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.

In April of 1987, Wilson's best friend from Wesleyan, Katherine Forrest, got a strange call from Wilson.

"She said she'd been raped by this guy she met at a bar," says Forrest. Wilson sounded odd to Forrest, as if she were stoned, or as if her voice was "coming through a different person." Alarmed, Forrest started taking notes. "She used the word 'rape,'" Forrest says, "but she talked about how she was now living with this guy, and being awakened to a wonderful life."

Fourteen years later, Wilson didn't recall in court documents what happened that night when Wright supposedly raped her. She did talk about a subsequent evening, when she told Wright that their relationship couldn't be sexual, because she was engaged. Wright picked up a candle and held it between their faces. His eyes grew huge, as if possessed.

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

"If you go over and be with that African nigger," Wilson remembered him saying, "you will ruin him because you are an ignorant white woman. If you leave you are avoiding your responsibility ... you will miss your destiny and never attain knowledge. You will be another robot going through the motions [living a] stupid, meaningless life."

He traced the arcs of Wilson's astrological chart, showing her that what he said was reflected in the stars.

"I was totally petrified," she told her psychologist.

After that, the psychologist, Dr. Paul Martin, wrote, Wilson "gave herself 100%" to Wright.

The ruse typically went like this: "Would you like to be part of a women's mural project we're doing?" Bremner would ask. They were taking pictures of many women, she would explain, and eventually would paint the mural from a collage of the women's faces. If the woman assented, Bremner would get her phone number, then invite her over to the apartment. If the woman came, Wright's wives would greet her warmly.

"Would you mind slipping into a robe?" they'd ask. "It'll make a better picture."

After that, as the woman sat on a futon, wearing no clothing save the robe given her, Wright's wives would play it by ear. Bremner might ask the woman if she'd like a massage while Wilson did her astrological chart. The point was to loosen the woman up, so Wright could come in to have sex with her and take kinky photos.

Wright called these strange seductions "the actions" and presented them as magical ritual. They took place after he'd smoked crack, which happened with increasing frequency -- sometimes as often as three times a week -- after Wilson joined the household and contributed her Xerox trust-fund money to its budget.

Wright explained to his wives that during the actions he was like a medium in a trance, that he was in a vulnerable state. If they used their "material judgment" on him and acted negatively about procuring women, it would mess up the magic -- or worse. He might go into what Wilson called "possessed mode" and start yelling at them, calling them "cracker-assed bitches."

Bremner usually took the lead, because she was head mother (as Wright called her) and served as a model to the other wives. "He's such a good husband, he should have many followers," Ndigo's mother, Mary Campbell, remembers Bremner rationalizing.

Wright's advances were all but indiscriminate. Judy Pan, a co-worker of Wilson, remembers coming over to the house and being offered a massage by Bremner, then feeling somebody else touching her. "I said, 'Oh that's interesting, I feel another pair of hands on my legs.' And he just chuckled. But then he left," says Pan.

Others had less fleeting experiences. In 1991, a woman filed a complaint with San Francisco police, alleging that Wright had drugged her, then tried to rape her. In that same year, another woman told police that she'd gone to the house and Wright had smoked a "crackling substance," then pointed to an ax hanging on the wall. "Have you ever seen a woman wearing an ax?" he reportedly said. "It is a sign of femininity." Both women ultimately declined to press charges.

After Wilson joined the family in 1987, a woman named Susan Weber was recruited via an action and stayed for four years. She told Marin County investigators that during her first visit to the house to get her picture taken for the mural project, Wright gave her LSD. "We went downstairs, and he handed me a mint candy and said, 'This is your sacrament,'" Weber said. "I started to hallucinate ... thinking this is where I was supposed to be."

Most of the time, the women the family picked up during the actions were hard-luck cases, crack addicts looking for a fix. They'd be gone by morning. But every so often, the family's scattershot approach to recruitment would hit an idealist at loose ends. Somebody who, like Wilson, was between commitments in life. Somebody who was lonely, looking for something. When Wright found somebody like that, he grabbed -- and held on tightly.

Mary was more like a high school girl. ... She was crazy-in-love with me, like no woman can fake.

-- Winnfred Wright

Growing up in Brooklyn, Mary Campbell was a tomboy. Then came the day in high school when she realized she was too busty to play on the volleyball team. Campbell had been blessed or cursed, depending on how you looked at it, with a body and face that turned men's heads. Besides the breasts, she had long legs, ash-brown hair she wore in a tumbling cascade of curls, a model's high cheekbones, and a full mouth that was almost always smiling.

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