How exactly is it that one discovers that she is the daughter of God? That she is not just daddy's little princess but an honest-to-goodness queen, God's only begotten daughter? It begins with a message from prophets. The blinders come off. You forsake your family and, deep breath, you forsake those ungodly designer clothes. You attract followers, who bow before you, wipe you after you use the toilet and snatch money from restaurant cash register drawers on your behalf (because God said you should put the cash to a Higher purpose). Maylbe there are other ways to fulfill such an important calling, but this is how it worked for Queen Shahmia. Or, for those who knew her in a previous life, this is how it worked for Richell Denise Clark Bradshaw.
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Richell has strictly followed what she calls God's orders to forsake her family. She last saw her parents four years ago, when Richell and her husband visited them in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"She said the Lord told her that they shouldn't have anything to do with us," said June Clark, Richell's mother. "She was convinced that I was evil and that I was not of God. Neither one of them could understand what God could have been thinking of." Richell did not believe in the ministry that her parents had begun.
Bitterly divided over religious beliefs, mother and daughter parted. "If you don't want us to stay here, we'll leave tonight," Mrs. Clark said her baby daughter told her. "I said, "Well, leave.' "
They never talked again. They were so out of touch that nobody in the family heard about it when Richell was arrested in January and held in the Lee County jail. Nor did they know that she had been convicted in August and sentenced to prison for 25 years for her part in a string of robberies in Central Florida during the Christmas holidays. Finally finding out from a reporter, the family is puzzled as to what went wrong.
"My wife and I never fought. We've been together 36 years," said 63-year-old Leo Clark, who with Richell's mother runs a homeless shelter in Corpus Christi as part of their Spirit of the Lord Ministries. "She didn't come up in a broken home. This is just something that happened." "I am just really sorry that I did not realize she was this dispirited," said Richell's older sister, Angelia McConico. "But I do feel like she's been brainwashed as well. Over time she'll have to accept reality: that she is not divine."
But Richell shows no sign that she plans to end her run as Queen Shahmia, and her servants are sticking by her. Her maidservant, Nirishi, still wears a necklace made of Richell's clipped fingernails. Convicted of robbery in Orange County, Nirishi was given a choice by the judge: Stay away from Richell or lose custody of your five children. Nirishi chose to stay by her queen.
One of Richell's manservants has been convicted of robbery and two others are scheduled to go to trial today. Though families of some of the servants have accused Richell of brainwashing them, the servants continue to pledge their allegiance to "goddess Shahmia."
The 34-year-old queen would not grant an interview, but she was required to give sworn testimony to the detectives investigating the restaurant and convenience store robberies.
She told them she considers her prosecution and prison sentence a bump in the road and expects God will see to it that she fulfills her destiny: "Right now there is this little piece of trouble. That will, will be passing over swiftly, there is an amount to do."
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Richell was the youngest of seven children and the only one the Clarks had together (one sister says there were eight children). Richell never said a mean thing about anybody. Even as young as 4 she was only too happy to dispense advice to adults.
Her complexion darker than her siblings, Richell hated her medium-brown skin. "All of the children were lighter. She was larger than any of them and she hated that," said her mother, Mrs. Clark.
Yet Richell's brothers and sisters thought she was something special, with long hair, long nails and a flair about her. She was raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Seattle, her father a heavy equipment operator, her mother a nurse's aide.
"She was used to living in a nice home and wearing expensive clothing," her mother said.
Added her father: "Richell had all the advantages a child could want. Plenty of food to eat, nice clothes to wear."
Two of her older sisters, Sheila Martin and Angelia McConico, say that Richell kept to herself, staying in her room a lot with the door closed, and eating in there. She loved to eat as much as she loved her dog, Jaeger Von Stephan Ho.
"Whatever Richell ate, Richell made sure he got some," said her aunt, Emelean Mills. "She always wanted to go to McDonald's. She wanted McDonald's constantly. I said to myself McDonald's can't be that good. But it was to her."
She outgrew a severe stutter during adolescence and her glamor bloomed. With her deep-dimpled smile, height and strut, friends called her striking. "Once she got into her teens, she seemed to have an outgoing personality and became very open-minded," said Martin, her oldest sister.
She was popular at school, though self-conscious about her size.
Richell "was a normal teenager. She smoked her bud lee, her marijuana," said McConico, who lives in Colorado.
She got a job as a receptionist at the VA Medical Center. She was so well-liked that they extended her summertime appointment, which suited her fine because Richell was dating one of the veterans who was a patient. She quit the job when he was released.
She had her heart set on going to fashion design school after high school. Everything seemed on track until the phone rang and Richell's mother learned that she had been skipping school, so many days that she could not graduate. Richell dropped out and never went back. She worked for a short time as a companion to elderly patients, which was just about the end of Richell's working career.
"Richell's always been really lazy," said McConico, 38. "We used to fan her when it was hot and wipe her butt when she was growing up. I just feel like Richell has spent her whole entire life trying to get back to that place."
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She liked to date older men, and her family never liked her choices.
Including the one she married.
They met at a bus stop in Seattle early in 1988. Phillip Bradshaw was enthralled with Richell, but she didn't want to be bothered with him partly because he was Mexican. She was nervous about the effect an interracial marriage would have on their kids.
"She did everything she could think of to discourage him," Mrs. Clark said. "He told us how much he loved Richell and the Lord had pointed out (that she would be his wife). She said, "Mom, if I marry Phillip, my children will not be able to go to public schools or go to a play.' "
He insisted that she would be his wife. Within several months of meeting, it was so.
