Selling Salvation?

Through the haze of late-night insomniac television viewing, the Rev. Peter Popoff's weekly program may, at first glance, appear to be just another get-rich-quick infomercial. Testimonials roll by from people who gleefully tell of receiving thousands of dollars in cash, new cars, and even houses. But when the raucous miracles begin, it becomes clear that this is much more than an infomercial — a faith healer is at work.

An energetic announcer promises that "God can reverse every negative verdict in your life." And the star of the show, Popoff, pronounces that he has the key to success and healing: a small plastic packet filled with miracle spring water. He'll mail it to you free of charge, and promises that if you send away for the water, you'll receive "miracle release, miracle money, miracle healing, and miracle deliverance in your life" as a result.

A miracle was exactly what Carol Bercier felt that she needed. In 2001, both of her sons had been diagnosed with serious illnesses and she was desperate for help. When Bercier came across Popoff's television ministry, she said she was quickly drawn to him. "I saw him talking to me, straight to me, like he was, he was just telling me exactly what I was going through," she said. "So, of course, I called, I called right away."

'Divine Leading and Direction'

Bercier said she soon received her miracle water in the mail, along with a letter from Popoff. "20/20" obtained a similar letter, which claims the miracle water comes from a Russian spring that, after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, had actually protected those who drank from it.

The letter goes on to say that this same spring water can miraculously protect the faithful today, and help them prosper financially — all they have to do is follow God's instructions precisely. Popoff strongly reminds viewers of his program about that, repeatedly warning, "Don't drink the water until you follow the divine leading and direction."

It turns out that those directions are quite specific. They command you to sleep with the water for one night, and then drink it immediately after waking up. Next, you've got to pray over the empty packet, and then send it back to Popoff — and don't forget to include $17.

Money for Miracles

If you follow the directions, you'll soon discover that the miracle water is only the beginning. Once on Popoff's mailing list, you'll receive letter after letter — as we did — asking for more money in exchange for miracles. One letter comes along with a tiny bag of "prayer-blessed" Dead Sea salt. The intructions tell you to eat the salt over a three-day period, then send in $27 to Popoff. According to an independent lab "20/20" hired to test the salt, it chemically bears no resemblance to real Dead Sea salt, and is closer to standard table salt.

Letters from Popoff also enclose trinkets like a piece of tinsel referred to as a gold and silver blessing bracelet, and a sheet of paper leaf cut-outs to be placed on a prayer chart and sent to Popoff. In that letter, you're told that "God is requesting an obedience offering of $200."

While these items might seem odd, they are very effective in appealing to the desperately faithful. Bercier told us she stretched her tight budget and sent Popoff about $500 over time. Many others send money, as well; in fact, donations to Popoff's ministry soared from $9.6 million in 2003 up to $23 million in 2005. His California home just sold for almost $2 million, and in recent months, he's been spotted driving a Porsche and a Mercedes. Together, he and his wife were paid nearly $1 million in 2005, and two of their kids were on the payroll, as well, pulling in over $180,000 each.

If Popoff's name seems vaguely familiar, there's a very good reason. His miracle healing services first propelled him up the televangelist ladder in the mid-1980s. His rise abruptly ended when private investigator James Randi exposed Popoff's healing services in a big way. Randi, who's made a career of exposing psychics, healers and the supernatural, noticed that Popoff seemed to know personal details of his audience members before he even met them. The information seemed to come to Popoff directly from God, but Randi's investigators found a more down-to-Earth source: Popoff's wife Elizabeth.

Before the shows began, she pre-interviewed audience members and asked them to fill out "prayer cards" with their names and addresses. Then, during the healing service, she passed that information on to Popoff through a hidden wireless earpiece he wore. Those audio transmissions — intercepted by Randi — showed Popoff being prompted by Elizabeth to pick specific audience members to speak to. Elizabeth — hidden offstage — would tell her husband their names, home addresses and ailments. Popoff then proclaimed that information to an amazed audience.

Suddenly, the miracles seemed a bit less miraculous, and after Randi played his shocking tapes on "The Tonight Show," Popoff's career went downhill fast. He reportedly filed for bankruptcy and went off the air for a time.

Almost 20 years later, his comeback now seems nearly complete, as he is back on the air pushing miracles again. Today, Popoff's program airs on seven cable TV networks, 23 times a week.

As for Bercier, she says she knew nothing of his shady past when she sent in her hard-earned cash. She said she gave the money because "it was going to be a miracle, he was just gonna heal (her sons) like that, both of them. Didn't happen."

Now, after her experience, she believes the man she had so much trust in, used her faith against her.