GOD'S FREQUENCY IS 39.17 MHz: THE INVESTIGATION OF PETER POPOFF
By Al Seckel - Originally published in Science and the Paranormal, 1987
For centuries, religious people have claimed that they have engaged in direct communications with God. Wouldn't it be interesting just once to tap into those private and personal conversations? It happens that a group of researchers, sponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER), a new offshoot of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) lead by special investigator and magician James Randi, has managed to actually capture on tape some of those "divine" conversations between God and well-known television evangelist and faith healer Reverend Peter Popoff!
The first words were captured by a secret team of researchers as the Reverend Peter Popoff of Upland, California, stepped onto a stage at San Francisco's Civic Auditorium, where he was about to start a faithhealing service that would be videotaped for his weekly national broadcast. The team heard (and captured on tape) an affectionate feminine voice from above: "Hello, Petey. I love you! I'm talking to you. Can you hear me? If you can't you're in trouble, 'cause I'm talking as well as I can!" (Her voice suddenly becomes businesslike.) "I'm looking up names right now."
This secret team of two was located in a hidden section of the auditorium complex. It consisted of Alec Jason, an electronics expert, and his assistant Bob Steiner. Jason was giving the thumbs-up sign to Steiner as they began a number of surreptitious recordings designed to expose how Reverend Peter Popoff was able to "divinely" recite personal details about audience members and their afflictions during his popular faith-healing services.
Peter Popoff, like many faith healers, calls out the names, illnesses, and sometimes addresses 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 directly from God; indeed, a magazine distributed by Popoff's organization described an audience member being "called out by the Spirit for healing." Those in the audience are so impressed by Popoff's "Gift of Knowledge" that they break into applause. The subjects picked are so overwhelmed that they often break into tears. One woman who was "healed" at one of the meetings and later interviewed by CSER stated: "I know he is real from the way he talked. He actually knew my address and had nonotes to look at! he is real, all right!"
Evangelist/healer Peter Popoff has headquarters in Upland, California, whence he sends out slick fund-raising literature that is generated and printed by computer to appear as if it were personally typed and signed. Those on Popoff's mailing list have received Russian currency, handkerchiefs, and red felt hearts to be carried or worn, then each to be sent back with a check attached. Special envelopes and endless appeals for the emergency needs of his ministry arrive every week. Each is personalized by the computer, which drops the recipient's first name into the text occasionally after the salutation "Brother." Sometimes the letters start off typed, and in an ensuing page turn into what appears to be a handwritten request for money from Reverend Popoff himself. This "handwriting" is printed as well.
A man preparing to enter the Popoff crusade in San Francisco in February was approached by a TV interviewer, "Why are you coming to see Reverend Popoff?" he was asked. "Peter wrote to me," replied the man, "and wanted me to come here today for a special message God has for me." He was blissfully unaware that thousands of persons in the Bay area received identical letters - identical, that is, except for the personalized effect generated by Popoff's computer.
These slick mail campaigns have paid off. Popoff is seen nationwide on 51 television outlets and heard on 40 radio stations, and has an average monthly budget of $550,000, according to his business manager.
Popoff's effect on his followers is so great that on several occasions he has asked his audience to "break free of the Devil" by throwing their medications up onto the stage. Dozens of people have come forward and tossed their medicine bottles onto the platform. Prescriptions for digitalis, nitroglycerine tablets, oral diabetes medication, and many unidentified pills were discarded by people who might have needed such substances to stay alive.
When world-famous magician and psychic investigator James Randi and his close magician friend Steve Shaw first attended a Popoff healing, they noticed that Popoff "called out" people from the audience fast and accurately. He gave their ailments, named relatives, and even threw in an occasional street address for good measure. After Randi and Shaw had observed Popoff dealing with twenty or so people, it was obvious to them that Popoff was not using some mnemonic device. Shaw told Randi, "He's got something else going for him, and I think I know what I have to do. Randi agreed and sent Steve to get a closer look at Popoff. Steve noticed that Popoff was wearing a hearing aid in his left ear. (That device is somewhat unusual for someone who claims to be able to perform miraculous healings.) "You can see the shiny plastic in there, clear as can be, " Shaw told Randi.
Since Popoff had a tiny receiver of some sort in his left ear, Randi needed an electronic surveillance expert. He enlisted the help of San Francisco based Alec Jason, who had extensive experience in police, detective, and intelligence work. A few weeks later, Popoff came to San Francisco. The day before his show, Jason visited the Auditorium with a twenty thousand dollar computerized scanning system, which Jason left turned on for a couple of hours.
