Peter Popoff says he’s a healer and a prophet of God. His former employee says he’s something quite different.
A sixty-eight-year old German American minister, Popoff’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1986, he was taken down by arch skeptic James Randi on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Randi, along with a private investigator, attended one of Popoff’s then-popular “faith healing” crusades, and discovered that Popoff’s prophetic messages from God were really just pieces of information picked up by his staff and whispered into Popoff’s earpiece by his wife, Elizabeth.
Fifteen months later, Popoff and his organization filed for bankruptcy and disappeared from public view.
Now, he’s back, and while his crusades continue, he has a new way of getting attendees. It starts with an infomercial.
Call his 800 number or visit his website, and you can receive his “miracle spring water,” free of charge.
But former employee Crystal Sanchez’s relationship with Popoff started with a different kind of call. A recruiter from the organization called Sanchez asking her to apply for a recently vacated position at Popoff’s organization, People United for Christ (PUFC). Sanchez had never heard of the outfit but was delighted at the thought of working at a nonprofit organization, having spent almost five years at a job she didn’t love. And the title sounded intriguing: “Donation Processor.”
Sanchez quickly interviewed and won the position. But what she would learn there would change her view of Reverend Popoff forever. According to Sanchez, Popoff sends his followers fake “miracle spring water,” bilks thousands of people (many grossly in debt) out of their money, and uses mass-produced “personalized messages from God” to do it.
I initially found Sanchez through her e-book, which she self-published on SmashWords, an e-book–making website. When I contacted her, she was stunned. She had been certain that the only people who read her book were her mother and cousin.
A week later, I met Sanchez in Rancho Cucamonga for dinner after her workday. Happy and smiling, the thirty-one-year-old brunette sat down with me at a pizza joint. She’s elated to be studying to be a psychiatric nurse. But only four years ago, she was entering Peter Popoff’s world.
That world is crazier than you could ever imagine.
When I logged onto Popoff’s site, I was pleased to learn that by drinking his free “miracle spring water,” I could persuade the heavenly forces to obliterate my financial debts. Having recently gotten my masters degree, I would be happy to have Jesus settle my student loans.
First came the spring water, in a plastic pouch, along with a lengthy letter asking me to drink the water and then put the plastic pouch by my bedside at night, praying for prosperity and healing. But keep the pouch, and Jesus would take back all my blessings. I was to return it right away, to Prophet Popoff, along with a $19 donation. “Seed money,” he calls it.
Popoff says his miracle water is from a Russian spring that has magical healing properties:
“This packet contains water from the spring in Southern Russia where the pastors and Christians were led by the Holy Spirit to drink during the horrible Chernobyl nuclear accident…. No one who drank from this spring died from nuclear contamination. No one who followed divine leading and direction suffered illness.”
But Sanchez says that that water comes from a much less miraculous source: Costco, the supermarket megastore. Popoff’s daughter went to Costco every week, says Sanchez, and returned with ordinary bottled water, which would be repackaged as “miracle spring water” and sent out along with a request for “a gift of love, faith and obedience to God” in the form a donation.
The letters I received were straightforward, asking me several times per letter for a tithing:
“I speak to you now as God’s messenger, as God’s prophet of prosperity… For yea, my daughter Carrie, do not repeat the mistakes of many and allow shortage or adversity to affect your generosity towards me, saith God. Do not think of the things you need…. For if you give, I will supply all your needs.”
My name appears about a dozen times in each letter. This stunt is an old one for Popoff. In 2008, a disenchanted follower went public after discovering that her “personal” letters from Popoff were identical to her sister’s, minus the names. And as far back as 1985, the Toronto Star reported that Popoff’s crew lamely attempted to keep the contents of the “personalized” letters secret:
“Keep this between you, Liz, and me. Some things are no one else’s business,” the 1985 letters reportedly read.
I pictured Popoff penning these letters on his computer, mass producing a message that would work on as many people as possible, as Barnum statements do. But Crystal laughed at the very image.
“Peter doesn’t write the letters!” she chuckled. “They start with the people in his immediate office. He may have 2 percent of the idea, but the others take it and run with it.”
