Seductress of the Saints
The pretty lady hobbled onto the plane. Her thin frame was wrapped in a worn black coat; she had one foot in a medical boot. She stuffed the coat in an overhead bin, revealing purple pants and a fuchsia sweater too thin for winter and climbed over Michelle into the window seat.
Michelle had boarded the flight from Atlanta in December 2003, bound for her home in California's wine country. As the two women nestled under blankets for the flight, the brunette with pale skin and flashing brown eyes introduced herself.
She was Camille Bridewell, she said, and she'd just come back from overseas after eight years as a missionary. She pulled out snapshots of dark-skinned children; in India, she explained, she'd set up homes for orphans, complete with teachers, medical care and vocational training.
Michelle was fascinated--even though the woman looked strange and her clothes smelled musty. When the flight attendant offered a glass of wine, the missionary said she'd love one. "She hinted it in such a way that I had to pay for it from the get-go," Michelle says.
The two women sipped as Bridewell talked about her travels through Bolivia, Kazakhstan, the Middle East and China. In the Middle East, she and her companions were pinpointed for arrest after distributing Bibles, she said. "They had to run down a back stairwell with long robes on," Michelle says, "and they got down the stairs and were able to escape." Bridewell told of a flight over the Andes rocked by such severe turbulence that the plane flipped upside down. The mission group grabbed hands, prayed "God, we demand you right this plane," and He did.
As the wine flowed, Michelle mentioned her successful business near Napa Valley. The conversation became more personal. "She started with the light fluttering in her eyes, the touching, making intimate contact," Michelle says. "It was warm, a tad bit flirtatious right from the beginning."
Bridewell confided that she was the widow of a wealthy Dallas man who'd owned racehorses and hotels. They had six children--three of his from a previous marriage and three of their own. After he'd died of lymphoma, she'd never remarried, instead devoting herself to God, funding her Willing Hearts Ministry by selling her antiques and other possessions.
Michelle, raised Catholic, admired Bridewell's faith. "I was so in awe of somebody who could do that," she says. The missionary had spent time in New Orleans, New York and the East Coast. Michelle had, too. "We had common interests," Michelle says. "Our pasts connected."
The connections--oh, the amazing connections! Bridewell felt led by the Lord to settle in Northern California, to find land where she could teach children from the Third World the science of sustainable organic farming. In time, they would return home to teach others.
Bridewell said she'd been praying in a chapel at the Atlanta airport with a woman who told her that she must get on this particular flight, that she would meet a person who would be "elemental" in her future. At the last minute, a pastor bought a ticket for Bridewell, believing he was doing it for God.
The implication: Michelle was the person who would be "elemental" in this spiritual giant's life.
Michelle felt, "Wow!"
The woman was so warm, so spiritual, so courageous, so selfless. A believer that there are no coincidences, Michelle found herself thinking, "Why am I meeting this person?" Later Michelle would realize how vulnerable she really was: She actually had a fever, the first symptoms of pneumonia. "Camille caught me at my weakest," she says.
As the plane landed, Bridewell sprang a surprise.
She had no money, she said. "You'll pay for my room tonight, won't you?"
Michelle had no time to think it through. "Nobody had ever used the God card on me before," she says.
They collected Bridewell's belongings--a huge computer box and a rolling green suitcase--and were soon on their way together to Sonoma County.
What Michelle found out only later was that the woman sitting next to her had just been chased out of a home in Atlanta and had a bizarre past that included numerous accusations of fraud as well as suspicion in the murder of one of her husbands. Bridewell, who used several different names, was homeless, penniless and traveling around the country in the guise of a super-spiritual minister with a hotline to Jesus.
And Michelle was her next sucker.
The last time Jaie Benson saw Sandra Bridewell, she was clumping down the street in her medical boot--treatment for a broken ankle--pulling a green suitcase on wheels. Benson, an Atlanta businesswoman and devoted churchgoer, kicked Bridewell out of her home when she discovered the truth about Bridewell's past ("Return of the Black Widow," January 22, 2004). Not only was Bridewell the only suspect in the murder of Alan Rehrig, her third husband, but one of her other husbands and a close female friend had died under suspicious circumstances. In Dallas, in fact, where Bridewell lived the longest, she'd become known as the Black Widow until her notoriety forced her to leave town in the late 1980s.
