By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
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.
What the research revealed is more shocking than the story originally told in the press, but in a strange way. Far from being monsters, Wright's wives were actually smart, gutsy, warmhearted people. Bremner and Wilson had been popular student leaders at the center of their respective college-activist communities. They had been, those who knew them said over and over again, critical thinkers and independent women, the last people you'd imagine getting suckered into a cult. Campbell had been a vivacious Manhattan secretary; her family had always believed she would become a teacher because of her love for children. There was no sign she could become the kind of mother who'd let her baby die of malnutrition.
But by the time Ndigo died, Campbell and the other women of this strange family were no longer what they had once been.
An intelligent, handsome law-school dropout, Wright enticed young women to serve him by presenting himself as a guru who could lead them to some form of spiritual enlightenment, individually and as a group. Once the women were romantically involved with him, Wright used what psychologists recognize as classic tactics of psychological coercion -- often colloquially called mind control or brainwashing -- to break down their critical thinking skills. He abused them sexually, physically, and psychologically; he kept them up late at night, isolated them from family and friends, controlled virtually every aspect of their lives when they were not at work. He justified his bizarre behavior by telling them it was all part of a grand lesson.
The women in the family did not appear, from the outside, to be brainwashed zombies; two of them held demanding full-time jobs, where co-workers knew little about their personal lives. But the women weren't whole people, either. Isolation, exhaustion, and mind games had broken their sense of self. When some of their children began to show bone deformities, Wright insisted that the problems were genetic defects, not signs of illness, and these previously independent women simply took his word for it. They'd lived on a steady diet of similarly nonsensical, "alternative" beliefs for more than a decade, and Wright's explanations for their children's maladies didn't even seem odd to them.
Just as most people believe themselves impervious to television advertisements, few understand how a reasonable person could allow himself to be lured into a cult. Barry Borden, the Marin County deputy district attorney who at court hearings asked over and over again why the women didn't "just leave," couldn't understand. That Wright was allowed to plead guilty to child endangerment charges, exactly as his wives had done, and thus avoid a lengthier prison sentence, showed how little the justice system understood.
But such lack of understanding is hardly surprising. In the writings of late Berkeley psychologist Margaret Singer, widely considered one of the foremost experts on cults, "People like to think that their opinions, values and ideas are inviolate and totally self-regulated." Psychologists who study coercion know that that's simply not true. Even the smartest, most well-meaning person can be controlled, if he encounters the wrong person, at just the wrong emotional moment. For the women in the family, that person was Winnfred Wright. Their story is one of good intentions and human frailty and an unsettling reality: It could, indeed, happen to any of us.
We never were able to figure out how [Wright] went from the fun-loving student-athlete to what he became. Did he have a mental breakdown? Did he fry his brain on drugs? We just don't know.
Winnfred Wright walks into the visitors' room at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran dressed in the prison uniform of white T-shirt and bluejeans. A slender man with delicate bone structure, neat shoulder-length dreadlocks, and wire-rim glasses, he looks like he should be doing postgrad work, not hard time. Our introduction is telling: He immediately tries to establish an intimate connection. Smiling shyly, he remembers the sole personal detail I'd included in a letter to him. "I was interested that you've traveled in India," he says in a soft, warm voice. "Are you familiar with the Vedas?"
Wright begins to paint a gorgeous verbal portrait of his alternative family, mentioning, among other things, its focus on Hindu spiritual beliefs. Then he waxes nostalgic for the 1960s, when people's minds were open "just for a second" to a way of life different from the rat race. He seems a slightly spacey but eminently harmless New Age kind of guy.
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 making...to 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.
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.
So it went with Wright. There were terrifying and bizarre things in store for his "circle of seers." And it was against the rules to question.
A soccer player with mannish features and a strong, athletic build, Deirdre Wilson wasn't your stereotypical heiress. Though she'd gone to the best private schools, had her own trust fund, and could claim the founder of Xerox as her grandfather, she steered clear of anything that overtly smacked of wealth and privilege. None of the Wilsons would comment on the record for this story, but a psychological report conducted prior to Wilson's sentencing, additional court documents, and interviews with her former classmates do tell something of her pre-Wright existence.
Almost every child has a defining interest that sets him on a particular destiny. The boy who collects baseball cards might grow up to win a baseball scholarship. The debater becomes a hotshot attorney. For Wilson, the obsession was Africa. It led her into the hands of Winnfred Wright.