To see whether the letters are indeed mass-produced, my boyfriend also signed up for Popoff’s mailing list. Among the things he wanted healed, Drew mentioned his cerebral palsy, which affects his right side. Naturally, Popoff’s crew latched onto Drew’s disability, promising to heal it if he would send in financial donations to Popoff’s organization. For some reason, Drew chose to save his money.
The letters he received bore a striking resemblance to my own, making the same promises and sending the same lame trinkets to “bless” him. Since Drew never donated to Popoff, he still has cerebral palsy. That’s the only reason.
Donations Pour In
But with many believers, the letters work. According to Sanchez, countless devotees send the letters back with the amount requested or more. While the occasional letter would be returned with a bag of dog shit (the sentiment being “what you give, you get back” I suppose), the vast majority were full of donations and notes desperately pleading for help and promising that the recipient had followed Popoff’s mysterious orders to a T.
Sanchez saw the letters daily, as they poured into her division in the mail room. Seventy employees worked in that division, she says. When the responses from donors came in, a twenty-person team opened them, entered new information into the system (Got cancer? Check. In debt? Check. Mother is dying? Check.), and then shredded the evidence. Popoff, she says, never even saw them.
“I was astonished at how much money I was actually counting,” says Sanchez in her e-book, The Truth About People United for Christ. “People were sending coins, dollars, twenties, even hundreds of dollars!”
And many, if not most, of those giving “seed money” were hurting for funds themselves. Debt, she says, is one of the top reasons people turn to Popoff for help.
“Most partners wrote that the money they were sending in was the last dollars or cents they had.”
In one day, Sanchez counted $30,000 in donations, just from the letters she personally opened. She had nineteen letter-opening colleagues, all going at about the same pace, and raking in an estimated $600,000 on a good day.
She recalls a time when Popoff’s letters urged readers to send in any gold they owned.
“People were sending in heirlooms,” she told me, shaking her head sadly. “You could tell they were very old.”
Sanchez alleges that People United for Christ made about $2.3 million from that one golden stunt. They used it to buy and furnish an entire new building, complete with throne-like offices for top employees, she says.
Trickery: The Family Business?
The gold scheme isn’t too surprising, given that Popoff’s former son-in-law, Jason Cardiff, once ran his own mail-in gold business, “Cash Your Gold Now.” During the gold drive Sanchez witnessed, Cardiff was still married to Popoff’s daughter, Amy. Since then, Cash Your Gold Now (which has a string of complaints on various consumer protection sites) has folded, and Cardiff has moved on to other ventures.
The once-pastor’s-son became CEO of Redwood Industries, a company that sells male enhancement pills. When I visited Redwood Industries (just a few miles from Popoff’s office) and asked them to substantiate their claim that their pill, Prolongz, “has been tested and proven to increase ejaculatory control and increase intercourse duration,” they promised to contact me with supporting information. I never heard back, and my follow-up calls and emails went unanswered.
Cardiff is also the cofounder of Runaway Products, whose prior ventures include e-cigarettes and a bag that supposedly removes moisture from electronics. Both products have positive Amazon reviews, but only by one person, a Lisa P., who suspiciously only reviews goods made by Runaway Products.
One might begin to suspect that Cardiff has become accustomed to misleading buyers. Despite many complaints about his businesses, Cardiff lives in an opulent home in Upland, California, pictured here.
Jason Cardiff appears to no longer be involved in Popoff’s business and is remarried to Eunjung Cardiff, who incidentally is no fan of people taking photos of her house, even from the public street. I don’t recommend it.
A Mystery in Texas
Today, the majority of Popoff’s productions appear to come from Access Media Group, a Dallas-based operation run in part by one Josh Sherrell, nephew of Popoff’s one-time right-hand man, Reeford Sherrell.
Access Media’s address is shared by The Movement Church of Dallas, a church that is not registered on the Texas Attorney General’s site for churches and charities.
Popoff is also associated with Word for the World Church in Dallas, Texas. Yet the last known address has been replaced by a pharmaceutical company.
This is one of the frustrating aspects of investigating a religious operation: churches are not required to submit taxes or even to register with the IRS. They are essentially the only organizations that have no government oversight. It is the flip side of religious liberty: for the right to worship as we please (and, likewise, for the right not to worship), we trade the right to government oversight of our pastors and prophets. Though some faith healers have been arrested for extortion, these stories are few and far between.