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.
The Observer also 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.
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.
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.
Their annulment became final in May 2001. Dandridge was forced to sell his house to pay off the debts. He now lives in a Western state, but asks that his location not be disclosed.
"She pretty much cleaned me out," he says. "She's one scary lady."
··· ITEM: Folded paper flier in Malayalam, the language of the South Indian state of Kerala, inviting people to a Marilyn Hickey crusade. In purple ink, Bridewell's handwriting: "Original of flyer for Crusade & Open Air Meeting, Kottoyam, May 2001."
·· ·ITEM: Photocopy of a letter, dated August 6, 2001, to Judge Harold Barnes, Sedalia, Missouri:
Dear Judge Barnes,
One of my hearts' desires is to find my birth mother, Sarah Helen (or Helene) Gentleman, who gave me up for adoption when I was born April 5, 1944...
My adoptive parents, Arthur and Camille Powers are both deceased. My adoptive mother, Camille, was killed in a car wreck in January of 1944. My daddy, Arthur Powers, died of cancer in 1970...I have had no family and have missed that very much.
From time to time through the years I have searched for my mother to no avail...
How wonderful it would be to know of my natural mother, about her life & well-being. Also, I have never known anything about my father and I would very much like to learn about him. If my mother would choose to meet me and become acquainted it would be a great blessing to me. To know my father's identity & his whereabouts is important also, though if she chose not to divulge that I would understand. Also, if I have any siblings, to learn of them would be a joy.
Please help me find my mother and family members, Judge Barnes.
Sandra Camille Powers
In 2001, Bridewell traveled to Sedalia, Missouri, where she was born and adopted. In the library she found a newspaper clipping from April 6, 1947. The front-page photo shows an adorable girl named Sandra Powers celebrating her third birthday at the local country club. It was an elaborate party, complete with live bunnies and an Easter parade, thrown by her father, Arthur Powers, owner and manager of the local Dr Pepper Bottling Co.
Another newspaper clipping, dated three months earlier--January 23, 1947--reports the death of her adoptive mother Camille, killed in an auto accident in Dallas. The lavish party suggests a grieving father trying to make it all better for his little princess, to the extent of getting it covered by the Sedalia Democrat.
Using the name Powers, Bridewell hired an attorney to attempt to open her adoption records. Bridewell's heart-wrenching letter to the contrary, she still has family--her stepmother and stepbrother live in Garland. (The attorney did not return phone calls, and there is no evidence the records were unsealed.)
Was she really searching for her roots, trying to find her true family? Or was Bridewell looking for someone else to manipulate?
In a letter to the same judge dated February 4, 2003, Bridewell petitions the judge to issue an order furnishing her with a certified copy of her original birth record, with her natural mother's name, as well as the contents of her adoption file.
With a new birth certificate, Bridewell could take yet another name and a new identity. She could put Dallas behind her forever.
·· ·ITEM: Magazine photo of a gold Lexus SUV, slipped into the pages of a Bible.
·· ·ITEM: Notebook of graph paper, sheet dated September 15, 2002:
"I'm no longer a slave to sin. I'm fully delivered from the power of sin over my life. Meditation in God's Word will form explosives, it rearranges things. $ is looking for me NOW--$10 billion looking for me NOW. Meditate on 'money cometh.' My seed goeth while I'm expecting 'money to cometh.'"
In June 2003, Bridewell attended a conference in Columbus, Ohio, at the World Harvest Church, headlined by prosperity preacher Rod Parsley. On a "Festival of Harvest" pledge card, Bridewell wrote out her requests for God: "new homes & lands, new SUVs & Lexus 4 door (or better), miracle financial blessing, wealth & riches in my house, my family reconciled, redeemed & reunited in [heart], our family ministry established & supernaturally launched & exploded. My new husband you have chosen for me for my Boaz."
Her "faith pledge": $7,000.
Where was she getting the money? Donations from people who believed she was a missionary? In one notebook, Bridewell had drawn up a pledge card, front and back, for her own ministry. She also listed all the positions she'd need to fill, including a personal assistant (male), medical missions director, water wells project coordinator, prayer leader, pilots, personal chef, masseuse, hair stylist and esthetician.
Bridewell's determination to sow seed led to her adoptive mother's grave at Laurel Land in Dallas. After catching Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potter's House on TV, Bridewell signed papers on February 13, 2002, transferring ownership of two cemetery plots next to her dead mother from "Sandra Powers Stegall of Lamu, Kenya," to the Potter's House "as a gift (seed sown) to their ministry."
Meanwhile, she was devouring books on real estate, like How to Make Millions in Real Estate in 3 Years Starting With No Cash and Robert G. Allen's Nothing Down. Inspired by Allen, she examined her "internal assets": creativity, imagination, vision, generosity, courage, boldness, persistence and integrity.
On the flip side are her notes on "internal liabilities": anger, small-mindedness, perfectionism, pettiness, fear, anxiety, hesitancy, bad reputation, laziness, sloth, procrastination, poor organization.
Just notes or an honest self-appraisal?
There is nothing in Bridewell's hundreds of pages of writings that indicates she acknowledges how her lies and deceit have devastated her family and others.
In an undated letter to her son, Bridewell attempts a reconciliation. But she offers only shallow platitudes. She mentions her first husband, David Stegall (but not his suicide), and second husband, Robert Bridewell (dead from cancer), but never mentions the third husband, Rehrig (murdered). Though there's no doubt Bridewell loves her children, she shows no understanding of why all three have taken the drastic step of shutting their own mother out of their lives: sheer self-preservation.
Bridewell never mailed the letter. She couldn't find her own son's address.
·· ·ITEM: Half-sheet of lined notebook paper, dated July 14, 2003:
Keeping my word to You always
Blessing flow NOW
My now God-Father of the now season of my life
The anointing to get wealth
The power of Your anointing is upon me!
Key to my victory--your provision
Cellular pre-paid phone of my own
I must perfect all that concerns You
(On reverse: "No wasting of God-given time or provision. I am doing without indulgences until my fullness of victory manifests. I have determined this & declared this in Jesus' Name.")
·· ·ITEM: Copy of the Metro section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, dated July 8, 2003, featuring a story called "Critical Hearing: Witnesses describe woman in antifreeze poisoning case." The story outlines the case against Lynn Turner, a 911 operator accused of killing her police officer husband in 1995 by slipping antifreeze into his food. Police said Turner was also a suspect in the antifreeze poisoning death in 2001 of her firefighter boyfriend, who fathered her two children. Each death initially had been ruled of natural causes.
·· ·ITEM: OPI nail lacquer in Peru-B-Ruby.
·· ·ITEM: One pair of soiled black silk bikini underwear from Victoria's Secret.
For weeks, Crane (not his real name) had been trying to get the woman he knew as Camille "Bridwell" out of his house. But she refused to leave. Now he was at the end of his sanity.
They'd met in mid-July 2003 at a revival meeting in a suburban mega-church outside Atlanta. Crane wants his name and home church left out to protect his four children--and because he's embarrassed by his own, well...stupidity.
Fasting for up to 40 days at a time, Bridewell had lived the first half of 2003 in the small town in Alabama where her estranged older daughter lives. When the kindly Christian owners of a motel kicked her out for non-payment, she moved in with a family struggling to make ends meet.
But Bridewell's self-deprivation didn't trigger the desired results; her daughter refused to see her.
Tornado Bridewell touched down next in Georgia. Bridewell began attending Crane's church, first bunking with a female member in a home so small the two women slept in the same bed.
At church, Bridewell sat up front with the ministers and established donors. During the praise service, Crane was struck by Bridewell's elegance and grace; she moved her hands and body "like a true maiden of the Lord" in her Indian silks of purple and blue. Whenever it was time to go down to the altar, he'd turn and find Bridewell next to him.
Bridewell offered Crane a prophetic "word of knowledge": that he was in the middle of a divine reversal, that he was a "great man of God" about to enter a "seven-year season of prosperity." After the death of a child, an ugly divorce and business problems, those were just the words Crane wanted to hear.
