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Return of the Black Widow

Page 8 of 13

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."

The Daughter

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.

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Glenna Whitley