After her father showed her slides of a trip he'd taken to Kenya when she was a child, Wilson fell in love with what she saw as a culture more vibrant and spiritual than America's. At Wesleyan College, she listened to reggae, majored in African studies, and, like Bremner, took on a leadership role in her campus anti-apartheid movement. When Wilson visited east Africa during her junior year of college, she met and fell in love with a young Tanzanian journalist named Nechi Lyomo. After college, the two planned to marry. Wilson attempted to help Lyomo gain authorization to enter the United States, but the efforts were fruitless, and Wilson came back to the States alone.
On her return, Wilson was "heartbroken and extremely emotionally vulnerable," says her friend Zahara Heckscher. She missed Lyomo, was frustrated with the immigration authorities, and to top it off, had aborted a child she'd conceived with Lyomo.
With the idea of establishing California residency so she could afford to get a degree in agriculture from UC Davis and rejoin Lyomo in Tanzania, Wilson moved to San Francisco. It was 1987, and at age 23, she was going through "a dark and difficult time," as she would later tell her psychologist.
Soon after arriving in town, Wilson went to a reggae show on Haight Street. A man with dreadlocks and, Wilson remembered, "bright huge eyes" introduced himself to her as Rasheen Nyah. He asked her if she wanted to smoke a little ganja outside the club; she agreed. Nyah -- the name Wright called himself -- struck Wilson as "a gentle person," a good listener who seemed to share many of her interests. He wanted to hear all about her travels in Africa. He, too, was interested in African culture and seemed to know a little bit about it. "His God was very Afrocentric," Wilson said, and they agreed that "a white-dominated and materialistic society exploited people of color." Wright told her he was an artist and impressed her with his knowledge of astrology, in which she'd always had an interest. After sharing the joint, she agreed to come back with him to his apartment.
His Sunset pad was filled with his paintings: images of lions, serpents, and ancient Egyptian symbols in red, gold, black, and green. An attorney who later worked on Wilson's case described them as "bad hippie art," but to Wilson, they created an overall effect that was like "a temple." She and Wright talked all night, and in the morning, he introduced Wilson to his "wife," Carol Bremner. Bremner was wearing a kind of nun's habit, her long blond hair covered by a head scarf. The get-up, as well as Bremner's "purity" and "wise and gentle air," impressed Wilson. The couple had two toddler daughters and presented themselves as an alternative, Rastafarian family that had rejected the materialistic, racist attitudes of mainstream America. They were, they said, living a spiritual life dedicated to the "pursuit of knowledge" and racial harmony.
Wilson would later say that her meeting with the unusual couple was the most "intense, favorable experience" of her entire life. Like many idealistic young people, Wilson was worried about selling out, now that she was in the real world, post-college. These were people who appeared to be practicing what they preached, living precisely according to their moral convictions.
In following days, Wright talked to Wilson for hours on end about his philosophies and way of life. He and Bremner didn't subscribe to the traditional male-female roles of Western society. Bremner worked to support him and took care of the children, as in "African tribal cultures," while Wright acted as the spiritual head of the household. Like a yogi, he spent his days meditating, fasting, exercising, writing, painting, and reading spiritual books.
He told Wilson that people were born with a "karmic destiny" it was their duty to live out. All the bad things in the world were just manifestations of how people were thinking, both consciously and subconsciously. "What was happening in the world was what was happening in the soul," Wright told her.
During the conversations, Wright sometimes gave Wilson massages; initially she rejected his sexual advances.
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.
"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.
Born in 1964, Campbell was brought up in a conventional Italian-American family. The daughter of a psychiatric hospital orderly and a stay-at-home mom, she went to Catholic Mass every Sunday. As a child, she was accident-prone, bumping into chairs and tables in an attempt to get the attention of her emotionally distant father. But in high school, she threw herself into her role as teen queen, a bubbly sex symbol of sorts, focusing less on studies than on disco dancing. Though intelligent, she wasn't interested in college. At the urging of her mother, she went to what was then considered a tony secretarial school in Manhattan, the Katherine Gibbs School, to "have something to fall back on."
Still, Campbell was a romantic. She wore miniskirts and garter belts to catch men's eyes and dreamed of "getting married, having kids, and being all domestic." When she was 23, her boyfriend of five years suggested they move to San Francisco; she agreed. But the relationship fizzled, and she was left lonely in a new city, farther than she'd ever lived from her close-knit family.
