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.
The next day, Benson called the camp, and a woman answered. After Benson explained the situation, the woman asked, "What does she look like?" Benson gave Bridwell's description: dark hair, white skin, dark eyes, about 5-foot-5. "You might want to sit down," the woman said, "because I have some things to tell you."
Fifteen minutes later, Benson was reeling. She called her brother and told him to come right away, then dialed 911. After hanging up, she slipped into her kitchen and pulled out a butcher knife. Holding the knife behind her back, Benson walked up to the spare bedroom. "Who the hell are you?" she demanded. "I found your passport."
Bridwell looked shocked. "Jaie, Jaie," the woman implored. "I'm a minister of God!"
"Don't call my name!" Benson yelled. "How many husbands have you had, Sandra?"
The woman didn't flinch: "I've only been married one time."
"Who's Stegall?" Benson demanded. "Who's Rehrig?"
"Rehrig," she repeated. "I was having that annulled."
Sandra Camille Bridewell moved toward Benson with open arms, as if to envelop her in a hug.
Benson whipped out the knife and pointed it at her throat.
"Stop!" Benson said. "Or I'll drop you where you stand."
Bridewell retreated but seemed unafraid. When two police officers arrived, Benson gave them a thumbnail version of what she'd learned. Not one but three husbands had died. And there was the mysterious suicide of her best friend. In Dallas, Bridewell was known as "The Black Widow."
"None of it's true!" Bridewell told police. "I'm a victim of rumors!"
Rumors--dozens of them, ranging from petty to scurrilous to fantastically sinister--have followed Sandra Camille Bridewell her entire adult life. Rumors, in fact, and a 1987 cover story in D magazine called "The Black Widow" had driven Bridewell out of Highland Park. Defenders claimed she'd been smeared by backbiters and jealous society mavens who reveled in vicious gossip. But others--some of whom were once close friends--believed she was a cold manipulator who spun an irresistible web of sex and vulnerability to get what she wanted.
And it's not all gossip. Numerous men have claimed she lured them into bed and defrauded them of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bridewell has been under law enforcement scrutiny in the unsolved murder of her third husband. While running from her past, Bridewell began using her middle name, Camille. After a while, the first-name swap wasn't enough to dodge the nasty questions. She then adopted the last name Bridwell.
When I went to work for D in 1989, I began getting calls from people who'd encountered the Southern beauty in other wealthy enclaves from California to Arizona to Massachusetts. I wrote two stories for D about her new life, interviewing men who claimed she'd taken them for huge sums of money.
I kept all my notes. I knew her story hadn't ended. It was just a matter of where she'd turn up next.
As she neared 60, with her looks fading and some of her usual scams--like pretending she was pregnant--beyond plausibility, Bridewell assumed the persona of a missionary. Like her many other ruses, she did her homework and played the part extraordinarily well. This one, though, had to be the most shocking, the most ironic: No one who knew her in Dallas would have predicted that Bridewell, a social-climbing gourmet cook with a knack for knowing what men want, would end up casting herself as a Bible-toting, arm-waving, self-proclaimed evangelist.
The truth is no less bizarre. Sandra Camille Bridewell, once known for her gorgeous looks and elegant ways, has become a penniless bag lady, sleeping on the couches of good-hearted strangers, carrying a picture of a Lexus in her Bible and dreaming about crazy schemes to recoup her lost fortune.
To understand Sandra Camille Bridewell, one must see her as she does--Cinderella, complete with a wicked stepmother, raised on the wrong side of the Trinity River. If reality hadn't given her a society pedigree, then with her superior intellect and sheer willpower, Sandra set about to invent one.
It worked because her upbringing was cloudy. At various times Sandra told friends that she'd been adopted and that her adoptive parents had died. She told others her parents were Irish aristocrats who "rode to the hounds." Sandra claimed to have attended SMU and TCU. She told several girlfriends that her college boyfriend, a West Point cadet, had shot himself in the head while she was sitting with him in a car, dying as she cradled his head. When things began to turn sour, friends would discover that much of what Sandra told them about her early life wasn't true.
The few facts are that Sandra Powers was born on April 5, 1944, in Sedalia, Missouri, and adopted as an infant by Arthur Powers, owner and manager of the local Dr Pepper bottling plant. When Sandra was 3, her adoptive mother, Camille, was killed in a car accident. Three years later, the family moved to a small house in Oak Cliff, and her father worked as a cemetery-plot salesman for Laurel Land. Her father had remarried, but Sandra didn't get along with her stepmother. Sandra painted Doris Powers as evil, a stepmother who shut her in a closet and failed to send out invitations to her birthday party, telling her that no one wanted her.
A 1962 graduate of Kimball High School, Sandra rarely dated and is hardly mentioned in the school annual. That changed during her 20s, when Sandra was besieged with suitors mesmerized by her Southern Belle persona and what a friend described as her "ladylike, 'poor helpless me' routine."
Sandra instinctively knew what men desired: a beautiful woman intensely focused on them. While her single girlfriends read movie magazines, Sandra subscribed to Southern Living, learning how to cook gourmet meals and decorate her apartment. Though she attended only one year of junior college, Sandra was a fiercely focused autodidact. When she got interested in a subject, she read and memorized until she knew as much or more than those she was trying to impress.
In May 1967, Sandra Powers married David Stegall, a dentist from Fort Worth. Sandra told friends she'd dated a lot of people, but she waited to marry someone with a good financial upside. Stegall, who'd studied under a Los Angeles dentist with a Hollywood clientele, had that potential.
During the early '70s, Sandra reinvented herself as a chic Highland Park wife. The Stegalls bought a bungalow in Greenway Park, the Park Cities neighborhood on the west side of the Dallas North Tollway. David drove a Cadillac, and Sandra had a live-in maid from Mexico long before anyone else in her group did. She read voraciously about art, decorating, antiques, china and porcelain. Paying $35,000 to a society decorator, Sandra filled her home with fine furniture and fabrics. Everything she did had to be in the best of taste.
