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.

The 50 or so letters Wright sent to SF Weekly after the interview, on the other hand, are the work of an angry, mentally troubled man. In scrawled sentences that only end in ellipses, never periods, Wright returns again and again to the same themes:

"WHITE RACISM in a County as (1947 Mississippi) RACIST as Marin County is, is a CONSPIRACY already against any black man & anything or anybody connected with him...especially if it's white women too closely connected with that black man...they were WHITE RACIST/HOSTILE E.T. possessed to stop the INTERRACIAL SEX & baby punish i-Nigger for being too 'uppity & smart' & not deferential enough to white folks."

But Wright wasn't always this angry. Born in 1956, he was a child who seemed destined for success. The youngest son of Leonard and Elinora Wright, a trucker and a homemaker, respectively, from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., he was attractive and athletic, perpetually on the honor roll, a self-described mama's boy.

A part of the medical examiner's report on the death of 
A part of the medical examiner's report on the death of She.

The Wrights were one of the few black families in their neighborhood, and their three children were some of the only black students at the schools they attended during the turbulent civil rights era. The situation mixed possibility and rejection, upward mobility and racism.

"We had high hopes for Winnie," says his mother, who now lives in North Carolina.

"Prejudice was always the underlying thing," says his older sister, Gayle Edmondsen.

All the same, neither high expectations nor racial tension seemed to weigh heavily on Wright. Lithe and fast, with an incredible will to push beyond his limits, he became a track star, the football team quarterback, and a straight-A student at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. His senior year, he nabbed a partial scholarship to the University of Arizona, where his sister had previously enrolled.

In 1976, after two years at UofA, Wright moved to San Francisco, graduating cum laude from Golden Gate University with a degree in administration of justice. He enrolled in night school, hoping to earn a law degree from the University of San Francisco, investigating Medicare and Medicaid claims at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a day job. At some point during the late 1970s, Wright "wed" a young black professional woman named Genne Jackson in a non-legally binding ceremony beneath a flower-covered gazebo, with both of their families present.

But as Wright walked the walk of the aspiring young lawyer, he talked a different game.

"He used to write me 12-, 13-page letters, and he would do his own sociopolitical analysis," says his brother, Greg. "He didn't think the economic or social system was fair to black people. ... It was: 'Down with America, overthrow the system.'"

Wright became involved in the Bay Area reggae scene, writing songs about the oppression of blacks and occasionally performing them as a "chanter" with local bands. He tried his hand at reggae-themed painting, began experimenting with cocaine, and grew convinced that working a 9-to-5 job was not his destiny. In 1980, a court-ordered psychological evaluation conducted during the prosecution of the family says, Wright quit his job, left school, split with his wife, and went to New York City, where he "lived on the streets with just a sleeping bag, his herbs, and his Bible." The report quotes Wright as saying that his biological family thought he had "lost his mind."

Wright returned to San Francisco in 1982, moving in with Carol Bremner, a sweet-voiced woman with wavy, long, blond hair and a passion for Native American flute music; he'd met her in the elevator while still working for the federal government. Bremner had a father who was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and, though she looked like a hippie chick, she was a tough political activist. She led the anti-apartheid movement on the UC Berkeley campus and had strong opinions about most everything, friends say.

Bremner died in 2002 of leukemia. Her parents refused to comment for this story. There are no court records that make it clear exactly how and why she got involved with Wright. A court-ordered psychological evaluation of Bremner says simply that she was "hip to the Reggae-Rastafarian music scene," a political and religious movement originating among Christian Jamaicans and holding that marijuana is a sacrament, blacks will be repatriated back to Africa, and Haile Selassi, the former emperor of Ethiopia, is the second coming of Christ. Bremner was, the report said, willing to both support Wright and live communally with the "many other White women" he met through the "Rasta movement."

Though he continued to paint pictures and write reggae songs, Wright decided his primary role in life would be that of spiritual leader. He read constantly from, among other books, the Tao Te Ching and Black Elk Speaks, and over time developed a hodgepodge spirituality that incorporated black radical politics and New Age beliefs.

Over the course of the next 19 years, he encouraged a string of girlfriends and "wives" to think of themselves and him as a new tribe that was separating itself from the "Babylon system" of mainstream America. He referred to his group as "seers," a term taken from the popular series of books written by Carlos Castaneda, of whom Wright was a huge fan. In the books, an Indian sorcerer named Don Juan teaches the author to "see" in new, magical ways, often by ingesting hallucinogenic plants. Though the adventures Don Juan leads him on are often terrifying and bizarre, Castaneda is warned that if he resists or questions what is happening to him, he'll miss the point of the spiritual exercise.

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