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.

When Wilson's parents threatened to cut off access to her trust fund, Wright directed her to hire attorney Melvin Belli to sue them. She complied. (The Wilsons backed down and reinstated her money before a suit was filed.)

Though billed as a matriarchy, the family had a distinct hierarchy. At the top, of course, was Wright, after whom came Bremner, or "Mama." She acted as Wright's general, in Wilson's words, overseeing the day-to-day activities in the household and freeing Wright for his spiritual pursuits.

Bremner told the women that they should "act like we're at war," according to a source close to the family, and be militant and perfect in every single thing they did. Bremner kept track of other house rules in a notebook. "We don't listen to music such as Lorena McKinnit, because it is tragic and stupid," wrote Bremner. "We don't buy cut flowers ... any we buy are alive ... we don't support an industry that caters to glamour, and undermines food-sustaining nutritional agriculture and wise use of farmland!"

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

They followed a strict vegetarian diet that included no alcohol and few dairy products (except for Wright, who went through cases of Henry Weinhardt's beer and ate ice cream regularly). Showing any emotion other than "joy" and "love" was viewed as a sign of weakness. Competition was outwardly discouraged, but secretly egged on. Campbell, who saw Wright first and foremost as a lover, often was jealous of his attentions to other women. She was punished by being "blasted" -- that is, humiliated -- by Wright in front of the others and told to be "selfless" like Mama. In turn, Bremner was blasted for not showing Wright "true love," as did Campbell.

Wilson was the family breadwinner. Besides having a trust fund, she was a talented businesswoman. By the time the family was arrested in 2001, Wilson was making $80,000 a year running the day-to-day operations of Modamas, a San Francisco painting company. She and Bremner, employed at a glass case manufacturing firm and then at a nutritional supplements company, worked grueling hours to support the ever-growing family. They left before 7 each morning and didn't return home until after 9 o'clock at night.

Home was no place to relax. After chores and child care, there might be actions or late-night "discourses." If the women nodded off during one of the latter philosophical/spiritual lectures, Wright would squirt them with a water gun. The women slept, on average, just four hours a night. Campbell was fired from several jobs for dozing off. Wilson's boss turned one of Modamas' offices into a "nap room" for her, after noticing how sleepy she always was.

Added to the stress and physical exhaustion was the toll of constant pregnancy. Wright believed that using birth control was meddling with destiny. Though Bremner had just two daughters, Wilson bore Wright a total of five kids, and Campbell six, including Ndigo. With each new child, the women's bond to Wright grew deeper.

"We couldn't think straight," Susan Weber told investigators.

On a June morning in 1990, an anxious Bremner shook Campbell awake. In the living room, Weber was screaming and crying. Her infant daughter, She, lay in a little hammock the family had hung from the ceiling. The baby was dead.

The family didn't notify authorities of She's death for three days, because, Wright told them, "It takes that long for the soul to leave the body." Then-San Francisco Medical Examiner Dr. Boyd Stephens ruled She's death "Sudden Death in Infancy" -- not to be confused with sudden infant death syndrome.

"We'll sometimes use that distinction when there's something about the case we don't feel comfortable about," says Stephens. He was unable to find any signs of trauma, and the baby appeared to be well-nourished. But her body was "already decomposing" he says, by the time he arrived. Stephens still considers the death an "open case."

She's death was the first scene in a nightmare. The women had been fearful of Wright when he yelled at them. Now he made them afraid for their lives. Soon after She's death, Wright began going on multiday crack binges that sparked psychotic rages. According to public records, he hit and kicked the women, raped them while watching the Home Shopping Network on TV, held guns to their heads. He told his wives that they had to work off the bad karma of their white ancestors, who enslaved and abused black people.

Wright maintains he never physically abused his wives. "Dark, hostile to human forces would enter me as a 'possession' via the vortex of religion and wage spiritual combats against the light forces that I've always been a servant of," Wright wrote of the incidents in letters sent to SF Weekly. But, he added, "I may have accidentally kicked Carol during the SPIRITUAL COMBATS."

Indeed he did kick Bremner, and more, according to public records. As head mother, she received the bulk of Wright's blows. According to Weber, Bremner's nose was broken "at least three or four times," and once Wright "tied her hands behind her back with duct tape and beat her until she started to cough up blood."

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