While caring for three children, Sandra taught herself photography and began to take pictures for charity groups, using that as leverage in her efforts to join the Junior League and other society clubs. But while she worked on many blue-chip projects, there was something unsettling about Sandra that kept her from being completely accepted by other women.
Behind the elegant exterior, in fact, the Stegalls were drowning in debt, thanks to Sandra's extravagances. By early 1974, the IRS was threatening to foreclose on their house, and David borrowed $100,000 from his father to pay off creditors. Depressed, he began seeing a psychiatrist. After a frantic phone call from Sandra, his attorney Jack Sides rushed over to the Stegall house one night to find David crouched in a closet, a pistol to his head. Sides took it away.
David seemed to improve, insisting he'd never kill himself, because of his children--Britt, Kathryn and Emily. A psychiatrist concluded that David was no longer suicidal. A week after the suicide attempt, an upbeat David told Sides he was filing for divorce. "He was in good spirits," the attorney says. "He was going to change his life."
Sides and other friends were entirely unprepared for what happened on February 22, 1976. An emotional Sandra called a doctor friend at 7 a.m. "I think something has happened to David," she said. The doctor and his wife raced to the Stegall home. Sandra explained that she'd been sleeping in a child's bedroom and had heard something ominous; she hadn't looked in the master bedroom.
The doctor found David slumped in the king-size bed. He'd slashed his wrists and shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber pistol. The doctor was puzzled because the wrist slashes ran horizontally. A dentist would have known to slash the arteries vertically if he wanted to die.
Before his death, Sandra had called their insurance company to find out if it paid in case of suicide. It did. The insurance and the sale of David's practice settled Sandra's debts, with enough left over for a vacation.
Marry a Millionaire
"Surprise!" Sandra popped out of a closet to the astonishment of the guest of honor. The occasion was a dinner party thrown specifically so that the young widow could meet Bobby Bridewell, the son of a wealthy oilman. Knowing Bridewell owned racehorses, Sandra had boned up on Thoroughbred breeding lines. Bobby, reeling from the discovery that his wife was in love with her horse trainer, became fascinated with Sandra.
After Stegall's death, Sandra began looking for a man the way other people looked for a job. She told one friend the names of three millionaires she wanted to meet. Men, in turn, seemed enthralled by her.
"She truly does make you feel special," Dick Romine, an Oklahoma oilman who dated Sandra briefly after she left Dallas, told me. It wasn't that she dressed provocatively or was a great beauty. It was the way she patted his arm, focused her dark eyes on his and hung on his every word. "She's very forward. It's nice to have someone touching you. It's absolutely powerful. And she makes herself very vulnerable."
Other men loved her frank sexuality and unabashed aggressiveness. One wealthy bachelor who met her on a blind date described Sandra to a friend as the most "sexually insatiable" woman he'd ever met.
During the fall of 1976, Sandra researched wealthy restaurateur Norman Brinker, then in the middle of a divorce. She maneuvered a 7:30 a.m. encounter with Brinker at a car wash. They had their first date that night. Sandra began regaling friends with tales about Brinker's ex-wife breaking into her house and writing threats in lipstick, destroying her collectibles, even throwing a knife at her. Brinker briefly hired a bodyguard for Sandra. But some friends were skeptical, noticing that none of the broken knickknacks was valuable. (Brinker has never spoken publicly about Sandra.)
Though her loyal friends saw the Sandra who was caring and thoughtful, who adored her children and made sure they had the best of everything, others saw Sandra as predatory. She began to get a reputation as someone who befriended other women only to go after their husbands--and was not above blackmail.
After a short relationship with a well-known Dallas financier, Sandra told the man she was pregnant; when marriage wasn't forthcoming, she asked for money for an abortion. That scenario would be replayed many times over the next 15 years. But according to one of her best friends at the time, in January 1977, a year after Stegall's death, Sandra had undergone a hysterectomy.
In June 1978, Sandra married Bobby Bridewell, who adopted her children. The marriage didn't bring her instant wealth; Bobby filed for bankruptcy not long after they wed. But he soon conceived the idea to convert the old Sheppard King mansion into a luxury hotel. After Bobby sold Rosewood Hotels on the concept, it turned the Italian-style villa into The Mansion on Turtle Creek, which became an instant success. Bobby signed on as a six-figure consultant.
The Bridewells bought a large house on Lorraine Street in Highland Park. Sandra was getting close to her dream of Dallas aristocracy. But their happiness wouldn't last; in 1980, Bobby was diagnosed with lymph cancer. Sandra's friends rallied around the family, helping her care for her ailing husband, taking her children for days and weeks at a time. Marion Underwood, an older friend, even took Bobby into her home while Sandra was having central air and heat installed.
But compassion for Sandra soon turned to disgust when her friends discovered that while her husband was dying, Sandra was having their entire home remodeled. Despite Sandra's insistence that her husband wanted the work done, it appeared that she didn't care enough to nurse her sick husband. Bobby made excuses for her, but he never returned to the house they'd shared.
After learning that Bobby had spent weeks at the Underwood home, Bridewell's father moved his son into a hotel he owned. At age 41, Bobby died at Baylor hospital on May 9, 1982. Sandra threw her arms around one friend and sobbed, "No one is ever going to love me again!"
The Best Friend
During Bobby's illness, Sandra became close friends with his oncologist, Dr. John Bagwell, and his wife, Betsy. Shortly after the funeral, Sandra appeared uninvited at the Bagwells' doorstep in Santa Fe, where they were vacationing, then seemed ever-present wherever they were. Betsy initially felt sympathy for Sandra. Though there had been nasty rumors, clearly no one could blame Sandra for Bobby's death.
