Senior taken in by television scam

Evangelical minister says he can cure fibromyalgia with expensive holy water

Daily News, Canada/May 12 2008

Josie Gurney couldn't sleep one night, and soon found herself drawn in by a late-night infomercial featuring charismatic evangelical minister Peter Popoff.

She didn't know about the California faith healer's shady past, making millions from sick people, only to be debunked on national TV. Gurney only knew her fibromyalgia was causing a lot of pain, and she had the faith to believe he could somehow channel God's energy and make her better.

"I saw this guy offering miracle water for free and I thought maybe I'd give it a try," Gurney said.

The bottle arrived in the mail four days later.

She followed the instructions to the letter, including the request to send $14 to Popoff Ministries.

"Next week I got another letter, that he's got more stuff for me to do. It's all these rituals, pieces of paper you have to put in the corners of your bedroom, or there's other things you put under your pillow, drink this sea salt from the Dead Sea, all kinds of things."

This time the demand was for $20.

Not long after that she was diagnosed with some serious spinal problems, and her desperation for a cure grew. The letters kept coming.

"The letters are so intense, they're so demanding. And he does a lot of scare tactics with Satan - 'God is not going to be happy with you.'"

She also got her sister involved.

Then she got the letter demanding $1,000, or whatever she could afford.

Her faith started turning to suspicion when she compared notes with her sister, and realized the letters were word-for-word the same. Then she saw a television documentary debunking the faith healer.

In the 1980s, Popoff was widely known for accurately guessing audience members' home addresses and their illnesses, fueling belief he truly enjoyed divine revelation.

But in 1987 skeptic James Randy followed the evangelist across the U.S., eventually learning his assistants gleaned information from audience members before the show, then fed it to Popoff using FM radios transmissions to a receiver fitted in Popoff's ear.

His ministry collapsed and went bankrupt within months of the news being revealed on the Johnny Carson Show.

Popoff is now back, and today he sells his message on late-night television.

Gurney was shocked when she learned the truth.

"I just feel awful, I feel stupid," she said.

"I believe (in God), but I don't need someone like him to take advantage of my faith and my beliefs."

Calls to Popoff's ministry in Upland California were not returned.

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