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.

Earlier in 2001, the family had also welcomed its first new recruit in years, a 19-year-old named Kali Polk-Matthews, whom they'd picked up at a bus stop during an action. A rosy-cheeked Spelman College dropout with bobbed brown hair, Polk-Matthews had been living with her mother in San Francisco. Polk-Matthews (who refused comment for this story) was, according to former members of the family, an intelligent young woman going through a confused time. Wright told her she had an "old soul" and that they had been together in past lives.

Campbell, who until Polk-Matthews' arrival had been Wright's youngest and prettiest wife, was painfully jealous. Her misery made the atmosphere in the house even more tense. When she complained, Wright grabbed her by her neck and throttled her breathless.

"I applied pressure to Mary's neck that incapacitated her so that she could have that little 'deep breath/timeout' and choose the correct response of peace and relaxation," Wright wrote in a letter sent to SF Weekly.

Winnfred Wright.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Winnfred Wright.
Deirdre Wilson.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Deirdre Wilson.

During this bleak autumn, Campbell could tell her young son, Ndigo, wasn't feeling well. He was congested and wouldn't take his bottle. He fussed when she tried to move him.

"Please -- can't I take him to see a doctor?" Campbell asked Wright for a third time.

"No. You're making him sick with your negative energy," he responded.

One evening, Campbell was lying on the living room floor with the little boy when his breathing became labored. She picked him up to hold him, and he began to turn blue.

Campbell ran to Wright and told him Ndigo wasn't breathing. Bremner screamed for someone to start giving the baby CPR, and Polk-Matthews tried to revive Ndigo. Wilson and the oldest girls prayed and chanted, rubbing the baby's arms and legs while Campbell paced back and forth.

At Wright's suggestion they moved the baby into his father's bedroom and put him in front of the television, which Wright said would provide "stimulation for his brain." Meanwhile, one of the women drew a hot bath, and when it was full they moved the baby into the water.

"It's Ndigo's time to pass," a scared Wright told his family, according to one of Campbell's daughters interviewed later by the police. "He doesn't want to live the human life anymore."

All of this frenzied activity took place in 15 minutes, during which Ndigo failed to breathe. Finally Wright told them to take the baby to the hospital. The women piled into one of the household's two SUVs and sped off.

It was the last time they'd be together as a family.

When the women returned from the hospital at 4 in the morning, they were escorted by a sheriff's sergeant who stationed himself inside the house until a search warrant could be obtained. Wright gathered the family around him and prayed.

At about 10 a.m., detectives arrived and began combing the family's house. First, though, they removed the remaining children from their parents' custody for police interviews.

"Remember to surround yourself in white light!" cried Bremner, according to public records. The children, who, a deputy noted, were "pale and clammy," went silently, without tears.

In her cell at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, Campbell thinks about Ndigo's death and feels indescribable pain and guilt. She has a friend at the prison who will sometimes role-play that she is Ndigo, and Campbell will weep and apologize to him, over and over again. It's an exercise Campbell read about in a book on grieving in the prison library, where she works as a librarian.

The game helps, but only a little. "The very first thing I'm going to do when I get out of here is join a grieving-mothers support group," she says.

After they were first separated from Wright in the Marin County Jail, Campbell and Wilson maintained their allegiance to him. Campbell asked one of her children, with whom she was visiting, to tell Wright she "loved him." But after Bremner died, loyal to Wright until the end, the other two slowly began to regain their former personalities.

"When I visited her in jail she looked better than she'd ever looked during the time I'd known her," says Wilson's former co-worker Andres Burgueño. "She had color in her cheeks, she looked rested."

Both women began working with psychologists to understand the experience they'd been through. They renounced Wright and reconnected with their families and former friends.

"I was living as a psychological amputee," said Wilson at her sentencing hearing, as her tearful mother and father sat in the back of the courtroom. "I'm glad I've seen the day when I could apologize to my parents."

But "coming out of the fog," as Wilson described her release from Wright, also meant taking responsibility for what they had done to their children. It was a crime they are to pay dearly for.

When Wright, Wilson, and Campbell pleaded guilty to felony child endangerment, thus avoiding a trial in which the children would surely have had to testify against them, their parental rights were terminated.

They know where a few of the older kids are; they were adopted by family members of Wright and his wives. The women receive reports that these children are excelling academically despite their nontraditional early education, and, thanks to Wright's daily pickup games, are "basketball prodigies," as Campbell jokes. But under the terms of their sentences, the women are not allowed to communicate with any of the children or each other. And the younger kids, including the infant Wilson gave birth to while in custody, have completely vanished from their lives, perhaps forever.

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