But Betsy's compassion turned to exasperation. Sandra attached herself to the Bagwells like a leech. Betsy told her friends she felt smothered by Sandra's frequent calls and requests for help or child care--and Sandra seemed far too interested in Betsy's husband. Sandra had orchestrated an encounter with the doctor at the Anatole Hotel, asking him to rent her a room because she didn't want to return home to the memories of Bobby. He declined and told Betsy to pull back from the relationship.
On June 16, 1982, police arrived at the Bagwell home at 8:20 p.m. They told the doctor that his 40-year-old wife had been found slumped in the front seat of her Mercedes station wagon in a parking lot at Love Field. Dressed in shorts, a swimsuit and a blouse knotted over her midriff, Betsy had a stolen .22-caliber pistol clutched in her right hand and a bullet in her brain. A parking ticket indicated she'd entered the lot at 6:05 p.m. The last person to see her alive was Sandra.
Betsy's death was ruled a suicide; residue on her hand was consistent with someone who'd held the gun and pulled the trigger. But her husband and friends never believed Betsy killed herself. That morning, she'd told her children that dinner was thawing in the sink and not to "pig out." She wasn't depressed, and she hadn't left a suicide note. And where would a respectable Highland Park mom get a stolen Saturday night special? Wouldn't she just buy a gun at a sporting-goods store?
Dr. Bagwell hired private detective Al Teel, who took the gun to a forensics expert in California. Dr. John Thornton determined that Betsy, grabbing for the weapon, could have gotten the residue on her right hand when someone else pulled the trigger.
Teel pointed out that the day before Betsy's death, Sandra had called Dr. Bagwell for help with her stalled car. When the doctor arrived, a policeman was climbing into the vehicle, which started right away. The next day, Sandra used the same strategy to get Betsy to take her to Love Field not once but twice. If anyone asked about the car, Sandra could point to the previous day's incident as proof that her car was unreliable.
When Betsy didn't return home, Dr. Bagwell called Sandra at a restaurant where she was having dinner with friends to ask where Betsy was. Sandra said she didn't know. "John," she said, "you sound accusatory."
Betsy's body hadn't been found yet.
Despite Teel's findings, Dallas police refused to reopen the investigation of Betsy's death. But rumors about "The Black Widow" crescendoed in 1985 with yet another mysterious death.
Husband No. 3
Roaming the Park Cities in search of a garage apartment, Alan Rehrig slammed on the brakes when he saw a dark-haired beauty on her lawn, talking to the yard man. The former star athlete at Oklahoma University had moved to Dallas in 1984 after a failed pro golf career and had taken a job with a mortgage company.
Friends would later warn the tall, redheaded Rehrig about Sandra, but he was instantly enamored with her gentle nature and good looks. He shrugged off the difference in their ages. He was 29; Sandra told him she was 36. It was the first big lie. She was actually 40, 11 years his senior.
After Bridewell's death, Sandra had thrown herself into a frenzy of dating, sometimes using her children to woo men. She tried the technique on Rehrig, sending her daughters up to his office with flowers. "I'm pulling for you and Sandra," one daughter told Rehrig. "We need a daddy." If some of Rehrig's friends had misgivings, so did Sandra's, seeing the good-looking athlete as a gold digger impressed with her big house on Lorraine.
Rehrig's ardor had cooled by the fall of 1984, when he told a friend that Sandra was pressing him for marriage. But after Sandra informed him she was pregnant, the two wed in December at The Mansion. A few weeks later, Sandra called Rehrig from a convenience-store pay phone, saying she'd just returned from Baylor hospital. She'd miscarried twins, both with red hair. Her story would have been preposterous to any woman, but Rehrig believed her and was devastated.
Early on, Sandra had pressed the issue of life insurance with Gloria Rehrig, Alan's mother. "She asked if I didn't think it was important for a young man with the responsibility of children to have life insurance," says Mrs. Rehrig, who agreed with Sandra. Rehrig took out a policy for $220,000.
The marriage quickly soured. They fought over disciplining her children; her son Britt was getting into trouble and cutting school. Rehrig complained that Sandra had run up charges of $20,000 on his credit card and had refused to pay it. Sandra told friends that Alan was no longer sexually interested in her and hinted he might be gay. She even hired a private detective to follow him, saying she suspected Alan of gambling or buying drugs. They separated in November 1985, and Alan moved in with a co-worker, Phil Askew.
On Saturday, December 7, Alan told Askew that he was meeting Sandra at 5 p.m. at a mini-warehouse in Garland to get some of his things. Sandra later claimed he never showed up.
Four days later, on December 11, Rehrig's frozen body was found slumped in the front seat of his Bronco, parked about a mile from the Oklahoma City airport, 200 miles north of Dallas. He'd been shot in the head and torso by someone sitting in the passenger seat. The .32-caliber pistol was never found.
Almost as soon as the news reached Dallas, a woman they dubbed the "Highland Park Deep Throat" had called Oklahoma City detectives to fill them in on Sandra's past. Because of her information, Detectives Steve Pacheco and Ron Mitchell caught Sandra in several lies during her initial conversation with police.
Gloria Rehrig was furious when Sandra purchased the cheapest casket available for Alan's funeral. After the service was over, Sandra discovered she'd forgotten to bring her checkbook, forcing his friends and family to pay to close his grave.
After the funeral, instead of meeting the detectives as agreed, Sandra drove immediately back to Dallas. Refusing to cooperate further or to allow her children to be questioned, Sandra hired attorney Vince Perini to keep police at bay. (Sandra has declined all requests for interviews from the press over the years. She could not be located for comment for this story.)
At Sandra's insistence, Perini hired private detective Bill Dear to prove her innocence. The strategy backfired: Dear resigned from the case when Sandra failed two lie detector tests.
Running From Rumors
When Dennis Kuba met the beautiful black-haired woman at a dinner party in Marin County, California, the lawyer and horseman was mesmerized. She could talk knowledgeably about almost any topic--food, art, music, business, even horses. "I thought she was captivating," Kuba told me. "There was this incredible attraction there. You really do get the feeling there's no one else in the room but her."
