Seductress of the Saints

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

The two prayed. At the end of the session, Dandridge learned that his prayer partner was a missionary from California.

"She said she'd just come back from a trip with Marilyn Hickey Ministries to Dubai," Dandridge says. Claiming to have been "mentored" by Hickey, Bridewell asserted that her own ministry was connected with Hickey.

Dandridge found himself drawn to Bridewell's warmth, her deep spirituality. During that fortnight, she seemed to operate in the "gifts of the spirit"--speaking in tongues, prophesying, even casting a demon out of a man. She was looking for a Boaz who truly valued a "Proverbs 31 wife"--the hardworking homemaker, entrepreneur and help-mate described in a famous Old Testament passage.

A snapshot of Sandra Camille Bridewell on the California coast, taken from a roll of film labeled "Point Reyes, CA." At bottom, a sample of her notes.
A snapshot of Sandra Camille Bridewell on the California coast, taken from a roll of film labeled "Point Reyes, CA." At bottom, a sample of her notes.
A glimpse of Bridewell's "Promised Land Farms," a $3.2 
million property in Marin County where she wanted to 
establish her "ministry." Bottom: a letter she forged in an 
attempt to close on the purchase.
A glimpse of Bridewell's "Promised Land Farms," a $3.2 million property in Marin County where she wanted to establish her "ministry." Bottom: a letter she forged in an attempt to close on the purchase.

Soon, Dandridge was offering Bridewell financial help. "She had access to my credit cards early on," he says. "It was a seduction."

After the conference, Bridewell visited his home in Alamo Heights and met his church friends. By September, Dandridge had proposed marriage. "I thought God was having mercy on me and brought somebody to me to fulfill my destiny."

Dorothy Flores, Dandridge's lawyer and friend, met Bridewell at church, where she showed off her $8,000 engagement ring. "She seemed really nice," Flores says. "But something quickened my spirit. She seemed very ambitious and full of pride."

At Bridewell's insistence, they held the wedding at the five-star Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs instead of his church. They recited their vows on October 8, 2000, before 30 guests, including Bridewell's daughter Emily, the only one of her three children to attend. The bill for the festivities: about $60,000.

But after their wedding night, the sweet, seductive Bridewell became angry, accusatory and cold, Dandridge says. She refused to have sex with him and, he says, never consummated their marriage in the four months they lived together. "Within 24 hours," he says, "she'd turned into a witch."

Soon after their wedding, Bridewell flew off to Bolivia and Peru on yet another short-term trip with Marilyn Hickey Ministries. On her return, Bridewell began redoing Dandridge's house, but she never finished anything. Far from being a Proverbs 31 wife, Bridewell was rarely home and never cooked.

When they wed, Dandridge was debt-free, owned a $200,000 home, two Mercedes and $40,000 in gold coins and bullion, stored in a safe. She asked Dandridge to take out a $100,000 life insurance policy, and he agreed.

But Dandridge lost control of their finances. Bridewell traded in her engagement ring and bought a huge diamond that cost more than $15,000. Bridewell wanted to fly first class, to buy clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue and indulge in massages. The bills alarmed him. He was, after all, a military doctor; his income didn't allow for the high life. But Dandridge couldn't stop her squandering.

In San Antonio, she filed forms for Willing Hearts Ministry, a nonprofit corporation. She encouraged Dandridge to take out an equity loan against his home and donate it to her ministry. When he refused, Bridewell began screaming at him.

By Christmas, Dandridge felt physically sick and isolated, like a captive in his own home. Bridewell criticized everything he did, even how he prayed. "She was so deceptive and dominating," he says. "It was like witchcraft. The whole thing was a nightmare. She seemed to manifest different personalities. I know she's demon-possessed."

One night, when Bridewell suddenly fixed him a fancy meal, paranoia set in. "I thought maybe it was an effort to poison me," says Dandridge, who ate the meal anyway.

In January, Dandridge confided in friend and pastor Mike McLean, who called Marilyn Hickey Ministries. They confirmed that Bridewell had traveled on some mission trips but denied any affiliation. (These one- to two-week trips might be called religious tourism: Participants pay $1,500 to $2,000, see the sights, stay in nice hotels and perhaps assist in a religious service. Marion Neiser, public relations spokeswoman for Hickey's ministry, says that Bridewell has never been mentored by Hickey.)

McLean feared his friend was suicidal. "He was distraught, heartbroken," McLean says. "He really did love that woman. I was scared for Joe, for the possibility of him doing something to himself or her doing something to him."

In February 2001, attorney Flores was astonished to get a visit from Dandridge. "I hardly recognized him," she says. "He was just shriveled up." His bride had disappeared at the end of January, taking off in their new Ford Expedition with his nest egg of gold coins. He had to pawn his wedding ring to get money for food and gas.

To add insult to injury, Dandridge discovered his wife was a decade older than she claimed.

Dandridge filed for an annulment. He began getting calls from collection agencies; she owed $100,000 on credit cards she'd taken out after the wedding. Dandridge also learned Bridewell was using several Social Security numbers. He reported the fraud; a federal agent tracked down Bridewell, who called the San Antonio police to screech about her rights as a wife. "She was the innocent and I was the bad guy," Dandridge says. Bridewell complained to someone she trusted that Dandridge was gay, a pedophile and abusive--a pattern she repeats time and again to deflect blame or set up her next chump.

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