Longform

Return of the Black Widow

Page 11 of 13

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.

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Glenna Whitley