In May 1987, writers Skip Hollandsworth and Eric Miller had published a story in D magazine called "The Black Widow." Fleeing the gossip, Sandra, then 43, moved to Marin County, a wealthy enclave north of San Francisco similar to Highland Park. She leased a water-front home in swank Belvedere for $3,000 a month, filling it with her expensive antiques, rugs and Limoges china, and enrolled her children in private schools.
Sandra, who'd dropped the name Rehrig in favor of the more aristocratic-sounding Bridewell, had found the perfect place to start over. Society women embraced the brave young widow, who told them both her husbands had died of cancer. If she was cloaked in an air of mystery, it was all the more intriguing.
At several gala events, Sandra asked a society photographer to point out rich men. "I told her that most of them were married, but she said she didn't care," the photographer told me. "She wanted to know how much they were worth and what their relationships with their wives were like."
By 1987, the Rehrig investigation had stalled. Gloria Rehrig had plastered fliers around Dallas and Oklahoma City asking anyone with information about her son's murder to contact police, then filed a lawsuit to prevent Sandra from receiving the proceeds of her son's life insurance policy. Oklahoma City Detectives Ron Mitchell and Steve Pacheco were prepared to testify that Sandra was their only suspect in Rehrig's murder. But after Sandra moved the lawsuit to California, Mrs. Rehrig was forced to settle. Sandra received all the insurance money.
But the whispers followed Sandra to California, fueled by lawsuits alleging fraud against her by Kuba and a California businessman named Thomas Finney. In the midst of her affair with Kuba, Sandra revealed that she was having short-term financial difficulties; she'd spent her twice-yearly trust fund payment, and the proceeds from the sale of some real estate had been delayed. With her promise to repay him as soon as the money came through, Kuba loaned her $5,000. Amid the passion of their relationship, her requests for money began to come more frequently. Sandra always needed more: $8,500 for her son's college tuition, $3,000 for rent, a repair for her Alfa Romeo. The smitten Kuba couldn't turn her down, even borrowing money to accommodate her.
Kuba would later wonder why he was so gullible. "She just exuded vulnerability, like 'Won't you be my knight in shining armor?'" Kuba told me. "And she had all the trappings--a smooth, beautiful package. It never occurred to me she wasn't what she seemed."
After he'd loaned her almost $24,000 and she'd made no effort to pay him back, Kuba declined Sandra's request to buy a Jeep Cherokee for her daughters. Sandra began to stand him up. Their last communiqué was an answering-machine message from Sandra canceling a date to the ballet. Relieved, Kuba wrote her a letter detailing what she owed him. He never heard from Sandra again.
A month later, Kuba was contacted by Finney. At the same time she was involved with Kuba, Finney had loaned Sandra almost $75,000 from his pension fund for tuition and various other crises. When Finney, who said he didn't have an affair with Sandra, asked for the expected repayment, Sandra told him, "I don't owe you this money. I think you gave it to me. If you want to divorce your wife, you can come live with me and enjoy your money."
The two men discovered that yet another California lawyer, once engaged to marry Sandra, had given or loaned her close to $200,000 and had not been repaid. The three men had loaned her nearly $300,000 in two years. One acquaintance would later estimate Sandra's monthly expenses at $20,000--tuition, parties, rent, car payments and the occasional ball gown.
After Kuba and Finney sued, the 1987 D story began appearing in Marin County mailboxes and on fax machines, polarizing Sandra's new friends. An FBI agent asked Cindy Abbott, one of Sandra's defenders, if she had read the story. "If you took Betsy Bagwell and put her in California," the agent told her, "you are Betsy Bagwell." Abbott and her husband hastily cut off Sandra.
Elizabeth Merrill, a mainstay of San Francisco society, had introduced Sandra to a rich Hong Kong financier. They'd attended a charity ball together, and Sandra told Merrill he'd invited her to visit Hong Kong. Now Merrill called the financier to warn him. The man explained that days earlier he'd returned home to discover Sandra waiting in his living room. "It was an extraordinarily clever, highly polished performance," Merrill told me. "I believe she insinuated she was pregnant, had undergone some hormonal changes [indicative of pregnancy] in the last month." The man simply told Sandra to send him the medical bills.
With little hope of recovering his money and to avoid mounting legal costs, Kuba dismissed his lawsuit. Finney won a default judgment but never collected a dime.
On July 12, 1989, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story called "Mystery in Marin," outlining the controversy over Sandra. Her saga was picked up by tabloids like The Globe and TV shows such as Geraldo, Inside Edition and Current Affair, spreading beyond San Francisco and Dallas. Sandra Bridewell had gone from mysterious to notorious.
At some point in the early '90s, Sandra seemingly vanished, leaving few trails in public records and databases and re-emerging as Camille Bridewell. She spent some of the time pingponging between Arizona and California, where two children attended college. All three would ultimately graduate with college degrees, and the few Dallas friends who kept up with them described them as well-adjusted despite their mother's bizarre behavior. All three have married; Sandra now has two grandchildren.
In 1994, I heard from a private detective hired by the wife of an entrepreneur who split his time between Idaho and San Francisco. Camille Bridewell, now 50 and living in Palo Alto, began having an affair with him in 1992. After his wife discovered the affair, the man moved Camille to Boston, appeasing her with a $3,000-a-month apartment on Beacon Hill. Camille then revealed she was three months' pregnant with his child. (Says one former Dallas friend: "Sandra could have passed for pregnant in her 40s." When she gained weight, it went to her stomach.) Six months later, Sandra called him to say she'd had the child and given it up for adoption.
He immediately flew to Boston to be at her side. Camille's performance was so convincing--she pointed to a puddle in the bathroom and said that's where her water broke--the man would later refuse to believe she'd had a hysterectomy 15 years earlier.
