptics James Randi and Alexander (Alec) Jason exposed his method of receiving information about revival attendees from his wife via an in-ear radio receiver. Popoff declared bankruptcy in 1987. At the time, Popoff’s attorney, William Simon, “attributed the collapse of his ministry to financial mismanagement more than to disclosures about Popoff.” According to Fred M. Frohock, "the case of Peter Popoff is one of many egregious instances of fake healing".
Early life and career
Popoff was born in West Berlin, Germany on July 2, 1946, to George and Gerda Popoff. As a child, Popoff and his family emigrated 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. By the early 1980s, Popoff had a weekly television program broadcast nationally. He also wrote several paperback books in the early 1980s that were published by Faith Messenger Publications.
In 1985, Popoff came to national attention when he began campaigning for money to help smuggle bibles into the Soviet Union. He claimed that the bibles would be tied to helium-filled balloons and sent wafting above the Iron Curtain. When he had to account for the money being spent, Popoff staged a burglary at his own headquarters. On subsequent broadcasts of his show, he would tearfully beg for more money to help repair the damage.
Investigation by James Randi
During his appearances at church conventions in the 1980s, Popoff routinely and accurately stated the home addresses and specific illnesses of his audience members, a feat many believed was due to divine revelation and "God-given ability". In 1986 when members of CSICOP reported that Popoff was using a radio to receive messages, Popoff denied it and said the messages came from God. At the time of his popularity, skeptic groups across the United States printed and handed out pamphlets explaining how Popoff's feats could be done. Popoff would tell his audience that the pamphlets were "tools of the devil".
Popoff's earlier claims were debunked in 1986 when noted skeptic James Randi and his assistant Steve Shaw (an illusionist known professionally as Banachek) researched Popoff by attending revival meetings across the country for months. Randi asked for technical assistance from the crime scene analyst and electronics expert Alexander Jason, who was able to use a computerized scanner during a Popoff appearance in San Francisco. Jason intercepted and identified the radio transmissions that were being sent by Popoff's wife, Elizabeth Popoff, who was backstage reading out information that she and her aides (Reeford Lee Sherrell and Pamela Sherrell) had gathered from prayer request cards filled out by the audience at the beginning of the event. Popoff would listen to these promptings with an in-ear receiver and repeat what he heard to the crowd.
Randi then went on to plant accomplices in the audience, including a man dressed as a woman pretending to have uterine cancer, of which "she" was "cured". Jason produced video segments showing several Popoff "healings", which included the previously secret audio. After these were shown on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Popoff's popularity and viewing audiences declined sharply. In September 1987, sixteen months after the Carson airing, Popoff declared bankruptcy, with more than 790 creditors having claims against him.
As Randi explained in The Faith Healers, he originally took his research to the United States Attorney's office, but never heard back from them. This led Johnny Carson to invite Randi on the show to explain how Popoff operated. Popoff at first denied that he used the tactics Randi claimed, even asserting "NBC hired an actress to impersonate Mrs. Popoff on a 'doctored' videotape". However, as the media pressed with more questions, "on day three Reverend Popoff admitted the existence of the radio device, claiming, that 'almost everybody' knew about the 'communicator.' And, he added, 'My wife occasionally gives me the name of a person who needs special prayers'."
During a 2008 interview, Randi explained that he and Shaw had recorded Liz Popoff using a racial slur to describe an African-American audience member to her husband and laughingly telling him to "...keep your hands off [her] tits ... I'm watching you." Randi further revealed that, when a man dying from testicular cancer came before Popoff during a crusade, Liz Popoff and her aides were hysterically laughing at his visible tumor.
On several occasions, Popoff would tell his revival attendees to "break free of the Devil" by throwing their medications onto the stage. Dozens of his followers would obey and throw away prescriptions for digitalis, nitroglycerine tablets, oral diabetes medication, and other unidentified pills, which might have been vital for the continued survival of those followers. Popoff's shows also featured audience members who were brought on stage in wheelchairs and then rose dramatically to walk without support. These were some of Popoff's most incredible "healings", but what believing audience members and television viewers did not know was that wheelchairs were used by Popoff to seat people who were already able to walk.
In 1991, the NOVA episode "Secrets of the Psychics" aired footage of Popoff with his wife's radio transmission dubbed in. Since then, that episode was released on video to teach critical thinking.
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."
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.
According to Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, which has investigated Popoff and other televangelists since 1987, "Most of these guys are fooled by their own theology ... He’s fundamentally evil. Because he knows he’s a con man."
In 2003, Popoff's ministry received over $9.6 million and by 2005 the amount had risen to over $23 million. In that year, he and his wife were paid a combined total of nearly $1 million, while two of his children were receiving over $180,000 each. Financial data is not available for Popoff's ministry following 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. In a small town, the skeptical local sheriff is loosely based on James Randi. 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.
The 1989 Chevy Chase comedy Fletch Lives features a send-up of a Popoff-like televangelist played by R. Lee Ermey, who is supplied with personal information about individuals at his healing services by an off-stage assistant with a hidden microphone feed.
Heavy metal band Death's 1990 album Spiritual Healing was written in response to Popoff being outed as a fraud on The Tonight Show. The album cover features a man resembling Popoff "healing" a woman dying of cancer, while a group of his followers chant and pray in the background. The lyrics of the title track are addressed directly to Popoff: "Using faith as an excuse to kill/A sick way of life is now revealed/All the prayers in the world can't help you now/A killer, a taker of life is what you are/Speak no more lies/It's your turn to die."
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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,
- Inside Edition from James Randi Educational Foundation, 2007
- Video with fm interception on YouTube