The woman's voice began the transmission in a sing-song tone:
"Hello, Petey. I love you. I'm talking to you. Can you hear me? If you can't, you're in trouble. . . ."
"Petey," the Rev. Peter Popoff of Upland, was on stage at San Francisco's Civic Auditorium about to start a faith healing service that would be videotaped for his weekly television program.
The affectionate voice testing the communications was that of his wife, Elizabeth, out of the audience's view but apparently able to see her husband via TV monitors. Her voice then became businesslike:
"I'm looking up names right now," she said, soon after reciting the name of a woman in the audience, one of many who came seeking a miraculous healing.
Unknown to the Popoffs, in another section of the auditorium complex an electronics surveillance expert was giving the thumbs-up sign to a colleague as he began a series of surreptitious recordings designed to expose how the evangelist was able to recite details about audience members and their afflictions.
Popoff, like many faith healers, calls out the names and illnesses of people at his crusades, then "lays hands" on them and prays for their healing. The impression given at such services is that the information comes from divine sources; indeed, a magazine distributed by Popoff's organization described an audience member being "called out by the Spirit for healing!"
But a volunteer team of self-described skeptics, who recently monitored Popoff's crusades in four cities, claims that if God sends information to Peter Popoff, he does it at 39.17 megahertz, a frequency in the range often used by police.
The team recorded hours of conversations in which Elizabeth Popoff radioed to her husband personal details that she and other aides gathered from the audience in conversations before the service and from prayer request cards filled out there.
"The tent-show healers are gone, but their replacements are among us . . . louder, slicker and richer by far, assisted as they are by technology that their predecessors would not have imagined," said magician-debunker James Randi, who used as many as 18 volunteers per crusade to document what he said were deceptive practices by several faith healers.
The 39-year-old Popoff, with his seemingly supernatural memory, particularly caught the attention of Randi's task force, a project of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Religion, a group associated with the humanist-oriented Free Inquiry magazine.
Although a spokesman for Popoff initially contested the committee's allegation that Popoff gets his information in a very secular manner, the evangelist acknowledged in a recent interview that he uses the radio method. But Popoff said his wife supplies him with only about half the names.
"The other half I would pray and wait on the Lord," he said. "I'm not denying the divine."
Since the death of Kathryn Kuhlman and the retirement from healing services of Oral Roberts, the best-known faith healers are probably Richard Roberts (son of Oral) and Ernest Angley of Akron, Ohio.
But Popoff is hardly an unknown. He is seen on 51 television outlets (including KCOP, Channel 13, in Los Angeles on Sunday nights), heard on 40 radio stations and has an average gross income of $550,000 a month, according to his business manager.
Randi said a member of his group first suspected that Popoff was wearing a radio receiver at a rally Feb. 2 in Houston. One of the volunteers, posing as an usher, intentionally stumbled into the faith healer and spotted a tiny object in Popoff's left ear, he said.
Employing a scanning receiver and recording equipment, a team member taped transmissions at rallies in San Francisco, Anaheim and Detroit. The tapes and transcriptions show Elizabeth repeatedly cuing Popoff with names, afflictions, addresses--and occasionally making joking comments about those seeking healing.
Randi, known professionally as "The Amazing Randi," made the findings public April 22 on NBC-TV's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Randi showed a televised excerpt from one of Popoff's crusades in which the evangelist gave a man and his wife information about themselves and their eye troubles. Then the excerpt was played again, but along with a tape showing that Elizabeth Popoff had moments earlier fed the information to her husband.
A statement issued after the program by the Peter Popoff Evangelistic Assn. in Upland said, "Everything Amazing Randi has said is not true," and hinted at legal action.
The statement also asked Christians to pray concerning "this attack on Christian organizations," noting that the Free Inquiry group had also been critical of evangelists Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggert and Pat Robertson. The statement accused Randi of "using these tactics to get publicity for a book that he is writing to discredit God's work."
Randi, 57, of Sunrise, Fla., who is well-known for his exposes of so-called psychic phenomena, said he is negotiating a contract for a book on the faith healer investigations.
