Pin It

Death in the Family 

Once you learn the full story of the mom-and-pop cult known as "The Family," you'll understand an unsettling reality: Any of us might have joined in.

During the 12 years that Dr. Thomas Meyer had worked in the Kaiser Permanente emergency room in San Rafael, not a single child in his care had died. Much of his work involved treating tykes whose overprotective parents had unnecessarily summoned ambulances in response to minor injury.

Nothing, certainly, had prepared Meyer for Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright's arrival on Nov. 13, 2001. At around 10:30 p.m., four women walked through the ER doors as casually as if they were entering a Safeway. One of them -- a middle-aged woman wearing a head scarf -- was cradling a baby in her arms. Meyer observed that the boy was limp and looked dead. "Our child isn't breathing," the woman calmly told an emergency medical technician. The women's facial expressions were weirdly "flat," remembers Meyer. They didn't, in any case, seem especially concerned.

Though the doctor learned the boy was 19 months old, he looked half that age. He had a pretty face and curly dark hair, but his belly was bloated, his limbs oddly bow-shaped, like frog legs. As Meyer had expected, attempts to revive Ndigo (pronounced IN-di-go) were unsuccessful. Later, doctors determined that the baby had died of severe malnutrition. Meyer entered the trauma room where the women were seated.

It turned out the person who'd carried the boy into the hospital wasn't the mother. Once Meyer found the mother, Mary Campbell, an attractive thirtysomething with deep-set hazel eyes and a wide mouth, he delivered the bad news by first asking a few questions. No, nothing had been wrong with Ndigo, Campbell responded meekly and politely, except for a cold he'd had for about a week. That evening, she said, he'd just stopped breathing. She and the other women had tried to revive him with a warm bath and CPR. When that failed, they drove him to the hospital.

"It seemed very bizarre to walk up with an obviously very dead child, and before that not realize that something very, very bad was going on, and not call an ambulance," says Meyer. When he told the women Ndigo was dead, there was no crying, no screaming.

"Their reaction was, 'Uh, OK,'" says Meyer.

The woman with the head scarf who had carried the boy into the hospital -- and who, Meyer noticed, appeared to be in charge of the group -- asked if the coroner had arrived yet. He had, she was informed.

"Good," she said, as if bored, "because we're ready to go home."

That November evening marked the beginning of what would become one of the most sensational child abuse cases the Bay Area has seen. In the investigation that followed, it was revealed that the four women -- Carol Bremner, then 43; Deirdre Wilson, 37; Mary Campbell, 37; and Kali Polk-Matthews, 19 -- were part of a mom-and-pop cult led by a dreadlocked, self-styled mystic named Winnfred Wright. Together, the women had borne him 13 children, who, investigators found, had been living in almost total seclusion in the family's rented house in Marinwood, north of San Francisco. The children didn't go to school, or to the doctor or dentist; they ate a strict, nearly vegan diet. Many of them were suffering from rickets, a disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency. A few of the children were in advanced stages of the illness and had noticeable bone deformities.

The national news media seized on the case of "The Family," as they collectively became known, even though they'd never referred to themselves that way. Three of Wright's four "wives," none of whom he'd legally married, were white. (Polk-Matthews is half black, half white.) They were said to have been serving Wright, who is black, to atone for the sins of their racist ancestors. Besides working to support him, it was reported, they lured women back to their apartment for him to have sex with.

There were other creepy details: As punishment, the children were strapped to a weight bench and whipped with a belt; they were forced to fast, to wear tape over their mouths, to eat hot chili peppers. There was a baby who had died earlier -- mysteriously.

The family's story was made more shocking by the seemingly odd fact that the four women involved in the case were not weak, shiftless individuals from tough-luck backgrounds. Rather, they were "classy," as Wright liked to joke. Before meeting Wright, Bremner had gone to UC Berkeley and Wilson to Wesleyan College. Wilson, moreover, was the trust-funded granddaughter of the founder of the Xerox Corp. Campbell was from a Mass-on-Sunday, middle-class Italian-American family from Brooklyn. Polk-Matthews had been a track star at the private Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco.

The Marin County district attorney responded to the death of Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright with a vengeance. Wright and the three oldest women were charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter, and felony child endangerment. (Lesser charges against Polk-Matthews, who was pregnant with her first child by Wright at the time of her arrest, were ultimately dropped. She is now living with her mother in San Francisco, raising her baby.) Before her arrest, Bremner had been diagnosed with leukemia; she died in custody. The other defendants, facing the possibility of life in prison, pleaded guilty to the child endangerment charges. Wright was sentenced to 16 years in state prison, Campbell to 10, Wilson to seven. All their parental rights were terminated. To date they have each served nearly two years of their sentences.

From the prosecuting attorneys to the media to Dr. Thomas Meyer to a titillated public, it appeared that justice had been done. A bunch of crazy child-killers had been locked up, put where they belonged. But it wasn't as simple as that. Beneath the lurid story of "The Family" was a human drama left largely unexplored.

SF Weekly spent more than a year researching the family's case, poring over public records and talking to friends and family members of the defendants. Both Campbell and Wright were interviewed in prison, and Wright wrote some 50 jailhouse letters detailing his philosophy, personal history, and feelings about his case.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular