Bizarre 'Family' secrets

Police describe strange behavior - five arraigned in tot's death

San Francisco Chronicle/February 12, 2002
By Jaxon Van Derbeken, Stacy Finz, and Kevin Fagan

Calling themselves "The Family," a group of four women and a man led a secretive life with their 13 abused children in Marin County until one youngster died of malnutrition, exposing a history of bizarre behavior, authorities said yesterday.

Winnfred Everett Wright, 45, and the women who gave birth to his many children had violent encounters with police and neighbors while the unkempt children cried for food, according to police records and witness accounts.

Yesterday, Wright and the four women -- some of whom had privileged backgrounds -- were marched into Marin County Superior Court for arraignment on accusations that they had abused and killed a 19-month-old boy who died in November.

The five were arrested last week in the exclusive suburb of Marinwood. They had been under investigation since November, when the other 12 children, ranging in age from 8 months to 16 years, were removed from the home.

Wright, sporting long dreadlocks and smiling occasionally, and the four women declined to enter pleas because they had not yet consulted with their attorneys. They sat calmly, shackled at the wrists and ankles, saying nothing.

Wright and the women -- Carol Louise Bremner, 44; Mary Campbell, 37; Deirdre Hart Wilson, 37; and Kali Polk-Matthews, 20 -- were indicted last week on charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. Except for Polk- Matthews, who was not the mother of any of the children, all were also indicted on one count each of second-degree murder.

At the brief court appearance, Wilson and Campbell were visibly pregnant, and Bremner wore a surgical mask over her face, her gray hair tightly cropped. Bremner's attorney, public defender Martha Osterloh, said she has leukemia.

Marin Sheriff's Det. Fred Marziano said none of the children attended school and all were badly abused and malnourished. Some had rickets, a debilitating bone disease caused by vitamin deficiency that is rarely seen in America.

During the three-month investigations, authorities conducted DNA tests to determine that Wright, Bremner, Campbell and Wilson were the parents of the 13 children. Campbell was the mother of the dead boy, police said.

Investigators searched the house and found no religious material, but when asked if they had discounted any possibility of a cult operating in the house, Marziano was noncommittal.

"We did not find any material that linked them to one particular religion," he said. "I have several theories, but this isn't the proper time to talk about them."

However, an increasingly disturbing scenario was painted through court and police records and the recollections of those who knew the group.

The Family, as they called themselves, was first investigated by San Francisco Child Protective Services a decade ago, and subsequent investigations revealed allegations of abuse, hostile behavior and starvation.

Given the shocking condition of the children, the background of some of the women is confounding, too: Deirdre Wilson is a granddaughter of Xerox Corp.'s founder, Joseph C. Wilson; Polk-Matthews was a promising student and athlete at an exclusive San Francisco high school; and Bremner attended the University of California at Berkeley.

'Sweet, Intelligent' Women

Polk-Matthews and Bremner were both described separately by friends as "sweet and intelligent," and those who knew them were puzzled that they wound up being accused of manslaughter.

In the early 1990s in San Francisco, an anonymous tip about the mistreatment of several young children at a home in the Sunset District evidently prompted some of the first actions by authorities. But it is unclear exactly what happened to the children.

"It was bizarre," said one woman with knowledge of the group. "The whole lifestyle -- in the beginning it was more about love and peace. That was the recruitment pitch. But the group dynamics changed and deteriorated."

In late 1993, Wright -- the putative leader of The Family -- was arrested after he allegedly shouted threats to neighbors and paraded around the neighborhood with several young children, who mimicked his obscenities and mannerisms, according to neighbors and police reports.

The threats, neighbors say, came just after authorities received reports that several children were being kept ill-fed and ill-clothed in the filth in front of a rented home on 22nd Avenue.

"There were eight children in the house, one was 6 or 7 months old -- these children used to look after themselves, basically," one witness recalled. "All of the children were in the yard, the oldest, who was 8, looking after them, including the little baby."

Wright Stayed Home with Kids

The three women who lived in the home would work, and Wright would stay home. "He would be here with all of the children," a onetime neighbor said. "They had no underwear on, making mud pools in the yard," she said. "You could hear them crying, asking for food."

San Francisco Child Protective Services officials responded but were not allowed into the home.

Protective service authorities in San Francisco had no record of that report, said spokeswoman Maureen Davidson.

Child Protective Services officials in Marin also responded, years later, to similar disturbances -- but yesterday they refused to comment.

According to an October 1993 San Francisco police report, one neighbor said the children followed Wright as he walked up and down the street, shouting obscenities.

"The children were mimicking Wright and throwing gravel in different directions," according to the report.

According to another police report, two officers arrived in response to complaints and heard Wright yelling at neighbors.

"I will punish you!" he shouted. When the two officers came to the door, Deirdre Wilson and Mary Campisi answered. "Both women protested verbally," the report notes, Wilson shouting, "Get out of my house! He is not here! You can't come in here!"

According to the report, officers had to fight off the two women before they could arrest Wright. Charges against Wright and Wilson were later dropped.

Group's Formation a Puzzle

How the women came to live with Wright remains a puzzle to many who knew them.

Polk-Matthews seemed to have slipped out of sight after leaving for college, recalled her friends and former teachers at the private Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco.

"Kali was just a really sweet student," said one of Polk-Matthews' former high school teachers, who asked not to be named. "Hearing about her involvement is just bizarre. She was not particularly outgoing, but was sweet."

Another Lick-Wilmerding teacher saw a different side.

"She was a mixed personality," said the teacher, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "One time I went to the opera and she was there dressed to kill with a handsome man, looking like this upper-class kid who had it all together. Other times, in school, you would sense that she wasn't telling the truth and maybe was living a double life."

Heather Pon-Barry, 20, met Polk-Matthews in kindergarten. The two became best friends and stayed that way through high school, playing varsity soccer all four years and going on family camping trips.

But according to Pon-Barry -- now a junior at Stanford University -- the girls grew apart in the summer of 2000.

"I don't know how she went from the Kali I used to know to this," Pon-Barry said from her dorm room yesterday.

Dropped out of Sight

"Last summer, I had heard she was living in Marin. I tried to get in touch with Kali, but her mother never had a number for where she was," Pon-Barry said. "I was worried about Kali."

After graduating from Lick-Wilmerding, Polk-Matthews headed to Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. She stayed just a year.

Bremner was described by one friend, who said she knew her at UC Berkeley, as "extremely intelligent, soft-spoken, kind-hearted" and known as "Carol the saint."

In the Marin neighborhood where The Family lived, neighbors were struggling yesterday to make sense of it all.

Michael Spalding, 48, said he often saw two older girls writing "Watch your karma" in chalk on the sidewalk. Some of people in the house also wore T- shirts emblazoned with "weird sayings and stuff," he said. "I just thought they were really bizarre."

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