Janice Gleason, a public relations consultant for the Popoff organization, said April 23 that the electronic receiver in Popoff's ear was used only to keep in touch with the television crew. Gleason said she believed that the woman's voice heard on the "Tonight Show" tape was faked.
But Popoff said later that it was his wife who was communicating with him.
"It's not a secret. We've never denied using it," Popoff said during an interview in his office, which has a view of nearby Mt. Baldy.
"My father (George Popoff) was an evangelist, and he looked at prayer request cards. We use a prompter," Popoff said.
Popoff maintained that his audiences consist mostly of people with whom he has corresponded and that they do not necessarily think that all the information he gives them about themselves is divinely derived.
"The Holy Spirit does speak, but I don't think people are naive," he said.
Randi said, however, that people who had been "called out" at Popoff services told his team that they believed it was the doing of the Holy Spirit.
Randi's group cites the Anaheim service March 16 at which Popoff said he was going to whisper the physical problem of one woman because it was personal. "How many believe the Holy Spirit is a gentleman?" he cried out before whispering the woman's problem to her. She nodded yes.
Moments earlier, according to the secretly recorded tapes, Elizabeth Popoff had radioed that the woman had lumps in her breast and suggested that Popoff whisper to the woman, whom she called "a hot one."
After speaking quietly to the woman, Peter Popoff announced: "I'm going to burn that out. Here we go!"
Prayed Over Her
Then he prayed over her, and she fell down, as frequently happens at faith healing services.
"She got shocked! She got shocked! Hallelujah!" Popoff told the audience.
To demonstrate that data gleaned from the audience at the one-day services was the source for Popoff's information--rather than a presumably unerring divine source--members of Randi's team requested healings at the services after giving false names and phony sicknesses.
One pretender, Don Henvick of San Francisco, said Popoff prayed for his healing three times: As a bearded man suffering from alcoholism; as a clean-shaven, balding man with arthritis; and, wearing a dress and wig, as a woman with "uterine cancer and edema" and confined to a wheelchair.
Randi said the ploy showed that if "God was informing Popoff," he was giving "wrong information."
Randi and Free Inquiry's editor, Paul Kurtz, whose quarterly magazine is publishing the results of the investigation, contend that one of the most serious consequences of such a ministry is that many people will be misled into thinking they have been healed when they are not, and that, in some cases, they may give up needed medicine.
In the Houston service, which was televised, audience members threw pills on stage at the exhortation of Popoff. Randi said he found life-sustaining drugs discarded in trash cans afterwards, including insulin tablets, nitroglycerin and digitalis.
"I've never told people to throw medicine away," Popoff countered. In Houston, he said, "I told people to throw away cigarettes and addictive drugs."
Born in Bulgaria
Popoff, who was born in Bulgaria, began his ministry after his 1970 graduation from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He wrote in an autobiography that he received the "baptism of the Holy Spirit," which many Pentecostalists say is signaled by "speaking in tongues," during one of his father's services.
Over the next few years he started his own radio broadcasts and made Bible-smuggling trips to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, according to the autobiography.
On a cassette tape, he describes an angel-escorted trip to the heavens after God purportedly told him, "I'm going to show you things that no mortal man has seen before."
Popoff downplayed his supernatural gifts in the recent interview. To the debunkers' charge that he avoids people with the worst ailments at his crusades, Popoff said, "I try to be as effective as I can, put my best foot forward. You have to go where you are most effective."
He said Randi's group is wrong to think he recites facts about audience members merely to impress them. He tells people their home address, he said, "just to make sure they are the right persons."
He estimated that 75% to 80% of the people at his services, which sometimes draw more than 5,000, have received his contribution-appeal letters. If they were not getting something out of his ministry, Popoff said, he would not have seen it grow "about 35% each year."
"I know people are blessed, and their lives are changed," he said.
Popoff said he promises many loyal followers that, when his crusade comes to cities near them, he will call them forward, a procedure he compared to a TV game show.
"It's just like 'The Price is Right;' they expect to be called down," he said. "This is a very effective format for television."