Witnesses say 'Family' used drugs, white guilt on recruits

Women complained to S.F. police in early '90s

San Francisco Chronicle/February 14, 2002
By Jaxon Van Derbeken, Peter Fimrite, and Kevin Fagan

It was a New Age offer, made woman-to-woman in San Francisco's Sunset District: free spiritual sessions, or a chance to be photographed for a "world mural" depicting 90 different women.

After agreeing to come to the two-story home on 18th Avenue, a visitor would most likely be introduced to "Rasheen," the lone male of the house, as well as his women and many children.

The visitors -- apparently viewed as potential additions to the clan -- would then be offered everything from tarot card readings to Bible study to crack cocaine and sex, according to accounts provided to San Francisco police in the early 1990s.

This portrait of the early workings of "The Family" is emerging as authorities press the case against Winnfred Wright (a.k.a. Rasheen Nyah), Carol Louise Bremner and three other women in the death last November of Wright's 19-month-old son at the group's home in Marin County.

Wright espoused "a mishmash of Rastafarianism and karma and white guilt," cult expert Margaret Singer said yesterday. The white women who lived with him "had to work off the white mistreatment of black people. It was their responsibility to work off their karma."

After a court appearance yesterday, an attorney for one of the accused defended the group's actions, saying the child had died after adhering to a strict vegetarian regimen adopted by a loving, close-knit and law-abiding family who spurned modern medical care.

A decade ago, Singer had been brought in to analyze what was known about the group by frustrated San Francisco police investigators -- who despite several encounters with the group in the early 1990s found themselves powerless to act.

Three women had come to the police and filed complaints against the group. There were similarities in all three reports: Approached by Bremner, they'd be invited over to be photographed for the mural. There were Bible readings and offers to have astrological charts read.

In one case reported in 1991, a woman said she had met two women at the house who appeared to have bruises and one who had a black eye. She found herself alone with a man introduced as "Rasheen," who smoked an odorless substance from a glass pipe. After donning a kimono, she underwent a massage but repeatedly refused requests to disrobe. At one point, as she read from the Book of Revelation, she looked up and saw that Rasheen had exposed himself. She left, was persuaded to return -- and left again at dawn and went to police.

In another incident, the hosts lighted incense and offered the women herbal cigarettes. One woman told authorities that after a massage, she felt drugged and ended up having sex with Rasheen, who was depicted as "Adam" to her "Eve." She reported the incident to police, but later refused to press charges.

The mural, Bible reading and astrological charts also figure in another 1991 complaint. The complainant's account says Bremner -- described by Singer as the "lead wife" -- left the room, and at that point Rasheen pointed to an ax on the wall and asked, "Have you ever seen a woman wearing an ax? It's a sign of femininity." The woman saw he was smoking a crackling substance, and she asked to leave.

Police also knew of the 1990 death of an infant girl in the home in the Sunset, whose lifeless body was kept in a hammock for three days before the medical examiner's office was summoned.

Nearly one year to the day of that death, the child's mother left the group, taking her 2-year-old son and her 4-day-old daughter with her, according to court documents. According to Singer's subsequent interview with her, she crept out of the house while everyone slept, then ran as fast as she could to a local pet store, where she banged on the door.

A clerk let her in, and she called her mother -- who sought, and was granted, a restraining order against a member of the group in June 1991. Police were told about the group at that time.

Singer, a clinical psychologist and author of "Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives," said the frightened ex-member said Rasheen would blow $1,200 for two days' worth of crack. She also related that one woman's trust fund was being "smoked away."

The women in the group were ruled through domination, according to the woman who left. "He once beat the women so hard he broke his arm," Singer said.

"He used to walk around the house with a riding crop he used to beat the women."

Wright's parents lived in Sacramento, Singer said, and for a while Wright would "take the ladies to visit." But eventually he fought with his parents "so bitterly that they left a note on their door saying don't come around any more."

While living on 22nd Avenue in San Francisco in 1993, Wright had a visit from police officers checking out reports of possible child neglect. An officer went into the home, found nothing out of order and resumed his patrol. A few hours later, a neighbor of Wright's came to the police station and said that after the officer left, Wright began "to rant and rave."

"That bitch f-- with the wrong person," Wright screamed from a patio, according to a police report on the incident. "She f-- with me?? I'm gonna f-- her up! . . . If I can't get her, than I'll get my niggas after her. I got lotsa niggas!"

Yesterday, however, Jack Rauch, who is representing Bremner, insisted that depictions of the group were way off base.

"From what I know, this doesn't look like a cult," said Rauch, whose client has been with Wright for 20 years. "The one lady who decided to leave left of her own free will and volition. My client raised two happy, healthy teenage daughters. They were just very private in the way they lived because they felt people would not understand."

Rauch said Wright had met Bremner in an elevator 20 years ago when Wright worked for San Francisco's social services department.

He was the only attorney to speak yesterday outside the Marin County courthouse, where the five adults did not enter pleas to the charges against them. The defendants have also asked for a gag order and to have all documents related to the case sealed.

Wright; Bremner; Mary Campbell, the mother of the dead boy; and Deirdre Hart Wilson are charged with second-degree murder in the death of Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright. Along with the fourth woman, Kali Polk-Matthews, they are also charged with involuntary manslaughter and child abuse. There were 12 children living in the Marin home, many of whom were malnourished.

Rauch said the group kept to itself for fear of being mocked.

"The whole group is devastated," he said. "It's their lifestyle that's interesting to everybody, not what was done. . . .

"Sex and race seem to be what is titillating here, but it really has to do with their vegetarianism and their slowness in seeking traditional medical treatment."

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