Seductress of the Saints

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

Feeling used, Michelle agreed to cooperate with Santa Rosa Detectives Tom Spencer and Vince Mestrovich, who were convinced Bridewell was a gypsy and wanted to find out what she was up to. When Bridewell told Michelle that she would be visiting the dialysis clinic on January 28 because John was going to "gift" her with a car, Michelle passed on the info to the cops.

Bridewell showed up at the clinic that day but was stunned to see Charlotte there, too. She got angry when she wasn't given permission to see the elderly Retter.

"I've always been able to see John," she demanded.

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.

"The rules have changed," the clerk at the clinic told Bridewell, who flounced out in a fury.

Mestrovich talked to John Retter, who was preparing to hand over a $1,000 check to Bridewell--as well as his checkbook. The old man told the detective Bridewell "was like a daughter to me."

"Camille told him that Charlotte was bullying him and was an evil woman who was with sin," a police report says. "She wanted him to leave [Charlotte] and move to his son's home in Novato and separate from his wife." John Retter refused to tear up the check, saying he wanted Bridewell to have it.

Later that evening at the Retters' home, one of the detectives confronted Bridewell. Steve Retter saw the meek missionary morph into a commanding presence.

"She was yelling at him, and he was yelling right back at her," Steve Retter says. Bridewell insisted Charlotte was "probably possessed by the devil or some evil demon, and was jealous of the relationship between her and John Retter," the police report says. She rebuffed the detectives' efforts to clarify her identity: She'd had no drivers license since 1986, refused to give them her passport and ended the interview when the officers asked for her fingerprints.

At an interview two days later, taped by police, Bridewell explained that she was a member of Marilyn Hickey Ministries. A widow with six children, her married name was Powers and she had lived in Texas on a horse ranch. Bridewell finally gave the detectives her passport and consented to be fingerprinted.

Bridewell wasn't charged with a crime. But Pat Alder, an employee from the dialysis clinic, had deemed Bridewell's actions with John Retter so suspicious that she filed a report with the state's Adult Protective Services.

"I believe that Camille actively seeks people that she could ingratiate herself with and then take their property," wrote Detective Spencer in his report. "I also believe that if Camille's actions were not found out, she would have succeeded in taking sizeable assets from John."

Kicked out of the Retters' home in late January, Bridewell was picked up by a businessman she'd befriended two weeks earlier in a coffee shop.

John Retter died in March of natural causes. With the use of his car, checks and cell phone, however, Bridewell had made progress toward finding her Promised Land.


·· ·ITEM: Two pieces of graph paper, covered in flowery handwriting in purple ink, titled "Personal Statement" and dated February 2, 2004:

You have designated for me to be delivered supernaturally into my divine destiny... Now, I go in & possess the land promised me as a portion of my inheritance, being the 25 acres on 200 Wetmore Lane in Marin County, to be a blessing to me & my house... This first of a network of homes, organic certified farmland & a gathering place to share & minister the Word & love of God will now be called Promised Land Farms, as You spoke to me. Here, me & my house (including my spiritual family), will "plow" with our praises & worship of You, Lord, as well as establish the prototype of Promised Land Farms, LLC; Promised Land Trust: Promised Land Homes for Children; & International Willing Heart Ministries. Here in this set place, we establish a house of prayer for all people, the first of many thousand houses of prayer I am to create according to the vision You long ago gave me for the "little pink houses of prayer."

·· ·ITEM: A large brown envelope from Robert Trent, financial adviser with Morgan Stanley in Santa Rosa, addressed to Camille Powers and filled with brochures about "active asset accounts," and a business envelope containing a letter with Trent's signature torn into small pieces.

Real estate agent Christine Jones had been showing the property on Wetmore Lane, in the undulating hills of rural Marin County outside Petaluma, for a year. Like everyone who saw the place, Jones loved it, but few could afford it. The $3.7 million property was unusual but idyllic--25 acres with a 3,000-square-foot Victorian farm house, a guest house and out buildings that included a sweat lodge and lake, and a "prayer labyrinth" in high grass--perfect for a yoga retreat or a winery.

"Camille noticed the birds, the wildlife, the two Brahmas and the Holstein that were there," Jones says. "It was the most magical showing I'd ever had of the property."

Brought by Marc Edwards, a handsome young agent from nearby Nicasio, Bridewell gave the impression of wealth, of having access to a trust fund. "She had a heightened sense of her surroundings and a vibratory quality, almost electric," Jones says. "I felt like she was really a special person."

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