Seductress of the Saints

Inside the mind--and suitcase--of Sandra Bridewell, religious charlatan

From there, Bridewell traveled to California, where sweetheart swindles became her means of survival. She'd eventually wander the entire country--even the globe--searching for well-to-do male and female marks, some of whom she roped into financial scams or lured into marriage proposals.

But in Sonoma County earlier this year, Bridewell attempted one of her most audacious fraudulent schemes--and got caught. She left her temporary lodgings in a hurry, leaving behind several boxes of belongings and the rolling green suitcase that some of her recent contacts recall too well. The Dallas Observer was able to obtain the suitcase and boxes from a confidential source. We've gone through it all, including her agenda, books filled with notes in tiny, crabbed handwriting, letters written in elegant curlicues, photos, "prayer cloths," a newspaper clipping about a woman who poisoned two lovers, and assorted junk, the detritus of a life in ruins.

In her belongings the Observer found names, dates and places going back years and traced them to people who filled in some of the gaps in Bridewell's story. From Toronto to Atlanta to San Antonio to Palo Alto, they provided clues about a bizarrely twisted mind--and ever-evolving schemes to obtain land, a ministry and her "Boaz," the noble, wealthy husband described in the Bible's book of Ruth.

Top: The grave of Bridewell's adoptive mother at Laurel Land cemetery in Dallas; she transferred ownership of two adjacent graves to the Potter's House as "seed."
Top: The grave of Bridewell's adoptive mother at Laurel Land cemetery in Dallas; she transferred ownership of two adjacent graves to the Potter's House as "seed."
Bridewell wrapped herself in the guise of an evangelist after taking trips with Marilyn Hickey Ministries. Top: Bridewell in India. Bottom right: On Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, in fall 2000. Bottom left: a flier for Hickey's Bolivia crusade, from Bridewell's belongings.
Bridewell wrapped herself in the guise of an evangelist after taking trips with Marilyn Hickey Ministries. Top: Bridewell in India. Bottom right: On Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, in fall 2000. Bottom left: a flier for Hickey's Bolivia crusade, from Bridewell's belongings.

The Observeralso located her last Boaz--a fourth husband. He portrays his former bride as a shape-shifter who morphed after their lavish wedding from spiritual siren to "demonic" schemer who refused to have sex with him and disappeared after four months with his life savings.

Bridewell's belongings illuminate her modus operandi: Using the rites and buzzwords of contemporary Charismatic Christianity, she insinuates herself into the lives of kind-hearted people with a taste for the spiritual. She selectively embraces the teachings of something known as the "Word of Faith" movement. Preached by TV evangelists such as Kenneth Copeland of Fort Worth, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Hagin and Benny Hinn, the word-faith gospel focuses on prosperity and applying "spiritual laws" to get what you want. It's powerful stuff, a collection of easily distorted principles that attract the sincere as well as the greedy.

Popularized by Oral Roberts, word-faith stresses planting "seeds" to release God's blessings. "Seed-faith" preachers urge believers to send money, promising that these gifts will--must--grow into wealth. The bigger the dreams, the more seed required.

Like other veins of Charismatic Christianity, there's an emphasis on the supernatural. Believers fight spiritual battles with demons, curses, oppressive spirits and agents of Satan. They "call things that are not as though they were"--what some might call visualization and others might call wishful thinking.

Those who knew Bridewell in Dallas during the '80s portray her as a "surface-level" Christian: conversant with the lingo but lacking spiritual depth. In the late 1990s, as her fortunes waned, Bridewell became obsessed with name-it-and-claim-it TV, taking copious notes while watching her favorite preachers. Like a compulsive gambler, Bridewell sends money to evangelists such as Benny Hinn and demands that God fund her grandiose dreams: mansions, lands, Lexuses!

Until the Great Sugar Daddy in the Sky pays off, Bridewell uses her brand of Christianity to manipulate people into giving her what she wants. One of Bridewell's popular "prophecies": "You are entering a season of seven years of prosperity"--so if I ask you for money, be generous. With Michelle, Bridewell dangled the concept of "divine appointment"--that God had miraculously engineered their chance encounter for his unique purpose, which includes paying my hotel bill.

Too old to play the femme fatale anymore, Bridewell found perfect cover in her new-found religiosity. In 2000, sometime after taking a one-week "mission trip" sponsored by Denver-based Marilyn Hickey Ministries, Bridewell adopted the guise of minister or missionary. Styling herself after the popular Hickey--called by some critics the "fairy godmother" of the Word of Faith movement for her brazen fund-raising tactics--Bridewell now hopscotches around the country to revivals, camp meetings and religious conferences.

She seeks out the devout, the compassionate and the weak--people starved for love, sex, companionship or a connection with God and the supernatural.

There's no shortage of the gullible.


··· ITEM FROM BRIDEWELL'S ABANDONED BELONGINGS: Yellow travel immunization card for Camille Bridewell, Palo Alto, California, showing a series of shots beginning August 4, 1999, and ending March 31, 2000.

·· ·ITEM: Photo of Sandra Bridewell on a boat. On the reverse is written: "On Lake Titicaca--Bolivia. Ecuador & Bolivia Missions Trip Fall 2000.

·· ·ITEM: Box with gold and pearl necklace, wrapped in tissue with a gold seal that says "Broadmoor Hotel."

They met in an act of prayer.

In July 2000, devout evangelical Christians had gathered for the first day of a two-week conference on the "prophetic church" by the Wagner Leadership Institute in Colorado Springs. When Dr. Joseph Dandridge obeyed the instructor's request that he grasp the hands of the person next to him and pray, he turned to meet the sparkling eyes of Bridewell, who extended soft hands.

Three years after a difficult divorce, Dandridge--which isn't his real last name--was searching for direction. As a career military officer from San Antonio, he wanted to deepen his relationship with Jesus, perhaps by serving in missions. The Wagner Institute, which offers short courses in everything from "apostolic training" to deliverance from occult oppression, seemed like an ideal place to start.

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