During a post-church group lunch, Bridewell let it be known she saw much to like in Crane's blue eyes, chiseled features and athletic build.
"Her eyes would just dance," Crane says. "She'd squeeze my hands. Her ability to know how to push and how to pull back was faultless."
After lunch, she moved to hug him. "I just lean to do the church thing," Crane says. "She reaches in to kiss me on the mouth and presses herself full-frontal on me. But it was quick, graceful and soft. It was surprising to me, but very elegant and very appealing."
A few days later, on a walk with Bridewell, Crane was astonished by how much she knew about his ambitions for God. Using scripture, Bridewell encouraged him to reach for great heights. "She could make you feel like you were the top man on earth," Crane says.
When Bridewell asked to meet his children, Crane invited her home. There, Bridewell poured out her own unhappiness. The woman she was living with was a con artist, "deceitful." Could she stay with him for one night?
Crane said no but relented under Bridewell's persistence. "I'm going through a divorce," he said. "If anyone finds out..."
Four weeks later, Bridewell was still there. She'd basically taken over, urging his children to call her "Mommy Camille." They were going to marry and have a great ministry together, she said.
Crane insisted she sleep on the couch. Though Bridewell wasn't sexually aggressive, she was suggestive--revealing that she didn't wear underwear and that despite giving birth to three children, she was still "very snug down below."
Crane insists they never had sex. And he wanted her out of the house. Every few days, she had another place to stay lined up, but it always fell through. Crane couldn't call the police; his soon-to-be ex-wife would use it as ammunition against him.
When Bridewell insisted on tagging along to a children's sports tournament, Crane was stunned to overhear her introducing herself to strangers as his wife. When he confronted her, Bridewell shouted, "I will not be treated this way. I'm a woman of God." Crane yelled back, "You're going to be treated this way because you're not welcome here."
Each time it happened, Bridewell would call someone to get her the next day; the next day, nobody would show up.
Crane began to wonder if she was demon-possessed. Coming in late one night, he tiptoed past the couch and heard a deep voice say, "Hello, Daniel." It stopped him in his tracks: "It was her voice, but it wasn't," Crane says. "There was power in that voice she normally didn't have. A demon calls you by name and thinks that intimidates you."
It ended "ugly, ugly, ugly," Crane says, after an intense, heated argument, Bridewell spitting fury then throwing the phone at his chest. Crane had to fight the urge to strike back. Bridewell finally called a young preacher she knew in Atlanta; Crane dropped her at the meeting place and drove away in relief.
Today, Crane wonders why Bridewell seemed so intent on marrying him. He isn't wealthy; his legal troubles had drained his savings. What did she want?
A few weeks after she left, Crane was watching the broadcast of a service by Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. The camera panned the audience, and he saw Bridewell looking out of the TV at him.
"Hello, Daniel." The memory still makes his skin crawl.
·· ·ITEM: Page from a small lined notebook, with Bridewell's printing in purple ink:
Every resource I need (tangible or intangible) is possessed by someone somewhere at this very moment. I must find these individuals & persuade them to provide me with these resources.
I AM A MONEY MAGNET
I ATTRACT MILLIONAIRE/BILLIONAIRE MENTORS
I ATTRACT MY DREAM TEAM
I AM A BILLIONAIRE IN CHRIST JESUS
I AM A GIVER, A GENEROUS CHEERFUL GIVER
I ATTRACT MULTIPLE SOURCES OF INCOME
·· ·ITEM: Blue daily agenda of Camille Powers, beginning January 1, 2004. On the first page: "Write Vision, Goals, Plan" and "mail tithe and seed." The goal, in summary: to find rental property that will provide"cash flow" of at least $10,000 a month and to find her "promised land"--a fabulous compound that would bring together everything she longed for: her estranged children, her "ministry" and her obsession with a wealthy lifestyle. The agenda entries end on April 28, 2004, with a note to pick up her wedding dress.]
In December 2003, four days after their memorable flight to California, Michelle was still paying Bridewell's hotel bills.
"Of course, I had to feed her," Michelle says. "She had no money." Michelle got in touch with a Santa Rosa minister, who suggested that Bridewell could have a place to live and $100 a week in return for taking his fiancee's wealthy relative, 92-year-old John Retter, to dialysis several times a week.
