'Family' dad's infant died in '90 in S.F.

Earlier case left authorities baffled -- expert says Marin group fits cult profile

San Francisco Chronicle/February 13, 2002
By Jaxon Van Derbeken, Kevin Fagan, and Stacy Finz

The patriarch of the Marin County group known as "The Family" -- charged in the death of his 19-month-old son -- had an infant daughter who died 12 years ago and whose body was kept at home for three days, reports about the incident show.

The short life and strange death of She W. Nyah-Wright in San Francisco came to light as Marin County investigators looked into the death in November of the boy in Marin, who apparently starved to death.

And although sheriff's investigators are not characterizing the odd family's dynamics, one of the world's foremost experts on cults said yesterday that she had debriefed the dead baby girl's mother a decade ago after the woman had left the group -- and that the clan fit the profile of a cult.

The Marin child's father, Winnfred Everett Wright, 45, is expected to be arraigned today on charges of second-degree murder and child endangerment in the death of Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright. Three of the four women -- Mary Campbell, the mother of the dead boy, Deirdre Hart Wilson and Carol Louise Bremner -- who lived at the group's home in Marinwood also will be arraigned on the same charges. The fourth woman, Kali Polk-Matthews, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse. Campbell and Wilson are pregnant.

According to medical examiner reports in the 1990 case, Wright's daughter was less than 3 months old when she died unexpectedly next to her mother on the morning of June 12, 1990.

The child's mother, a woman who has since left the group and whose name is being withheld at the request of her family and authorities, kept her dead daughter in the 18th Avenue home for three days.

After authorities were alerted, the mother told investigators that she had been breast-feeding her child, who had received no medical attention since being born at home, and that the baby had been suffering a cold.

The mother said she had given her sick baby some "gentle tea," as well as some soy milk but the child would barely receive it.

She said the child was breast fed at 1 a.m. on June 12, but six hours later was "unresponsive."

After the child died, her mother, "who stated she was a Christian and read the Bible, bathed the child, wrapped her in blankets and placed her in a hanging crib (hammock type)," according to the death investigation report by the medical examiner's office.

The child was left there for three days, "since it takes that length of time for the soul to leave the body, according to the mother."

The death report was made on June 15 and listed Carol Bremner -- a defendant in the Marin case -- as being present at the time of death. The report noted that the home appeared well kept, "with nothing to indicate abuse or neglect."

The final autopsy report described the child as well developed and well nourished and listed the cause of death as "undetermined." Despite the odd circumstances, San Francisco prosecutors could find no evidence of a crime, and no charges were filed.

Officials from San Francisco's Child and Family Services division would not comment yesterday on whether they had investigated the suspicious death, saying that such matters are always confidential.

Marin County officials said they reviewed the San Francisco case.

S.F. Case not Included

"Since no direct nexis was made to Marin, it was noted in their reports but it was not included in the investigation we submitted," said Sgt. Doug Pittman of the Marin County sheriff's office.

The dead girl's grandmother said her daughter got out of the group after her baby died. "She subsequently left the group of her volition," her mother said.

According to a 1993 police report, Wright had been referred to or listed in several earlier alleged incidents that included child abuse and the death of an infant.

San Francisco police went to check on the welfare of the children, who were living at a home on 22nd Avenue, and found no visible signs of mistreatment or malnutrition.

After the officers departed, Wright became abusive to one of his neighbors, according to the police report, who made a 20-minute tape recording of his shouting and abuse. The case was ultimately dismissed.

Exactly what drew the four women arrested with Wright on Friday to him is unclear, but their backgrounds indicate a level of sophistication that is puzzling, considering the condition of the 12 other children in the Marin house -- some of whom were suffering from rickets, a disease rarely seen in North America.

Bremner, 45, is a former anti-apartheid activist at the University of California at Berkeley. Campbell, 37, and also known as Mary Campisi, is a former employee of an upscale hotel in San Francisco. Wilson, 37, is the granddaughter of the Xerox corporation founder. And Polk-Matthews, 20, was a once-promising student at an exclusive San Francisco high school.

Cult expert Margaret Singer, who said she was called in by San Francisco police in the early '90s to debrief the woman who fled Wright's group, said Wright attracted his women by his charismatic personality.

Why Women Stayed

He then kept them and their children enthralled "the way so many of these guys do, by convincing them that being with him was the best thing in the world, . . . that he has special powers, special knowledge, and that leaving him would be horrible."

Of the woman she interviewed, Singer said, "I was surprised, but not much, that a woman of her education and with a very upper-class East Coast background had gotten involved with a man like this. She had gotten away from the cult and the police wanted me to learn how this guy had gotten this woman to do what he wanted.

"My answer was the same as with so many of these situations: glib talk."

Wright came from a modest background and "had no money," said Singer, who is well known for interviewing and analyzing the Charles Manson "Family" and Patricia Hearst after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

One source familiar with the investigation back then said that another way he kept the women and children from leaving him was he would "shoot off his gun into the ceiling to scare them." More recently, another source said, the women and children were kept secret from neighbors by entering and leaving their cars only in the garage with the door closed, so nobody could see how many there were.

Groups like Wright's are different from cults like, say, the Heaven's Gate UFO suicide cult, Singer said, in that they do not spread beyond a small clan and a charismatic leader. Often there is nothing overtly illegal going on, although they seem strange.

'Little Cults'

"I've seen more and more of these kinds of little cults in the past five, 10 years," Singer said. "They are not religious in nature. They are mostly these little guys, like Wright, who see the big cults and think, 'Hey, I can do that too.' "

Friends yesterday were trying to fathom how the women they had known had wound up in such a situation.

Bremner was an impassioned leader of the protest movement against South African apartheid when she studied political science at the UC Berkeley in the mid-1970s, yet she was so sweet-natured she was known as "Carol the Saint."

"What's mystifying and horrifying is how somebody, certainly on the left and very purposeful about politics, could have fallen into what looks like a tragic abyss," said Bennett Freeman, who was part of the protest movement with Bremner and continued in politics after college -- he ws appointed as deputy assistant secretary of state by President Clinton.

His friend had "an instinctive sympathy for poor people, oppressed people," said Freeman. "She was very selfless."

Kali Polk-Matthews, at 20 the youngest and evidently the most recent addition to the group, was a standout soccer athlete and scholar at the private Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. She attended one year at Spelman College in Georgia, but last summer "took a year off to go travel with friends," a close friend said.

'Sweetest Teenager'

"Kali was the sweetest teenager I ever met," said the friend. "She organized clothing and food drives for battered women and their children, with no help from adults," the friend said.

Campbell, mother of the baby who died in November, worked at the Hotel Nikko as a sales assistant in the late 1980s.

"Mary always had a smile and was a bit on the outrageous side, showing up for work at this conservative hotel in short skirts and Raggedy Ann stockings, " said a friend from those days, who didn't want to be named. "She was pretty suggestive. Liked to (have sex) and didn't mind telling people about it."

The friend said the starvation of Campbell's child was all the more puzzling "since at the hotel we used to get free food and she was always eating everything she could get her hands on."

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