One day in 1988, Carol Bremner struck up a conversation with Campbell at the Ashbury Market, where Campbell was working at the deli counter. The younger woman was more than happy to chat.
"Would you like to be part of a women's mural project?" Bremner asked.
In the year that had passed since Wilson had moved in with Wright, their little family had grown. Susan Weber had joined, and both she and Wilson had had babies. When Campbell arrived at Wright's apartment on Noriega Street, an intoxicating scene was spread before her. Wright's three wives -- Bremner, Wilson, and Weber -- sat on the floor, tending to their children. The whole setup of the family seemed "very politically correct," Campbell said in one of several interviews. They seemed like "nice, smart, and good mothers."
Later that evening, Campbell met Wright. "He was the whole package," she said. Attractive, artistic, and best of all, romantic. On Campbell's second visit, he fixed her with a very intense look and said something that, in the back of her mind, she'd always longed to hear.
"Baby," he told her, "you're going to be with me forever." They would, he went on, raise a family together. To prove his point, he refused to use birth control when they made love. Campbell interpreted this to mean "he was really serious about me and really meant what he said about wanting to have babies with me."
Ten weeks after meeting Wright, Campbell discovered she was pregnant. Bremner made her an offer she couldn't refuse: If she moved in with the family, she could quit her job, and the rest of them would financially support her for two years. She could stay home with both her baby and her lover.
"Wow -- I could really do this," Campbell remembered thinking. It was, she felt at the time, a wonderful environment in which to raise her baby.
Life in the family wasn't exactly what it had seemed from the outside. Once they moved in, the women were told that there were certain expectations. For starters, so they would evolve spiritually, things were to be "Spartan" and "pure," as Wilson would later describe it. In the beginning, Wright insisted that the women wear head scarves and even at times nunlike habits.
"Mary, you're going to have to stop dressing so sexy," Wright said when Campbell moved into the apartment. "I don't want other men to see what's mine."
Wright elaborated his philosophy in a letter to SF Weekly: "Matriarchal family/circles like ours naturally promote the empowerment of women to their traditional greatness over that candy-ass, air-headed, Barbie doll, slutted out, sell out, selfish, disempowered Patriarchal female paper doll (that the designs of social conditioning promote)."
Wright saw the world in black and white; people were either with you or against you. Family and friends represented potential obstacles to the women's spiritual evolution and should be used only when needed. Wright told Campbell she was "too good now to mix with others" and stressed over and over again that the women should trust nobody outside the family. They were encouraged to drop all their old friendships and keep new relationships at the surface level only.
When Campbell's childhood friend Dawn Kakimoto came to visit, "members of the household followed at a close distance," never losing sight of the two women as they strolled to a nearby park, according to public records. Campbell remembers her ex-boyfriend coming to the house to try to rescue her; Campbell and the other women cowered in the corner while Wright screamed at him, "Go away, she wants to be here!"
Although Campbell kept up a superficial telephone relationship with her family (a sister once got a letter proudly stating that Wright had "levitated someone"), Wilson, Bremner, and Weber were on rockier terms with theirs. All three families tried on numerous occasions to talk to their daughters reasonably and, when that failed, contacted individuals with experience in rescuing people from cults. The Wilsons tried on at least two occasions to extricate their daughter through a third party, with no success. Wright told the women their parents were selfish "haters" trying to hamper their daughters' personal growth. He insisted that they were racists who wouldn't admit that their objection to him was his black skin.
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!"
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."
Wilson, too, had her nose broken. During a drug-inspired hallucination, the women said in court records, Wright also hit her on the back of the neck with the blunt end of a hatchet, leaving her bleeding. The next morning, accompanied by a cowed Bremner, Wright took Wilson at gunpoint to the dunes of Fort Funston and told her she was going to die. A moment later, he changed his mind, and they drove home.
According to public records, Wilson said she felt "strangely detached" during these incidents. She "had completely bought the notion of the 'karmic life,' so that whatever befell her was as it was supposed to be," the report says.
The women wore sunglasses to cover black eyes and avoided the probing questions of co-workers. Their Sunset District apartment, usually neat as a pin, now had boards over the windows; the walls were splattered with blood.
"We were terrified of him," says Campbell.