Jason's electronic scanner is useful to locate anything new that is being broadcast. It works by going through all the radio frequencies, and memorizes essentially everything that is on the air. The scanner would be brought back when Popoff was performing, and it would automatically compare the different broadcast signals. Everything that it had heard before, it would ignore - so it would just look for new signals. The idea was to save time.
Alec Jason and his assistant, Bob Steiner, had hardly set up the tape recorder and turned on the scanner before the scanner zeroed in on frequency 39.17 Megahertz (MHz). The feminine voice boomed loud and clear over their private earphones, "Hello, Petey. I love you! I'm talking to you. Can you hear me? If you can't, you're in trouble, 'cause I'm talking as well as I can!" (Her voice suddenly becomes business like.) "I'm looking up names right now." Jason and Steiner knew that they had struck pay dirt! The funny thing about it was that it turned out that God was a woman; God spoke on frequency 39.17 MHz (in a band width normally used only by police and fire departments); and God sounded exactly like Popoff's wife Elizabeth!
With the help of the scanner, Jason and Steiner were able to hear and record the entire conversation.
Elizabeth: "Way over to the other side on the other balcony is Josephine Parino. Run all the way over to the right side now. Josephine Parino. Josephine Parino."
Popoff asks the assembled worshipers: "Who's Josephine?"
Josephine Parino identifies herself.
Elizabeth: "She's got cancer of the stomach."
Transcribing the tape later on, Randi, Jason, and Steiner heard such comments as: "I have a hot one for you. Robert Kaywood. He's got a chest condition that needs surgery. Robert Kaywood. Kaywood. Kaywood. He needs surgery. His veins aren't formed. He prays that God will heal him today." Later on, they heard: "Dear, she...no, she should be there on your right side. Right side. No, that's not her! No, that's not her! In the blue... Oh! That might be here. Okay. She lives at 4267 Masterson, and she's praying for her daughter Joy, who's allergic to food." This was followed by laughter from Elizabeth and Pam, the wife of Reeford Shirrell (Popoff's number two man). Elizabeth Popoff was out of the audience's view but apparently able to see her husband via TV monitors.
Elizabeth Popoff speaks: "Reeford's got a hot one!" (Laughter.) "Reeford's so excited! He came running in back here and scared us half to death! You ready for a hot one? Okay! Want a hot one? Hot one! Hot off the press! Ruby Lee Harris. Ruby Lee. She is standing in the far back where there's no chairs. (Long pause) "...Ruby Lee Harris. She's against the back wall. She's got lumps in her breast. You might want to whisper it - have her walk down! Have her run up there. Run! Oh! Look at her run! (Loud laughter) "she's got knots in her breast." (Laughter and giggles.) "A home run! A home run!" (Then, later on, giggles are heard, and Pam speaks.) "At any rate, she should kick him in the face!" (giggles) (Elizabeth speaks.) "Pam says to make her - Pam thinks that you should should have her kick him in the face (Giggles.)
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. Elizabeth Popoff and several aides would scout the audience looking for "hot" ones. They would ask them, "Is Jesus going to heal you? And what's your name, and where do you live? Have you had this condition long?" They would write all this information down on cards, which later on Elizabeth would recite during the service via her concealed transmitter. She carried the power source in a large handbag, and the transmitter and microphone were hidden under her blouse.
Randi, however, needed incontrovertible evidence that this was the way the information was conveyed. Randi enlisted the help of many volunteers in several cities to adopt false names and diseases and act like "hot" ones. That plan worked beautifully. Randi's stooges were approached and questioned by Elizabeth Popoff. During the show, Popoff called out the false names and diseases in exactly the order that Elizabeth Popoff had approached them. She didn't even bother to shuffle the cards!
One stooge, Don Henvick, was exceptional. Don dressed in various disguises, going even so far as to shave his beard and head.He was able to present a convincing and tempting target for the faith healers by his fine acting. In San Francisco, the Reverend Popoff call him out as a bearded man under the assumed name "Tom Hendry," and"cured" him of a "broken home and that bondage to alcohol." In Anaheim, Don (this time bald and clean-shaven scored again when Popoff fell for another of his aliases, this time calling him out as "Vergil Jorgenson," and attempting to heal a bogus "serious arthritic condition." Subsequently, Popoff, apparently enthralled by Henvick's powerful performance as a "man possessed by the Holy Spirit," broadcast both of these healings on his shows!
Randi next instructed Don to be cured of a disease that he couldn't possibly have. They settled on uterine cancer! To have uterine cancer you need a uterus. To have a uterus you need to be a woman. Don went around to various thrift stores looking for dresses. Friends helped him with the makeup. The last stop was to obtain a wheelchair so that Popoff could call him (her?) out as "Bernice Manicoff." Scott Morris, an editor at Omni, went along as "her son."
