Return of the Black Widow

Page 2 of 13

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.

Southern Belle

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Glenna Whitley