When I called Sherrell and asked to speak to Popoff, saying I had been receiving his letters for some time, Sherrell told me that Popoff would never be available to speak with me. Follow-up calls and emails to every known phone number and address for People United for Christ went unanswered.
So I showed up.
Tucked into a village of nondescript, tan, industrial buildings sits People United for Christ. It is the facility where Crystal Sanchez worked, and the place that sends out thousands of letters to congregants hungry for hope.
I parked down the road, out of sight, and walked the half-mile of two-lane highway to College Commerce Road. As I approached PUFC’s official headquarters, I second-guessed myself.
“Is this it?” I mumbled to myself. It looked more like a warehouse than a church. But as I neared the window, I could see the tiny gold lettering:
“People United for Christ. Reverend Peter Popoff.”
The doors and windows were tinted, and the door was locked, so I pressed the intercom buzzer. A tall, muscled man with an earpiece immediately met me at the door.
“Hi, I was wondering if I could see Mr. Popoff?” I said, my voice quivering.
“Uh, can you step outside for one second?” he asked, blocking the entryway.
I wanted to see how he would treat me if he thought I was just a follower, someone who believed deeply in Popoff’s message and needed help. But as soon as I mentioned the letters Popoff had sent me, the guard’s eyes glazed over and he looked off into the distance, telling me Popoff was out of town and his return date was unknown.
He suggested I call Popoff’s “hotline,” closing the door quickly in my face. When I got home, I called the hotline. There was no answer, but an outgoing voicemail asked me to leave a message. I did, and received no response.
Knowing now that a regular donor and follower had no chance of actually speaking to the “prophet” who is taking her money and promising personal prayers, I contacted the organization, this time identifying myself as a reporter, and asking for comment on the accusations leveled against Popoff by his former employee. Shockingly, there came no response.
At this point, I had tried every method possible of contacting Popoff short of standing outside his house and waiting for him to wake up. So I called my photographer friend, Alan, and asked for his advice.
He suggested we stand outside his house and wait for him to wake up.
Popoff lives in the gated town of Bradbury, below the Angeles Forest hills of Southern California, about half an hour from Popoff’s Upland office. The entire city is only 1.9 square miles and has its own full-time staff. It is a city of mansions. Popoff’s house has an estimated worth of $7 million. As we approached, the first thing we saw was a fifteen-foot wall of fountains.
Being the smaller and less threatening of the two of us, I approached the guard gate.
“Hi! How do I go in to see a resident?” I asked.
“Who are you?”
“Well, we can’t just let you in.”
“Oh, OK. Well, I wanted to visit Peter Popoff,” I began. An emotional curtain fell over the guard’s eyes.
“You can’t. Not without his invitation called down here,” he said, turning his head down in the international symbol for “Go away.”
“OK,” I said, in my cheeriest 6 am voice, “Thanks!”
“Mmm,” he said.
Alan and I rounded the corner and sat on the retaining wall separating Bradbury from the rest of society. We watched the cars pour in and out. It was a dichotomous mix of luxury cars and pickups driven by contractors with ladders hanging out the back. The very wealthy and very working class go in and out of Bradbury with very little in between.
After an hour of sitting on the retaining wall and nodding politely at BMWs, we headed back to the Upland office for one final attempt at getting a meeting with Popoff, the people’s pastor.
I had been following all of the instructions in his letters (except sending in money, but let’s not split hairs). I had been sleeping with silver wristbands under my pillow, planting paper seeds in dirt, and all manner of other symbolic gestures demanded by Popoff’s letters. Yet my student debt remained the same, and Drew’s cerebral palsy showed no sign of going away.
Back to Nowhere
As Alan and I pulled onto College Commerce Way one final time, Alan laughed.
“This is the church?” he asked.
I approached the building and rang the buzzer. This time, they let me in. A young woman sat behind a counter, glass separating her from the lobby.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
“Hi,” I said, “How can I see Reverend Popoff?”
She paused, startled, and looked at me as if I had asked her a trick question.
“Reverend Popoff?” she asked.
“What is it regarding?”