Not long after the "birth," the man and his wife met with Camille in a Boston restaurant. After paying Camille's rent for six months, he wanted his name off the lease. Concerned that Camille might demand child support at some point, the couple asked for proof that there was a baby. Camille refused to name the priest she'd given the baby to, got angry, shoved the table and shouted for them to leave her alone.
Over the next few years, Camille Bridewell had addresses in Connecticut and Hawaii, sometimes overlapping with her daughter Emily's residence. Public records show that at one point, she used the Social Security numbers of Lois Chilcutt, a 95-year-old Fort Worth resident who died in 1996, and Roland Stuckey, a food store manager in South Carolina.
But until Christmas Eve 2003, Camille left few traces of her activities. As she grew older and her dark tresses began to show gray without scrupulous use of dye, Camille's prospects for catching a rich husband dimmed. The pregnancy ploy obviously wasn't going to work anymore. She had apparently burned through all her money, selling off most of her fine furniture and antiques. So Camille discovered a new strategy for survival: religion.
She was no stranger to Christianity. During her years in Dallas, Camille made it known that she was a believer. When her second husband, Bobby Bridewell, embraced the faith, she insisted that when he gave his testimony he should credit her with inspiring his conversion. (Bridewell never did, instead attributing his spiritual rebirth to a group of men who invited him to a Bible study.) And she sent her children to church. Something must have stuck: Daughter Emily and her husband are currently on the staff of a ministry organization in Connecticut.
Now, in middle age, she began devouring religious books and watching TV preachers. Camille filled notebooks full of scriptures and TV preachers' quotes, homing in on the theme of prosperity. There's evidence she traveled overseas, perhaps on short-term mission trips. Jaie Benson says that the last trip registered on her passport was to India in 2001.
She emerged from her experience with all the buzzwords of Charismatic Christianity, if none of the deep convictions, as a self-proclaimed traveling "missionary and evangelist."
Late on Christmas Eve 2002, Camille Bridewell showed up at a cheap residential hotel in a small town in Alabama. She pleaded with the clerk for a room, saying she had only $25. He let her stay.
The owners, a pastor and his wife, remembered her from the previous spring when she'd stayed one night. (They asked that their names not be used.) Camille told them she was a missionary, in town to reconcile with her daughter Kathryn.
Her daughter and son-in-law actually do live in this town; for years Kathryn has been estranged from her mother. A private detective who has talked to Kathryn says that Camille's behavior has made her children's lives difficult. At one point, the detective says, Camille used their Social Security numbers to get credit cards, didn't pay the bills and ruined their credit.
When Kathryn got married, Camille arrived for the nuptials to pronounce that the arrangements--which the groom's family was paying for--weren't "good enough" for her daughter. Camille ran up expenses and then disappeared after the ceremony without paying for her lavish additions.
On Christmas Day, Camille walked to her daughter's nearby house but found no one at home. On foot, she turned up at the home of one of her son-in-law's relatives later that day. Kathryn's mother-in-law answered the door and told her she wasn't welcome. Days later, Camille appeared again at her daughter's house and was rebuffed by her son-in-law. When Camille started whining, saying she wanted to see her grandchild, the son-in-law threatened to call police.
Kathryn declined to talk to the Dallas Observer, but the detective recounted her words: "My mother is a schizo, bipolar freak who has shit on everyone in her life. It's a public embarrassment being her daughter. I want nothing more to do with her."
Not willing to give up, Camille asked the pastor if she could stay in the hotel longer, promising that funds from the mission group would soon arrive, enabling her to pay the $360-a-month rent. Feeling sorry for her, the couple agreed. Four months later, she was still there, still promising to pay.
"Camille comes in being a bliss and ends up a burden," says the pastor's wife. "She's a passive parasite."
It bothered the couple that Camille talked about serving in China and India as a missionary but wouldn't say with what ministry. She showed them pictures of poor dark-skinned children, but the couple noticed she wasn't in any of the photos. Camille finally told them the name of a church in California she'd attended, but when the wife called, nobody there knew her. She refused to put her Social Security number on the rental agreement.
Camille began to attend the couple's Charismatic church, which made it hard to throw her out. It was clear she was penniless. The couple helped her out with small amounts of money and food, but Camille ate so little, saying she was fasting, she began to look malnourished.
Occasionally, Camille walked to her daughter's house simply to stand outside and stare. She spent most days at the library or in her room watching religious TV shows. Discarded mail she left behind showed that during this period, she began pledging $5 to $8,000 to various TV preachers, though she had no way to pay. Mail addressed to "Evangelist Camille Bridewell" began to arrive at the hotel.
Her syrupy-sweet nature and pretentious spirituality began to irritate her benefactors. "She had very manipulative ways," says the pastor's wife. "She tried to tell us what to do." Two weeks into her stay, Camille told the pastor that God had revealed to her that he and his wife and a certain African-American couple at the church should get together with Camille and pray. When the pastor asked why, Camille said God hadn't revealed that yet.
The next day, learning that the pastor hadn't mentioned it to his wife, Camille insisted that the wife remind him. "Remember," Camille said, "delayed obedience is disobedience."
That angered the wife. "It was like we were disobeying God if we didn't do what she wanted," the wife says. "I called her on it. So she backed off."
After three months, when Camille's funds still hadn't appeared, the couple got fed up. They offered Camille two jobs, but she turned them down, saying God didn't want her to work. "The Bible says if you don't work, you don't eat," the pastor told her. She replied, "I know, but I'm so close to God, I know what he says."
The pastor told his wife not to help Camille any longer. When Camille asked the pastor's wife for $7 to buy some things at the drugstore, the wife declined. Camille huffed, "I cannot believe you'd disobey the word of God that way."
When the pastor kicked her out at the end of April, Camille begged the black couple at church to let her stay with them for two weeks. They took her in, though the husband had been injured and was out of work. Camille piled her belongings in a corner and slept on the couch. She stayed two months.
Camille rarely ate with the family, going to the library each day to surf the Internet and watching TV preachers at night. She began using their home address to receive mail from various ministries. At the end of June, they finally asked her to leave. To soften the blow, they gave her a plane ticket to the West Coast to visit Emily, courtesy of their daughter, a Delta employee who could get a buddy pass for $50. Camille accepted, but explained she had to stop first in Columbus, Ohio, to pick up some of her things.
She lied. Instead of visiting her daughter, Camille spent the week in Columbus at the World Harvest Church for the "Rod Parsley Mission 2003." (One commentator calls Parsley's TV services "a hybrid of pep rally, boxing match and professional wrestling.") She wrote to Barron Hilton, chairman of the board of Hilton Corp. and a friend of the late Bobby Bridewell, asking him to comp her weeklong hotel stay. She told him she'd been doing missions work in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, China and India. "...Being a part of establishing children's homes, rescuing abandoned or orphan children from living on the streets, taking in babies and children...is the heart of my missions work. Also I have been involved in implementing feeding & medical outreaches, water well projects, setting up nutritional & environmental education & mentoring programs; as well as equipping, teaching indigenous peoples work/job skills to earn better living to improve their quality of life."
She described smuggling Bibles into China, then venturing into "the far outreaches of Hubei Province to distribute Gospel tracts by means of what is termed 'night tracting' (done under the cover of darkness)...It was like being Agent 007 for Jesus! The greatest reward to me is the opportunity to minister in love to the heart needs of unreached peoples groups, while meeting their physical needs, bringing hope to the hopeless.
"Now I am in the States and beginning life afresh and anew...For the past couple of months, I have been staying here in Alabama with family friends, making vital decisions such as where to settle, how specifically to reframe my life, and being in the 'valley of decision!' One thing I am planning is to set up a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit for my ministry, establishing a base in the states to work here on behalf of children and families in our own country, as well as continuing to serve in the nations. This is a certainty!" (Hilton did not return a call requesting comment.)
She'd obviously absorbed the lingo of the Evangelical Christian missions community. Had six months of prayer and fasting brought forth a reborn, devout Camille Bridewell? Or had listening to TV preachers and reading their literature given her fresh ideas about how to separate people from their money?
As Jaie Benson left New Birth Ministries' Sunday service on October 19, 2003, she spotted the white woman talking to her ride--James Bell, a black insurance executive. "This is Camille Bridwell," Bell told Jaie. "She needs a ride home."
As the group walked toward Bell's Cadillac Escalade, Benson noticed how the woman often touched his arm or elbow, looking directly into his eyes, as if flirting with him. So Benson was surprised when Bridwell--no longer Bridewell--explained that she was a missionary and evangelist. For the previous eight years, she'd traveled among "the nations" doing God's work in China, India and Pakistan. Now God had called her to return to the United States to start her own church. She had already taken one step by setting up the International Willing Hands Ministry.
At first, Benson thought Bridwell was flaky. But after Bell invited the evangelist to his sister's home for lunch, Benson realized Bridwell was smart, articulate and warm. "You have a business anointing," Bridwell told Benson. "The Lord just gave me a word over your life that you are entering into seven years of prosperity, and you will never have to worry about money again."
Bridwell then confided that God had called her to be an entrepreneur. "I'm to be part of a business with a group of 12," Bridwell said, "and I'm to lead that group."
Bishop Eddie Long had warned his parishioners about "parking-lot prophets." But Benson didn't dismiss what Bridwell said. "Until somebody proves otherwise," Benson says, "I trust them."
And Bridwell seemed so devout. At Bell's request, she prayed for his sick sister, laying her hands on the woman's stomach and praying in tongues.
Bridwell confided that she'd been living with a young black couple she'd met downtown, helping them--at God's command--with their three children and many problems. Benson had seen the young couple at church. Bridwell said the one-bedroom apartment was cramped and implied the couple had stolen $7,500 from her. But she had no place else to stay. (The couple didn't respond to a request for comment, but it's clear that Bridwell didn't have $7,500.)
It sounded so grim, that night Benson couldn't sleep. The next day, Benson called Bridwell to ask if things had improved. "No, but God will provide," Bridwell told her. Impulsively, even though relatives were staying with her, Benson invited Bridwell to move in until funds from her missions group came through. After all, God had given Benson a new lease on life.
Benson hadn't really wanted to return to Georgia, where, 12 years ago, her 15-year-old son had been killed on his bike by a hit-and-run driver. And at first it didn't seem like Atlanta was the answer. Before moving, Benson had nailed down a $90,000-a-year job with Relizon, a business communications company. She leased a three-bedroom condo in the prestigious Buckhead area and immersed herself in New Birth. But after only a few months, Relizon downsized, and she was jobless again.
This time, Benson didn't feel despair. She teamed up with seven other church members to start a technology business and consulted to make ends meet until they perfected their product. But money was tight, prompting Benson to search for a cheaper condo and pinch pennies on household expenses.
When Bridwell eagerly accepted her offer, Benson and Bell drove to the dumpy apartment complex to pick her up and found her standing on the curb amid a mountain of shopping bags, paper sacks and boxes. Benson thought, "This is Beverly Hillbillies stuff." Despite her nice suit, Bridwell seemed like a bag lady.
Bridwell had to sleep on the couch until Benson's brother, son and grandchild left after a long visit. The first 10 days were hell. "She was constantly meddling in everything," Benson says. She said God told her Jaie's brother had "a spirit of slothfulness" and tried to monopolize Benson's grandchild. "I had to correct her several times. You had to be very sharp with her; otherwise she wouldn't stop. She knew right away I wasn't controllable."
Benson learned that Bridwell had been celibate since her wealthy husband had died of cancer and desperately wanted to find a mate. "God is sending me my Boaz," Bridwell often told Benson. In the Bible, Boaz was the wealthy, esteemed husband of Ruth. "He's at New Birth. Have you seen anybody who looks good for me?"