Unable to take it anymore, Weber left with her remaining child under cover of night. None of the other women followed. Wright told them Susan was "weak" and praised them for being "strong." A dire fate awaited Weber as a result of her bad karma, he warned, and because she had "nigger kids," nobody would help her. Deathly afraid that Wright might track her down, Weber changed her name and moved out of state. She could not be reached for comment for this article.
"This brief period ... seemed to test and/or strengthen the white mothers' love and commitment to our family/circle somehow," wrote Wright in a recent letter to SF Weekly. "This was indicated by the fact that Susan could not hang with us, and the other mothers could."
He told the women to wait and be patient, that the phase he was going through would end. After a year and a half, the physical violence stopped, just as he'd promised.
Douglas Horngrad, Wilson's attorney, would later posit a theory as to why: "[You] don't have to get your nose broken every morning to understand who's running things in that household."
When Ndigo died in 2001, the family had 12 other children, ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years. Following the example of "tribal cultures," all the children had been delivered at home by Bremner, and few had ever seen a doctor. They were home schooled.
In Marinwood, where the family last lived, the children slept on bedrolls spread out across the floor, making the house by night look like a slumber party. The neighbors had no idea there were so many children living there; the kids spent most of their lives indoors. Wright believed that if they spent much time outside, the children would, Campbell remembers him saying, "soak up the corruption of the world, because they are like sponges."
A San Francisco public health nurse visited the family's apartment once in 1991, following the death of Weber's baby, but at that time found no evidence of child abuse or neglect. No city agency, either in San Francisco or Marin County, checked up on the children after that.
The older kids spent most of their day taking care of the little children and doing housework. They washed and hung laundry, cooked, changed diapers, and acted as disciplinarians. Their daily outing consisted of Wright taking them to play basketball. On the weekends they visited the farmers' market. They never went to movies and had no friends. The youngest children, who were, in Wright's opinion, "most vulnerable to negative vibrations," were allowed outside most infrequently. The windows of the house were often covered in dark curtains.
Like the adults, the children were taught to strive for perfection as if they were military cadets. The family attempted to resolve disputes by having sit-down "processing" discussions, during which each child would get to speak his piece. But immaturity was not tolerated. If processing and warnings failed, the children were subject to a Byzantine system of punishments, often meted out by the older children when adults were unavailable. One of the punishments was "the board," a weight bench to which an offending child would be strapped and then hit with a belt by other members of the family.
If a child made too much noise, he had his mouth covered with athletic tape. The inspiration for this popular family punishment came from Native Americans, who supposedly put their hands over their children's mouths to keep them silent from enemies. Other punishments included short fasts, or restricted diets that included only raw foods or juices. "When delegating work, make sure the person does it whether or not you have to threaten them with punishment, and if they don't do what you tell them to, you give them punishment," read one entry in the family's "Book of Rules" notebook.
Campbell's 8-year-old daughter was high-spirited, so Bremner wrote an entire page of rules, mapping out her "Route to Ascension." The little girl must fast for a week, wear a cap made from the wrappers of energy bars she had stolen from the kitchen because she was hungry, and "get tape" at all times. Household chores would be timed, and at night, she was to be tied to a playpen with soft twine. If she had to pee, she'd be forced to do it in a portable potty next to the playpen.
The children had workbooks that Bremner's parents had sent; occasionally Wright corrected their work.
Other methods of instruction were less conventional. Wright wrote philosophical sayings on little pieces of paper and taped them to the walls at a child's eye level. To teach the toddlers how to be calm in the face of evil, Wright bought ugly reptile masks and instructed the older children to put them on and scare the younger ones. He'd watch television with the two oldest girls and point out all the lascivious male behavior. "Men are dogs," Campbell remembers him telling them.
Though Bremner's oldest daughter was 15 at the time of the family's arrest, there had been no talk of her going to college, getting a job, or dating boys. When asked what the family had envisioned their children would do when they turned 18, Wright responded with a blank look and said, "They'd live with us!"
The family's members took great pains to provide what they thought was the healthiest possible diet for their children. It was vegetarian, low-fat, and organic, substituting soy milk for cow's. But like everything else in the kids' lives, how much they ate was tightly controlled. X-rays of the children after the family's arrest showed growth disturbance lines in two of the children's bones, indicating periods of insufficient caloric intake.