Though Bridewell resisted others' suggestions to get a job, she jumped at the offer. While Retter was in dialysis, she began researching real estate at the Sonoma County records office.
By early January, Bridewell had Michelle and the Retter family embroiled in turmoil and intrigue. Bridewell, claiming the old man was being mistreated by his younger wife, Charlotte, enlisted Michelle to engineer a secret meeting with his son Steve, who lived an hour away. "She said that Charlotte mentally abused him, she restricts him, he can't turn on the TV without wearing headphones," Steve Retter says. "Thinking back, she capitalized on the fact that we weren't terribly fond of Charlotte." And why would a missionary lie?
Within just a few days, Charlotte had become fed up with Bridewell's attentions to her elderly husband--rubbing his feet, mouthing "I love you," kissing him goodnight--and kicked her out of their home.
Steve Retter arrived in the middle of the drama.
"I have no place to go," Bridewell pleaded. "You said I could stay with you."
Steve Retter called his wife and said that Bridewell would be living with them until he could figure out what his father wanted to do. They gave her the guest room and showed her how to work the hot tub. But for everyone involved, Bridewell's answers about her past weren't adding up. Charlotte learned that, in addition to the pittance she was paid, Bridewell had been taking large checks from her elderly client. She called the police.
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.
"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."
Bridewell's agenda from this period never mentions her encounters with police. She signs up for a mailbox, buys her favorite purple and gold ink pens and begins looking for properties in foreclosure.
Her ally: the man who picked her up from the Retters, a businessman who owns and manages apartment complexes and homes for the disabled. He gave Bridewell use of an SUV, a Blackberry cell phone with Internet access and a gas card. In return, she promised to find investment property they could purchase together.
Her agenda shows appointments for manicures, massages and facials. Money was again flowing.
Bridewell was working with at least three real estate agents. "Hallelujah!" Bridewell wrote on March 25, 2004, when her contract for $3.195 million for the Wetmore Lane property was accepted despite a laughable escrow check of $3,000. Signing the papers "Camille Powers Trustee," Bridewell told the agents that her financial advisers in San Francisco had not yet funded the trust. But she pushed to occupy the property by her birthday on April 5, when she would turn 60.
"She was presenting that she could pay cash for the property," Jones says. "My job was to get her to show proof that she could pay cash within five days of entering into escrow."
Bridewell promised that her financial advisers in San Francisco would provide confirmation of her finances. As the days dragged on, Jones felt anxious but not suspicious. Nobody wanted to believe the deal wouldn't go through, so they kept giving Bridewell more time. "It's the compulsive gambling part of real estate--we can't believe it won't happen," says Jones, who told Edwards her office was going to have to issue a 24-hour notice: perform or the contract was void.
On a Friday in late April, Edwards received a fax from Bridewell of a letter to her from Santa Rosa financial adviser Robert Trent on Morgan Stanley letterhead "confirming your acquisition of property located at 200 Wetmore Lane, Petaluma, Marin County, for the all cash consideration of $3,195,000 with Close of Escrow to be on or before September 7, 2004. Certified funds will be made timely available to you as you so instruct..." Trent's signature was at the bottom.
Edwards read the letter to Jones. "It was too open-ended," Jones said. "It just said Camille Powers can perform whenever she wants to. It didn't say she had sufficient funds."
The next Monday, Jones received a panicked call from Edwards. "This person is a fraud," he told Jones. "She forged that letter."
Edwards had called Trent, who said he'd mailed a packet of information to Bridewell at her request, along with a polite signed note. Trent confirms that he didn't write the letter, nor had he ever met Bridewell.
Confronted, Bridewell cried and admitted the letter was forged, produced under pressure because her trust funds hadn't come through. Bridewell still insisted she could buy the property. They gave her a few more weeks then called the Sonoma County district attorney and FBI to report the fraud. (No charges were filed, says a spokeswoman for the district attorney; the FBI didn't return calls.)
"In hindsight, I think her goal was to occupy the property without buying it," Jones says. "The eviction process here is not only lengthy but somewhat costly. She could have lived there at least three months free on the property. Then who could she have looped into her fabulous plan while she was there?"
