Michelle had boarded the flight from Atlanta in December 2003, bound for her home in California's wine country. As the two women nestled under blankets for the flight, the brunette with pale skin and flashing brown eyes introduced herself.
She was Camille Bridewell, she said, and she'd just come back from overseas after eight years as a missionary. She pulled out snapshots of dark-skinned children; in India, she explained, she'd set up homes for orphans, complete with teachers, medical care and vocational training.
Michelle was fascinated--even though the woman looked strange and her clothes smelled musty. When the flight attendant offered a glass of wine, the missionary said she'd love one. "She hinted it in such a way that I had to pay for it from the get-go," Michelle says.
The two women sipped as Bridewell talked about her travels through Bolivia, Kazakhstan, the Middle East and China. In the Middle East, she and her companions were pinpointed for arrest after distributing Bibles, she said. "They had to run down a back stairwell with long robes on," Michelle says, "and they got down the stairs and were able to escape." Bridewell told of a flight over the Andes rocked by such severe turbulence that the plane flipped upside down. The mission group grabbed hands, prayed "God, we demand you right this plane," and He did.
As the wine flowed, Michelle mentioned her successful business near Napa Valley. The conversation became more personal. "She started with the light fluttering in her eyes, the touching, making intimate contact," Michelle says. "It was warm, a tad bit flirtatious right from the beginning."
Bridewell confided that she was the widow of a wealthy Dallas man who'd owned racehorses and hotels. They had six children--three of his from a previous marriage and three of their own. After he'd died of lymphoma, she'd never remarried, instead devoting herself to God, funding her Willing Hearts Ministry by selling her antiques and other possessions.
Michelle, raised Catholic, admired Bridewell's faith. "I was so in awe of somebody who could do that," she says. The missionary had spent time in New Orleans, New York and the East Coast. Michelle had, too. "We had common interests," Michelle says. "Our pasts connected."
The connections--oh, the amazing connections! Bridewell felt led by the Lord to settle in Northern California, to find land where she could teach children from the Third World the science of sustainable organic farming. In time, they would return home to teach others.
Bridewell said she'd been praying in a chapel at the Atlanta airport with a woman who told her that she must get on this particular flight, that she would meet a person who would be "elemental" in her future. At the last minute, a pastor bought a ticket for Bridewell, believing he was doing it for God.
The implication: Michelle was the person who would be "elemental" in this spiritual giant's life.
Michelle felt, "Wow!"
The woman was so warm, so spiritual, so courageous, so selfless. A believer that there are no coincidences, Michelle found herself thinking, "Why am I meeting this person?" Later Michelle would realize how vulnerable she really was: She actually had a fever, the first symptoms of pneumonia. "Camille caught me at my weakest," she says.
As the plane landed, Bridewell sprang a surprise.
She had no money, she said. "You'll pay for my room tonight, won't you?"
Michelle had no time to think it through. "Nobody had ever used the God card on me before," she says.
They collected Bridewell's belongings--a huge computer box and a rolling green suitcase--and were soon on their way together to Sonoma County.
What Michelle found out only later was that the woman sitting next to her had just been chased out of a home in Atlanta and had a bizarre past that included numerous accusations of fraud as well as suspicion in the murder of one of her husbands. Bridewell, who used several different names, was homeless, penniless and traveling around the country in the guise of a super-spiritual minister with a hotline to Jesus.
And Michelle was her next sucker.
The last time Jaie Benson saw Sandra Bridewell, she was clumping down the street in her medical boot--treatment for a broken ankle--pulling a green suitcase on wheels. Benson, an Atlanta businesswoman and devoted churchgoer, kicked Bridewell out of her home when she discovered the truth about Bridewell's past ("Return of the Black Widow," January 22, 2004). Not only was Bridewell the only suspect in the murder of Alan Rehrig, her third husband, but one of her other husbands and a close female friend had died under suspicious circumstances. In Dallas, in fact, where Bridewell lived the longest, she'd become known as the Black Widow until her notoriety forced her to leave town in the late 1980s.