The most severe problem with the diet, however, was its lack of vitamin D. Usually absorbed through the intestine from foods, particularly cow's milk, or produced by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight, vitamin D helps regulate people's calcium and phosphate levels. A deficiency can result in a softening or weakening of the bones, a condition known as rickets that can be prevented or reversed by a lifestyle that includes plenty of cow's milk and sunshine -- both of which were in short supply in the family's household.
In the wake of Ndigo's death from malnutrition, nearly all the remaining 12 children were found to be suffering from rickets. Wilson had a 5-year-old son whose legs were so badly knock-kneed they had to be broken and then reset in surgery. Her 2-year-old son was unable to sit, stand, or bear weight. To move, he pushed his head along the ground like a wheelbarrow. Campbell's 4-year-old son's arms and legs were bowed, and when he was asked by doctors to hop on one foot, he appeared to be in pain.
The family didn't see the deformities as reason to subject the children to the "MediCult," their name for evil Western doctors.
"He told us that it was just cosmetic," says Campbell. The children were genetically programmed to look that way and would probably grow out of it, Wright said. If they didn't, what did it matter? There was too much attention in Western culture paid to physical appearance anyway. The important thing was who you were on the inside. When any of the children showed signs of illness, the family would treat them with natural remedies and try to think positive thoughts.
Because, Wright said, bad things happened in the world as a result of people's karma.
"Here's Deirdre, graduated from one of the best universities in the country, intelligent, aware," says Robin Kliger, a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and a protégé of Margaret Singer hired by the Wilsons to talk to their daughter in the early 1990s. "How did she end up way over here?"
The same could have been asked of any of the women in Wright's family. Bremner had graduated as class salutatorian from her Pasadena high school and had attended UC Berkeley as a regents scholar. Campbell had always been "very bright academically," according to her sister.
The question of how such intelligent women fell under the control of a maniacal crack addict goes to the heart of how cults work. "[I]ntelligence can be more of a liability," says Ford Greene, a San Anselmo attorney who specializes in cases involving cults. "It makes one more open."
Psychologists who study coercion believe that anyone can be taken advantage of, if approached during a low period of his life. "[Cults] go for ... people who are looking for answers, lonely, what you'd call 'normal people,'" wrote cult expert Margaret Singer.
According to psychologists who study mind control, many people are vulnerable to cult recruitment when they leave home for the first time. (This explains why many cults recruit on college campuses.) Older people may feel lonely and confused when going through a divorce, or suffering from the death of a loved one.
Wilson and Campbell met Wright when they were both 23 years old, just after parting ways with lovers, in a new city where they didn't have stable jobs or many friends. "A life transition makes people more vulnerable not just to cults, but getting involved in a shaky business deal or with a bad group of people," says Patrick O'Reilly, a clinical psychologist at UCSF and president of the San Francisco Psychological Association. "That's where the con men come in."
The con man intuits a target's dreams and concerns and presents an apparent solution.
"If [Wright] had gone up to [the women] and said, 'Hey, want to join my family, and I'll abuse you, and we'll have children and starve them to death,' they would have run the other direction," O'Reilly says. "He tailored his message to what they wanted to hear. That's very typical of cults."
For both Bremner and Wilson, who had been passionate anti-apartheid activists and scholars, Wright framed the idea of serving him as an intellectual form of social protest. By "marrying" a black man and being part of a "matriarchal" family, they would be forging an alternative lifestyle. He backed his arguments by citing writers such as Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, encouraging the women to read and study books on Eastern religion and New Age philosophies.
"[Bremner] came out of this very radical left and bought into the whole concept that he represented underclass liberation," says Bremner's former boss, Robert Hanfling. "It was a fervent thing for her. It was a mission she was on. It was how she lived out her political, social passion."
Campbell, a romantic former teen queen, was looking for Mr. Right, but instead got Mr. Wright. He offered her what she'd dreamed of -- a husband and babies -- and focused his affections on her, often at the expense of his other wives, so that she believed she was, as Campbell says, "his favorite."
After seducing a person, a skilled manipulator can employ -- without necessarily viewing the process as manipulation -- a variety of methods to break down that person's critical thinking skills. He erodes the person's individuality by encouraging him to abandon old habits, friends, and even musical and fashion tastes. Alienating people from their support networks is also common practice. Other tactics of mind control used by Wright included exhaustion, abuse, and humiliation.
