Return of the Black Widow

Page 12 of 13

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.

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Glenna Whitley