"Camille, I'm tired of hearing about your Boaz," Benson finally said. "Can't it just be a husband?"
In the mornings, Bridwell often laid a towel out on the balcony, prostrated herself and prayed for two hours, speaking in tongues or talking to God out loud. Often, she passed on messages from the man upstairs.
"God has given me the word 'proximity,'" Bridwell told Benson. "I'm in the right proximity. I'm in the right place at the right time." Benson thought, "No kidding. She's in Buckhead."
Bridwell claimed that she had been discipled by well-known Christian speaker Marilyn Hickey and had preached at a large church in Gainesville, Florida. But when Benson asked why no one had called her to preach, Bridwell deflected the question. And when Hickey appeared in Atlanta, Benson noticed that Bridwell made no effort to meet with her.
But she had grandiose schemes for her future as an evangelist. "You're going to be my armor-bearer," Bridwell told Benson, referring to someone who carries a preacher's Bible and other belongings, adding she'd once had an armor-bearer named Rosemary. "No, I'm not," Benson retorted. "I'm just trying to help you out until you get on your feet."
What excited Bridwell most, however, was Benson's new company. She had absorbed the "Kingdom Breakthrough" message preached by Long and other black preachers, which emphasized starting Christian businesses to shift wealth from the wicked to God's kingdom. "This is our Kairos moment," Bridwell would crow, referring to a biblical Greek buzzword from the movement about God's timing.
During a meeting of the business team at Benson's home, Bridwell weighed in, saying she'd once had a PR and marketing company in New York. She seemed knowledgeable about real estate, contracts and marketing. She even promised to write a proposal to obtain a government grant. The other members of the team were excited about Bridwell's ideas and wanted her involved, even though she tried to get them to abandon the core of their technology business--preventing identity theft--in favor of other uses of the software.
"Three of our team members said, 'If she's white, that's going to help us,'" Benson says. "That's common in black churches and communities." Suddenly, Bridwell was part of the team, going with Benson and her real estate agent to look at commercial buildings. "Camille told him that she was a long-term real estate investor," Benson says. "She was very much interested in strip malls and apartments that she could convert to condos. He was impressed. She knew the lingo."
While walking one such property, which looked like it might appeal to hunters, Bridwell confided to the agent that her father had taught her to shoot. "I'm very good with a gun," she said. Bridwell soon had another agent showing her multimillion-dollar estates.
"If you can buy a house," Benson asked, "why are you living with me?"
Bridwell answered her with scripture.
It slowly became apparent to Benson that Bridwell had simply memorized various scriptural passages and knew little about the Bible or Christian doctrine. Bridwell began calling herself a "Levitical priest," one to whom tithes are due, and praying over her and Benson's offering envelopes in her room before church. Only later did Benson discover that her cash gifts never made it to the altar. During one service, Benson saw a picture of a Lexus GX470 in Bridwell's Bible. God was going to provide her with that car, Bridwell said; it might even be in the parking lot when they left that day.
"That ain't going to happen, Camille," Benson said in exasperation.
By mid-November, Bridwell had commandeered Benson's cell phone and was using her address. She talked Benson into starting a partnership to invest in 55 acres of land north of Atlanta that had once been used as a landfill.
Benson agreed but wanted little to do with the project; the property was in Forsyth County, where a black man recently had been attacked, and Benson refused to go there. "I put together research for her and came up with the name," Benson says, "but I said she could handle it."
While Benson began looking for a part-time job, Bridwell met with the owners and persuaded them to launch a joint venture called Full Earth Resources, selling organic topsoil and engaging in vermiculture--selling earthworm excrement as fertilizer--until the land was ready for development. "She said she had experience in the earthworm business," says Rick Liebe, one owner. "She ran into it in Australia."
The four male owners thought Bridwell was charming and smart. "She handled herself very well," Liebe says. Bridwell proposed to buy half the property for $2.5 million and arrange for financing of the remaining debt and a half-million-dollar credit line. The owners would sign a marketing agreement, giving Bridwell & Associates $25,000 up front and $10,000 a month until the closing of the deal on February 19. The owners agreed.
Though penniless--would she be sleeping on strangers' couches if she had access to $2.5 million?--Bridwell convinced four men, one an economist, that she could swing the deal.
Benson was relieved that some money appeared to be on the way; she was paying all the household bills, getting deeper into debt. She'd put off getting a cheaper condo at Bridwell's insistence. "We can afford this," Bridwell said. "I have money coming in. God told me we are supposed to be here."
Her guest began to grate on Benson's nerves: gooey sweet, hyper-religious and frankly not pleasant to be around. "She never bathed or washed her clothes," Benson says. "She had this odor. I confronted her on that." Bridwell insisted that she did shower, but she continued to reek.
Questions about Bridwell's past began to pile up, too. She had used Benson's name as an emergency contact, not her children's. Though Bridwell claimed her kids had Ivy League educations and were quite successful, she couldn't explain why they didn't give her money.
Bridwell's presumptuous attitude, as if something were owed her, made Benson queasy. She began noticing that certain things--her dead son's Social Security card, her Movado watch, her drivers license--were missing. On November 9, Benson wrote in her journal: "I am very confused and concerned. Lord, please reveal to me what is really going on." She began looking for a way to get Bridwell out of her condo and out of her life.
Later that month, Bridwell slipped on a sidewalk and broke her foot. Benson wrote a $900 check to cover the medical bill, money she didn't have. But Bridwell kept insisting that the real estate and marketing deal would soon go through.
It almost worked--until Liebe, one of the property's owners, had the nerve to ask Bridwell for her bona fides. "All she had to do was prove she had the financial resources to get to closing," Liebe says. "She refused." Insisting her funds wouldn't be available until January 5, Bridwell pressed the issue of the $25,000, saying she needed it to buy a car. The other men were willing to give it to her, but Liebe wouldn't back down. In a fury, Bridwell stomped out.
