The first time Benson spotted the dark-haired woman, she'd been sitting in the area for pastors at a "Spirit and Truth" conference in late September. Benson noticed her for several reasons. When the woman stood to sing with the congregation, she swooped and twisted her hands in an odd fashion, as if she were moved by the Spirit. Though aging, she was pretty and seemed to draw other people to her. And she was the only white woman sitting among several dozen black men.
The conference was held at New Birth Ministries, a dynamic black mega-church in Atlanta where Bishop Eddie Long preached a message of empowerment and prosperity. Long made no bones about his own wealth. God had blessed him with a 30-acre estate, a horse farm, several Bentleys, a Rolls-Royce, a Hummer and a $200,000 Maybach. And, he preached, God could do the same for them. The strange white woman sat down near the front, transfixed by Long's message.
Benson, 46, had been living in Atlanta for about a year. Divorced, she'd moved from Cincinnati to attend New Birth after hearing one of Long's tapes. The failure of her business had left her in despair. "I fell away from God for a while," admits Benson, who wears her hair sleeked back and favors designer blue jeans and hip black glasses. "The message from Bishop was that sometimes God will dry something up because he has an assignment for us somewhere else. That spoke to me, like maybe this wasn't the end of my story."
In October, at New Birth's five-day "Power to Build Wealth" conference, Benson again noticed the white woman, this time sitting right behind the main speaker, Peter J. Daniels, a billionaire from Australia. That day, Benson met Camille Bridwell and learned she was a missionary and evangelist just returned to the United States after eight years in "the nations"--most recently distributing Christian tracts under cover of darkness in Pakistan--and needed a place to stay. As a fellow believer, Benson felt compelled to allow Bridwell to move in with her, at least until she got on her feet.
But Benson almost immediately had second thoughts. Bridwell first suggested Benson ban her brother from the condo because he drank liquor. During the day, the minister spent hours watching TV preachers. Less than a month after Bridwell moved in, she had talked Benson into forming a business partnership. Then Bridwell suggested that they take out life insurance policies on each other to protect the partnership. "I've had real good success with Aetna," Bridwell said.
"I have insurance," Benson retorted. "And my mother's the beneficiary."
Bridwell let it drop. But now, as Benson entered the guest room, she remembered that odd suggestion and was struck again by how strange her guest was. Bridwell had brought with her one duffel bag and a rolling green carry-on suitcase that she always kept locked. She carted around the rest of her belongings in torn shopping bags and battered cardboard boxes.
At one end of the air mattress where Bridwell slept, she'd perched a picture of a prettified Jesus in a gold frame. Peeking from beneath the bed, dressed with pink Ralph Lauren sheets Bridwell had pulled from a battered paper bag, Benson could see bits of paper.
Benson lifted the mattress and found that Bridwell, "like a rodent," had stuffed trash--old newspapers, used plastic knives and forks, empty food containers, snipped coupons and tablets of paper covered with her handwriting--under the bed. Benson seized on a small address book, thinking it might hold the names and phone numbers of Bridwell's mysterious children. But the only entries were other people from New Birth.
Then Benson pulled out a small tablet on which Bridwell had written the same phrase over and over: "I attract millionaires and billionaires and they have all the resources I need. And when I meet them, I will persuade them to give me what I want."
But what gave Benson chills was the passport. It confirmed that her guest had traveled to China, India and Pakistan. But while the picture matched with the woman she knew as Camille Celeste Bridwell, the name on the passport was Sandra Camille Bridewell.
Why was the missionary using an alias? Stunned, Benson slipped the passport into the junk under the bed and left the room.
Because her guest had referred to her late husband as Robert and said she'd started a children's camp in his memory after his death from cancer, Benson began searching the Internet for information on Robert Bridewell. She found a marriage certificate confirming that Robert Bridewell had married Sandra Camille Stegall in 1980. That discovery led her to Camp Esperanza, a facility for children with cancer in Meridian, Texas, run by a foundation named after Bridewell.