After they entered the auditorium for the show, they situated themselves in the aisle close to Elizabeth Popoff. There were told that the chair was blocking the aisle and so they moved around to a couple of other places before they were directed to the orchestra pit, where two empty wheelchairs were parked. Two women with canes walked into the pit and sat in the empty wheelchairs (the chairs were rented by Popoff). One of the women remarked, "I guess this is where they want us to sit." Later both women were called out, and a big deal was made out of the fact that they can walk, which is how they got into the rented wheelchairs in the first place. Praise the miracles of Peter Popoff!
Don - or should we say - "Bernice"? - sent her "son" to speak to Elizabeth to give her a story that "mom" would sure like to say "Hi!" but can't walk that far from her wheelchair without getting tired. Elizabeth made a note of it and sent Brother Reeford over. Aside from pleasantries, he asked two questions: "How long have you been in that wheelchair?" and "Can you walk at all?" People who can't walk are given short shrift, but when "Bernice" told him that she'd been in the wheelchair for a couple of years "off and on," and "Oh, yes, I can walk a little," Reeford obtained her name and the fact that her doctors think that "Beatrice" might have uterine cancer and that she feels much better whenever she watches Rev. Popoff on TV.
The suspense grew during the show as the healing progressed until finally Popoff stood five feet in front of Don and called his alias, "Bernice Manicoff." He promised to burn the cancer out of her body. He laid hands on "Bernice" and Don gave his his most ladylike shriek as he was shocked by the power of the Holy Ghost. Popoff then commanded "Bernice" to rise out of the wheelchair and walk! Don staggered to his feet and walked back and forth across the stage to the loud cheers of the crowd. Don's performance was perfect - almost.
It was only later that Don learned what had been said about him on the secret transmission.
Elizabeth: "Bernice. Bernice Manicoff. Manicoff. The woman with hair on her face. She's in a wheelchair and can walk..."
After Don rose from the wheelchair and started to walk, Elizabeth started screaming to Popoff via the secret transmitter: "That's the guy from Anaheim! He's a stooge! It's a man - a man! Get away from him! That's the guy from Anaheim! Drop him fast!"
Upon hearing this, Randi and the other investigators felt that it was time to wrap things up. They had already hours and hours of taped conversations and lots of other damning evidence. The investigation had already lasted six months, involved over sixty volunteers, and had sent teams of investigators into faith-healing meetings in such far-flung cities as Rochester, Brooklyn, Houston, Stockton, Anaheim, Sacramento, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, and Ft. Lauderdale - teams that have uncovered a shocking tale of trickery and deceit on the part of several popular faith healers who have used their religious authority and media coverage to mislead millions of people.
Randi was scheduled to do an appearance on Johny Carson's Tonight Show. Randi reasoned that this would be a wonderful place to break the news. The Tonight Show had an audience in the millions, and Randi knew that Carson was sympathetic to Randi's work. The show was a success, and Carson and the audience loved it. Randi received a tremendous ovation from the studio audience, and in the ensuing weeks Carson received a tremendous amount of postive mail, including an improving letter from Jerry Falwell. Randi profited too. Seven thousand orders for his book Flim -Flam came in during the next few days. It all goes to show that some people want to hear what's going on.
There were a a few people, who, the day after the Carson broadcast, were not so pleased. The press had latched onto Randi's revelation and had started deluging the Popoff ministry with phone calls. Popoff issued a formal, prepared statement from his headquarters: "Everything Amazing Randi has said is not true. We were already considering legal action because we knew he was faking miracles at the crusades for his own purposes. Peter Popoff Evangelistic Association is being attacked, but we are not alone. This group has also targeted Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robertson, in addition to Reverend Popoff. We would like to ask Christians to pray concerning this attack on all these Christian organizations. This man is a magician and is using these tactics to get publicity for a book that he is writing to discredit God's work. We believe that God will not allow this attack on his ministry to continue."
When the Popoff ministry was asked whether Popoff used a secret receiver in his ear, Janice Gleason, a public relations consultant for the Popoff organization, said that the electronic receiver in Popoff's ear was used only to keep in touch with the television crew. (In the hours of taped transmissions, there was not one communication with the television crew.) Gleason said she believed that the woman's voice heard on the Tonight Show was faked. But Popoff later admitted that it was his wife who was communicating with him. Popoff compared his ministry 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." Popoff, however, perhaps because of the notoriety, decided to abandon this "game show" format, a least temporarily: his last few television broadcasts have contained no displays of his "Gift of Knowledge."