I explained that he and I had been exchanging letters. I had been by before, I said, and no one had gotten back to me.
She stumbled for a notepad, “Um, why don’t you write down your name and number,” she said, shoving the pad under the glass partition. I wrote down my name, phone number, and email address. I would later follow up to every email address and phone number listed for the organization, to no avail.
“Do you know when he’s generally in?” I asked the woman at the front desk.
“I do not,” she said, “I personally don’t ever see him…. But, I’m gonna give this [note] to his personal prayer team, and someone will get back to you,” she said, pleading with her eyes for me to go. Of course, I knew better than to expect a return phone call, but there was nothing left to do. Pastor Popoff had successfully made himself unreachable to the very people he claimed to help.
Alan and I, grumpy and defiant, walked up and down the quiet street, taking photos. The same security guard I had met at the last visit approached and told us it was a private street.
Photo by Alan Mittelstaedt.
“That’s strange,” I said. “The street sign doesn’t say so.”
He glared at me in silence then spat, “If you go on the property, I will have to call the police.”
“Well, I’m not on it, so stop calling me over,” I said. Then he disappeared behind a tinted glass door. As we waited for any sign of Popoff, a woman darted through the parking lot and into the building, glancing at us as she went. For two hours, no one else entered, and no one else left.
Eventually, tired of watching scared staffers poke their heads through the blinds at us, Alan and I drove home.
When Visitors Come to Pastor Popoff
Once a follower begins receiving Popoff’s letters, as I did, there is no end. Each letter asks for more and more money (the most I was asked for was $250). Virtually all of the letters contain symbolic gifts from Popoff, from his “miracle spring water” to “gold bracelets” that are actually strands of gold-colored plastic ribbon. Clearly, many of his followers find these gifts and letters compelling, such as this woman who cries as she reads his letters. At the time of the video, she was awaiting spiritual healing for endometriosis and HPV.
I contacted her and asked how she has progressed. She claims that her daughter has returned to her and that she is cured of both illnesses. She also says she is now “working with” Popoff. She said they were good friends but had never actually met. She never responded to an interview request for this article.
Sanchez witnessed an even worse example of Popoff’s alleged manipulation: one of the recipients of his letters arrived at the office to see him personally. Since becoming his follower and giving to the ministry, she had lost all of her money, belongings, and even her family, who were exhausted and destitute after her obsession with Popoff had come to an apex. The pastor refused to see her.
That follower is not the only one to lose money and dignity from following Popoff’s orders. Court filings made by another woman show she attempted to sue Popoff for being a “quack prophet.” She stated that the reverend extracted $5,000 from her for “blessings,” which she says ruined her and forced her husband to leave her, making her homeless. Court decisions confirm that she “[appeared] to be indigent.”
The woman went on to sue George W. Bush and the U.S. government (separate lawsuits) for allegedly monitoring her, and she said that Popoff predicted that the government would spy on her, thereby causing it to come true. How many of her delusions were sparked by Popoff’s letters will never be known, but one thing is clear: Popoff’s donation requests were met by a mentally ill, indigent woman, who believed his every word.
The lawsuits were dismissed.
Why Crystal Spoke Up
The day Sanchez broke was the day she got the phone call.
“You can only go so long,” she said, “What really got me was the suicide call.”
A young man in a suicidal panic had left a voicemail message the night before. He asked Popoff to call him back. Sanchez immediately ran the message to Popoff’s daughter, Amy, who refused to return the call. Looking back on the incident, Crystal reflected that she would never know whether the boy was alive.
That was the beginning of the end for Sanchez. Soon after, she had quit and was writing an e-book about her experience.
“It’s time someone made him shake in his boots a little bit,” she told me in a calm, steady voice.
Her mother was the one who gave her the idea to write it, and Crystal knew the experience would be cathartic. Plus, perhaps it would get the word out to people being duped by, in her mind, a con man.
“I know what it is to be down on your luck, and you’re looking for that one person to come and save you. That’s where these people are. And here comes this ‘prophet,’ who is gonna heal you, and you give him everything. And then he’s a fraud? It’s unacceptable.”
Although Sanchez was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement as she quit, she refused. PUFC declined to even offer her a financial incentive, and she had already decided to tell her story anyway. She can’t understand why no one else has spoken out, perhaps underestimating her own bravery.