The process of manipulation is a gradual one, and that gradual nature helps explain why the women felt they couldn't leave Wright. Campbell's psychological report describes how her relationship with Wright began unconventionally, and then slowly progressed toward deviant sexual practices she wouldn't have initially accepted. As is often the case with spousal abuse, Wright made the women feel that they had brought about their own batterings and humiliations, then encouraged their loyalty by rewarding them with tenderness and praise. To stimulate the all-too-human dread of the unknown, Wright stressed that if the women left, there would be nowhere for them to go. The racist world would not accept their "nigger kids."
He adopted a system of circular reasoning and opaque language that defied rationality, labeling sex hunts as "actions" and the family as a "circle of seers."
"[In cults] the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed," writes Robert J. Lifton, a psychologist and a leading expert on coercion. "These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis."
Though the women weren't locked up in a prison camp, these methods of control were as effective as if they had been. They went to work every day and interacted with people who might have helped them, but they remained loyal to Wright, separating their public and private lives. This separation, too, is not atypical of cults.
"It's OK for people in cults to work, because they're only away for the day," says Patrick O'Reilly. "The Heaven's Gate people did computer consulting outside the home and had superficial relationships with their clients, too."
Perhaps most important, Wright made the women feel that, far from living a pitiful existence of scarcity and conformity, they were truly doing something to better society. From the communal, spiritual way they were raising their children, to their organic diet, to their interracial relationships, they were on the vanguard of something wonderful and radical. This altruistic belief was what sustained the women through hard moments and motivated them to ignore the ugliness and evil.
"People pick up causes all the time," muses Bremner's former co-worker Arianna Husband. "It was a good cause, but somehow this distortion happened. ... She created her own sort of little world to sustain that belief system."
But the little world was, ultimately, uninhabitable.
By the fall of 2001, the family was in a state of chaos. Bremner had been sick for months with a mysterious illness that had left bruises on her pale face. At first she'd tried to heal herself with herbal remedies, but when her vision became blurry and her gums began to bleed, she finally asked Wright if she could go see a doctor. He refused until one evening when she couldn't catch her breath. Wilson took Bremner to the hospital; the diagnosis was bad. Bremner had advanced leukemia. Back home, Wright told her she'd "brought it on herself." When she was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy, he visited only once.
"He said that the doctors would give her less good care because he was black," says Campbell.
Meanwhile, Wright grew paranoid. He required the children to wear earplugs and sunglasses when they went to the farmers' market. He'd become a devotee of conspiracy theorists Anna Hayes and David Icke, who believed that the fate of the universe lay in the hands of warring tribes of aliens. Wright philosophized that his family was battling the evil "Draco/Zeta Alliance," composed of reptilian aliens, and awaited the dawning of a new age in which they would become leaders. He referred to this coming time as "Millennium Shift/Earth Changes" and theorized it might happen in 2012.
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.
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.
"I had a blessing of being given children on this Earth," Wilson told her psychologist. "I aligned with a warped worldview. I gave up my maternal instincts. I squandered my responsibilities. ... I will cry daily."
The situation seems tragic to those who know the women.
"Once you've severed the head, you don't need to sever the body," says Fabian Skibinski, Wilson's former boss. "In a way, they're punishing them more after the fact. These people who have been through all this shit are now not able to come together and share the grief. They're so afraid this thing is like a Hydra -- that it'll come back together and ignite."
Despite his role as abuser and leader, Wright will be eligible for parole in approximately five years. He thinks the family was guilty only of failing to give its children enough vitamin D -- which he calls an "innocent mistake."
In Wright's view, the prosecution proves the family was right to be secretive, that a black man "fucking classy white women" and "making so many nigger babies" was just too mortifying for white "Amerikkka" to stomach. The family was just too irritatingly evolved for the rest of the world to allow it to exist.
"The 'Marinquisition' in their 'normal'/ suburban-Marin lifestyle appropriate/ (white RACIST) SOCIAL CONDITIONING saw a family of our RACIAL/SEXUAL composition and instinctively HATED us," Wright wrote to SF Weekly, "and they sublimated their ... HATRED of us by criminalizing our NEW ENERGY differences in outlook, living perspectives, DIETARY/ HEALTHCARE regimen, etc. behind the smokescreen of criminalizing the INNOCENT events surrounding NDIGO'S death."
It's no mystery to Wright why his wives turned on him. He knew all along that their "white social conditioning" made them weak and susceptible to the designs of "the Babylon system."
He'd been trying to teach them otherwise, but apparently they hadn't evolved. Now, he wrote, "They are brainwashed."