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."