"I just told her he sounded like a bum. He sounded like a lunatic," McConico said. Everyone in the family identified Phillip not so much by name, but as that man who stood on a corner preaching and playing his guitar.
After living for a few years in Seattle and then Oklahoma with the Clarks, Phillip and Richell returned to Seattle and ministered on the streets, adopting a life of nomadic poverty, sleeping on cots or the beach and depending on people's generosity.
During that time, Richell said, her purpose in life began to unfold: angels appeared to her and prophets came on bended knee, "offering me honor." On a mission to deny herself worldly pleasures, Richell cleared her closet of designer clothes and stuffed them in big black plastic bags.
"Because, um, Father had spoken to me how to dress," she said. She would "fast for days. My stomach would be all tore up, (but) whatever Father wanted me to do," Richell would do.
To replace the designer clothes, Richell made "dresses out of sheets and it was tennis shoes and no jewelry, and no perfume and nothing extravagant. Colors had to be distant, as dim as possible, because it was a time of my trial."
Her trial behind her, it was time for her destiny.
* * *
"Okay, now with me I began pure when I came here I was made to made the sins blindfolded, okay? I did not know who I am. Father did not let me know this. I had to walk through the ... my identity was not revealed until I was 25 years old," Richell told detectives.
"Finally the blinders are taken off and I walked and I scraped and I crawled to be an example to every living soul. He tested every grain that I am because I also had an offering... . When the day finally arrived that he would let me see, then he began letting me come into my inheritance of Queen."
After Richell became Queen Shahmia, she clothed herself in fancy garments again, flowing gowns that she made herself.
She became feisty about her beliefs and would challenge ministers, right during service, if she believed they were spewing inaccuracies. "It better be something that's (the) truth, and I wasn't the one that would just say, "I'll pray for him.' I would confront him." Preachers, she said, are a "bunch of crooks."
When Richell and Phillip left Washington around 1993 for last time, they stopped in California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. Between Texas and Florida, Richell amassed a cluster of followers that included her husband and their three children, plus a woman, three men and five children. They would bathe their queen, rub lotion on her feet and peel her fruit. "The power that I have is in love. It's why my children love me like they do. I am such a marvel to this state of how they obey me and they love me like they do."
Strangers supported their ministry, she said, donating money and houses in Texas and Florida. "Finance being brought and put in my hand was no unusual occurrence to me."
"There's a reason I am here... . I am here to see to the comfort of the wounds that nothing that (Jesus Christ) did would ever fall to the ground. That everything he did would be honored properly. My most blessed place is in his shadow resting in his ... for his comfort." This did not impress her family.
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McConico thought Richell and Phillip had agreed not to talk about religion when they came to Aurora, Colo., for a visit in 1990.
"After dinner, he gets his guitar and starts asking me how do I humble myself to my God? I said, "Richell, you better tell him.' She wouldn't say anything. I turned around and told him, "I am not Richell, I'll knock the hell out of you.'
"They were always loony ever since she's been with Phillip," McConico said. "Everybody that helped them, they used them up."
Martin, who lives in Michigan, said they never asked to stay with her. "I was just one of the ones that she didn't come to visit because she knew me and knew that I wasn't having it," Martin said. But that didn't stop them from calling. A few years ago, Phillip called collect in the middle of the night to ask for money.
"He says, "This is Phillip. I'm calling for Richell, I'll let you speak with her.' She gets on the phone and goes into this scenario. I said, "You guys are just going to have to work it out, I'm not sending you $200.' Click." Richell's mother also remembers strange encounters with her daughter and son-in-law.
"When we were in Oklahoma, Phillip wanted her to move and go live on the street in Tulsa and she refused," Mrs. Clark said. The weather was bad and the shelters were full, and many homeless people had to sleep outside. "Phillip was in the shelter. So I said, "Why did you take a bed? Somebody who didn't have a bed could have had that bed,' " Mrs. Clark said. " "Everything belongs to God and that belongs to God's servant and not a heathen' (Phillip told her). I was flabbergasted."
By 1991, the Clarks had moved to Corpus Christi. Richell and Phillip came to visit, with their firstborn son, Joseph.
It was then that Mrs. Clark got her first glimpse of Richell's rise to royalty. She asked Richell to clean up the kitchen and Phillip looked at her as if Richell was too elite to clean. He did it instead, but Mrs. Clark wasn't satisfied; she made Richell do a more thorough job.
It was during that same visit that Richell revealed her identity. "She said that the spirit came to her and she said it was Jesus and that she was his queen. At the time, I didn't know what to make of it. I said, "Richell, now you know better than that. You know Jesus didn't have a queen.' She didn't want to talk to me anymore."
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Now that they know about Richell's imprisonment, her family wants to reach out to her. Mrs. Clark, 59, said she would like custody of her three grandchildren.
But Richell, who was transferred recently to the Broward Correctional Institution, considers her family now to be her husband, children and loyal followers. They are intertwined by a strong bond. After their arrests, her servants said that their queen told them they had God's permission to plunder the earth and they should get more aggressive in collecting "donations." They used the money for group living expenses, including a stay at the Don CeSar Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach.
Phillip, 39, was never charged with any crime. He was last known to be living somewhere in Fort Myers with Nirishi, Richell's maidservant. Phillip could not be located for comment.
Richell hopes to win her appeal, be released from prison and take her ministry to Africa. The state of Florida has custody of Richell and Phillip's three children. Family members of the other children also are seeking custody and fighting legal battles.
"I'm just sorry for the people who got involved," Mrs. Clark said. "And the children."
Mr. Clark just wishes his daughter would pray. "If you're prayer-minded, then you're listening to the Lord and the Lord is in control of your life. It's just that simple."