She originally wrote the book under a pseudonym then later chose to use her real name.
“I didn’t want to be known at first, and then I was like, ‘If they really wanted to do anything to me, they know everything about me….’ They know my social, they know where I live, they know everything. So, no need to hide any more.”
Since Sanchez released her book, no one from PUFC has contacted her about it. In fact, until I contacted Crystal, she assumed her inside story had been lost in the ether of the Internet.
“Years went by and it went nowhere,” she said. “If just one person would read the story and get what he really is, that would be enough for me.”
But some people will never be persuaded.
“Sometimes it’s mind boggling,” she said. “I really do believe that some of [the employees] that have been there for years … believe he’s a prophet. They talked like it was a cult. And they know what goes on! It’s like they’re brainwashed.”
She leaned in and looked me in the eyes.
“It’s really insane,” she said, nodding emphatically. “These people are insane.”
A Culture of Fear
As for the climate around the office, secrecy and isolation ruled. Employees were discouraged from talking to one another or forming friendships. A no–cell-phone policy was strictly enforced; when Crystal snuck her phone into the bathroom to make a quick private text, she was pulled aside and reprimanded immediately, causing her to question whether cameras were placed even in the bathroom stalls.
The isolation became nearly unbearable. Crystal was able to make a single friend, a doorman, with whom she commiserated (not the same doorman discussed earlier in this story). But everyone else, she says, was either there for a job alone or completely committed to Popoff’s ruse.
Crusades for Christ
Popoff’s infomercials show him “healing” congregants from around the world with his anointing touch. Yet his events stay hidden from view, never advertised publicly. Most of his commercials, says Sanchez, were recorded years ago. A record of some of them may be found at Josh Sherrell’s Vimeo page. Or at least, they can for now, until he realizes the account also hosts commercials for Popoff’s former son-in-law’s defunct products, an association Popoff seems to have buried.
Sanchez explains that Popoff’s crew sends out invitations to all of the letter-writers in a particular metropolitan area, so he knows that everyone who attends will already be primed for “healing.” No one without an invitation is allowed in.
On the broadcasts, audience members join Popoff at the front of the hall to sing Jesus’s praises and tell stories of financial resurrection.
“I owed $17,000 and you said I would get a cheque on the 30th, and I got a cheque for exactly $17,000 on exactly that day!”
This story, with various dates and figures, is repeated ad nauseam throughout each event. Sanchez suspects that the stories are real but that checks are sent out to a few congregants in each town to keep the testimonies rolling in. If she’s right, what the lucky winners do not realize is that all that money came from the others in the audience; a cruel, forced lottery.
According to Sanchez, the Popoff family flies to every crusade in their private jet and typically books hotel rooms that cost about $1,000 a night. Yet, all of these crusades are paid for by People United for Christ and the desperate people who give to the charity. Popoff’s Canadian sister charity was shut down after an audit found suspicious payments and determined that Popoff was putting the public in danger by encouraging them to seek his healing for blindness, AIDS, and more instead of getting real medical treatment.
“I don’t really know if Peter ever was, or is, a religious man,” Crystal told me, sighing to herself. I guffawed at the very idea.
“Oh! You think he might not be religious at all?” I said, surprised. I had imagined he somehow justified his actions in his own mind, but Crystal’s explanation made more sense. After all, he is a faith healer, constantly throwing people’s wheelchairs and crutches into the air after he “heals” them, but Crystal says he has a secret.
“Well,” she said, “I don’t think he believes it too much if he walks around with 100 pills in his bag.”
As we left our dinner table and hugged goodbye, I asked Crystal, for about the fifteenth time, what made her do it. What gave her the strength and courage to take on this legendary liar? Why was she the one, among hundreds of employees, to speak out?
“I know I’m far from perfect,” she said. “But when I screw up, I try not to take anyone down with me.”
Popoff, on the other hand, may have taken down a whole flock.
Special thanks to those who contributed to this report: Alan Mittelstaedt, Spencer Marks, Claire Knowlton, Ross and Cara Blocher, Jarrett Kaufman, Mara Campos, and Nick Erber.