·· ·ITEM: Catalog of Jessica McClintock wedding dresses.
·· ·ITEM: Sample of Progesterone Menopause Herbal Body Cream.
Bridewell, now going by Camille Powers, met her next Boaz in March through Max Arnold, a well-known Sonoma County attorney whose wife befriended Bridewell at a Santa Rosa church. Driving an expensive SUV, Bridewell seemed successful, well-groomed and delightful.
The Arnolds invited Bridewell to a party at their home, also attended by Gary, a divorced entrepreneur with custody of his two children. "We were very keen for our friend to meet someone," Arnold says. "She was sitting on his knee by the end of the night."
Bridewell and Gary saw each other often in the weeks that followed. "She indicated she was involved in procuring a very expensive piece of property in Petaluma," Arnold says. "She said she was expecting the financing to come through sources that she didn't want to name." Bridewell took Gary to the Wetmore Lane compound. All she needed to close: $112,000.
Pushing Gary to marry her, Bridewell filled a page of her agenda with notes on their upcoming nuptials. She envisioned herself wearing a "princess" Jessica McClintock wedding dress ($355) and Gary wearing a prayer shawl. The ceremony would take place under a canopy surrounded by a profusion of Casablanca lilies and would include foot washing and an exchange of rings from James Avery.
The wedding might have given her a way to close on her Promised Land. Never mind how she'd come up with $3 million. But Bridewell pushed too hard, and Gary backed away. Then Bridewell's past caught up with her, courtesy of the Internet--and the Dallas Observer archive.
Bridewell arrived at the Arnolds' house in a taxi on May 5 with her green suitcase and boxes of belongings, complaining that the man with whom she was living had tried to have sex with her. Arnold agreed she could stay two weeks.
Arnold started suspecting a con when Bridewell asked him for $1,000 so she could pay for a puppy. He refused. Realizing how little they knew about her, Arnold arranged a subterfuge. While Bridewell was in Chico, California, at his daughter's house to speak to a women's group, he had someone sneak a peek in her purse. They found a temporary California drivers license in the name of Sandra Camille Bridewell, which she had obtained in February, and ran a background check.
After discovering Bridewell was using various names, addresses and Social Security numbers, the Arnolds located the driver of the cab, who remembered where he'd picked her up. That led them to the businessman who'd provided her with the SUV and gas card to look for rental properties. "She'd squeezed all this money out of him," Arnold says. "I think I was plan B."
The background check linked Bridewell to the East Coast and her daughter Emily, who told the Arnolds to check the Observer's Web site for the story about her mother. "It's very accurate," she told them.
Alarmed that Bridewell was a suspect in the murder of her third husband, Arnold notified his daughter, who confronted Bridewell at her Chico home and told her to leave. When she refused, a neighbor called police. The daughter paid for a taxi to take Bridewell to a homeless shelter.
·· ·ITEM: Scrap of paper with cursive writing in black ink:
Eph. 6: 7 signs may be a curse in your life: Mental or emotional breakdown, Rptd or chronic illness, Barrenness reptd miscarriages female problems, Family and marriage brkdown, Continued financial problems, Constant injury or accident, Suicides and unnatural or untimely deaths, dying young. False gods = idolatry. This probably opens door to more severe curse and penalties...than any other.
The last known sighting of Sandra Camille Bridewell was in early May 2004: A Chico police officer found her at the local homeless shelter, sitting with grim dignity among others whose lives had collapsed, a big Bible on her lap.
The next day, she was gone.
The cop tracked her to a diner. A waitress said Bridewell had arrived late the night before and sat at the counter before hitching a ride with a compassionate couple, once again in pursuit of her Promised Land.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Holy Cow, They Did It. Previewing the Playoffs for Your 2015 Texas Rangers
Sun., Oct. 11, 3:25pm
Tue., Oct. 13, 7:30pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 6:30pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:05pm
- Downtown Traffic Snarl Might Have Something to Do With James Franco's Bar Mitzvah
- In the Matter of SUV-Style Baby Buggies in Crowds, Let's Be Fair