San Francisco -- A "Book of Rules'' governed a secretive household where one man dominated four women and their 13 children. And youngsters who broke the rules had their mouths sealed with tape, were lashed with a belt and were force-fed jalapeno peppers, according to court papers.
The five adults are now under arrest in the malnutrition death of a 19-month-old-boy in the home.
The boy suffered from multiple fractures because he had almost no calcium in his bones. Authorities said most of the other children were also malnourished, deprived of sunlight and suffering from rickets, a bone-softening disease caused by a lack of vitamin D or calcium.
Winnfred Wright, 45, along with Carol Bremner, 44, Deirdre Wilson, 37, Kali Polk-Matthews, 20 and Mary Campbell, 37, the dead child's mother, were indicted earlier this month. Polk-Matthews faces manslaughter and neglect charges, while the others also face second-degree murder charges.
On Thursday, Judge Terrence Boren imposed a gag order preventing lawyers and officials from speaking publicly about the case.
Police have called the family a cult and said Wright lorded over the women using a mixture of physical force and psychological coercion. Authorities found written rules in the house that listed banned behaviors that could lead to beatings and other punishments, the documents said.
Neighbors in the upscale suburban community have said they had no idea that that many people lived in the three-bedroom house.
Bremner's attorney has said the family was a peace-loving group that should not be prosecuted for its unusual living arrangement. The lawyer suggested the children appeared malnourished because of a strict vegetarian diet.
DNA tests show that Wright fathered all of the children, whose ages range from 8 months to 16 years -- while Bremner, Wilson and Campbell are the mothers.
According to court documents obtained by the Marin Independent Journal, one of the girls said she was tied to a playpen at night for two weeks as punishment for sneaking food during a fast.
The children also spoke of belt beatings while bent over a weight lifting bench and said they were forced to eat hot peppers when they misbehaved, the documents said.
In November, two of the women brought the lifeless body of Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright to the hospital.
Medical examiners concluded the boy died of malnutrition, and the next day authorities rushed the 12 other children into protective custody.
One girl in the house said Ndigo got progressively thinner as he was fed a diet of tea with supplements, court documents said. Ndigo turned blue about two weeks before he died, the girl said.