She told Benson that "other contingencies" kept the deal from being signed, but she refused to say what those were. One of Benson's business partners, a young accountant named Carlton Johnson, confronted Bridwell, saying what she was doing could be construed as fraud. "She took no responsibility for anything she had done," says Johnson, who began referring to Bridwell as the "sinister minister" of "First Jezebel Baptist."
A few days later, while Bridwell was out of the condo, Benson discovered her guest's passport stuffed under the air mattress. In addition, she found her own drivers license and notebooks filled with Bridwell's writing. One page was a list of her missionary "history," including the part about Marilyn Hickey being her mentor. On other pages, among notes from TV preachers and recipes, was a series of creepy affirmations:
"This is miracle season. Give me all my family back and ALL my stuff. EXPECT to live large."
"I NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give in."
"I am getting ready to go start something. I am an entrepreneur."
"I refuse to live anymore in less than total victory. There's about to be a turnaround."
"You've scheduled a divine encounter for me. I now position myself. You're taking me over to immense wealth."
"The anointing to prosper will reveal and unfold God's will for my money."
"No 'broke' talk EVER."
"My payday is in my confidence and maintaining it. D[evil] it's my turn now. Nothing you sent has knocked me over or out. I stand to get now what I'm standing to get. THIS is my receiving day."
Her scribbling seemed written by a demented woman. Feeling the key to Bridwell's true nature was in the green suitcase, Benson tried to open it. But she couldn't get around the locks.
The next day, when Benson called police, Sandra Bridewell went on the attack, telling the officers that Benson had written hot checks and stolen her money, that she was bipolar and often went berserk. Benson was so incensed, her brother Joe Judkins had to hold her arms so she wouldn't harm Bridewell. "All Jaie's religion went out the window," Judkins says. Calling Bridewell a demon, Benson said, "Three people are dead, and the common denominator is you."
Knowing that Bridewell had been targeting yet another mark and was trying to finagle a plane ticket, Benson went for the jugular: "I'm going to call that man in California and warn him of your murderous ways." Bridewell's face twisted in fury.
When Benson told her she must leave, Bridewell got on the phone and called New Birth church, crying and pleading for someone to help her. But Benson had already warned the pastor's office. As Judkins carried her bags and boxes downstairs, Bridewell queried a policewoman about what church she attended. She got no response.
When Benson last saw Sandra Camille Bridewell, she was hobbling in the rain--with as much dignity as she could muster, given the medical boot on her broken foot--across the parking lot to hit someone up for cab fare to the airport. Wearing a long skirt and purple sweater, straw handbag under one arm, she tugged behind her the locked green suitcase.
The Next Mark
Paul Ferrari got the call out of the blue sometime in November. Camille Bridwell from Georgia said she'd shopped in one of his A.G. Ferrari stores in California and wanted to pick his brain about the specialty food business.
"She knew all about my stores and about the industry," says Ferrari, who lives in San Rafael. "Her husband had been in the oil business, and since he'd died, she'd been working as a missionary in India on her own for several years, building houses for people."
Implying she was wealthy, Bridwell told him she was living in Atlanta with a black woman from India and wanted to invest in his business. Could she visit him when she came to San Rafael, where her son lived?
Ferrari was impressed with how much she knew not only about the specialty food business but the organic food growers in the San Francisco area. He said sure.
When Bridwell called a second time to chat, Ferrari realized she not only knew a lot about the industry but about him personally--where he lived, that he owned property in Marin County, that his brother is a whale expert who lives in Maui. Earlier, she'd drawn out that he was single and lived alone. Though her voice sounded angelic and she ended the conversation with "God bless you," Ferrari began to get uncomfortable.
In her next call, Bridwell said she'd be in California on a certain date to visit her son. When Ferrari asked if he could recommend a hotel, she hinted that she could stay at his house instead. He was confused: Mother Teresa was asking to spend the night with him?
Ferrari called Alisa Barry, an Atlanta friend also in the specialty food business, and asked her to check out Bridwell. Barry called back with the word that Bridwell seemed legitimate: well-dressed, knowledgeable and very savvy. "But Paul, she's asking a lot of personal questions about you," said Barry, who had once dated Ferrari.
In her next call, Bridwell came right out and asked if she could stay at his place.
"Well, I have a one-bedroom apartment," Ferrari said. "It wouldn't be very comfortable."
"Oh, I've slept in the jungles of India," Bridwell said.
Feeling Bridwell was more interested in him than investing, Ferrari told her no. Days later, he got another phone call. Bridwell was at the Atlanta airport. "Paul, they've lost my reservation," she said. "I'm here at the gate." He could hear airport sounds in the background. "Can you give the ticket agent a credit card number so I can get on the flight?"
When Ferrari asked why she didn't call her son for help, Bridwell said he was traveling and wouldn't be back until after Christmas. Ferrari had had enough. "I'm not going to do that," he said and hung up.
Less than an hour later, Barry called Ferrari. Bridwell had arrived at her business in a taxi, lugging shopping bags and boxes of her belongings, and was asking for money. "Something's not right here," Ferrari told her. "Call the police."
When Barry gave her $25 and suggested she go to a church for help, Bridwell got extremely angry. Dumping most of her possessions at Barry's warehouse, Bridwell stomped off, plotting her next move.
The stuff Bridwell abandoned, which the Observer obtained, provides intriguing clues about her modus operandi. Along with old clothes, a bottle of "My Sin" perfume, recipes for "Jerked Leg of Goat" and religious publications are handwritten notes interspersed with names and phone numbers. One number leads to a couple in Pennsylvania. They'd never heard of Bridewell, but they had an apple orchard advertised for sale on the Internet. Come to think of it, there had been that strange call from a woman...
But Sandra Camille Bridewell has disappeared again.