'Family' court papers describe ritual beatings, 'target practice'

San Francisco Chronicle/February 22, 2002
By Kevin Fagan and Peter Fimrite

The 13 near-starving children of a self-styled holy man in Marin County were forced to live by a "Book of Rules" that, if broken, required the kids to be ceremoniously whipped with belts and force-fed spicy jalapeno peppers, it was disclosed yesterday.

In addition, one young daughter of Winnfred Wright told investigators that she had once been tied to a playpen for two weeks when, during an enforced fast, she took some food on the sly. Other times, the children's mouths were taped shut for violating the "rules."

Details of the punishments at the family home in Marinwood are contained in court documents that were sealed by a Marin judge yesterday after a local newspaper reported their contents. The Chronicle confirmed the contents of the documents through its own sources close to the case.

During the belt whippings, the sources said, the kids would "get the board, " meaning they were bent over a weightlifting bench and beaten after a seven- candle candelabra was lit in a bizarre punishment ceremony.

Marin Superior Court Judge Terry Boren, who ordered the documents sealed, also ruled yesterday that Wright, 45, and three of the four women he lived with remain in jail without bail on charges that they abused and killed one of their 13 children, 19-month-old Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright. Bail for the fourth woman, 20-year-old Kali Polk-Matthews, was set at $100,000, and though her mother and her attorney visited her in Marin County Jail yesterday, she had not been released by yesterday afternoon. All were indicted by a grand jury earlier this month after a months-long investigation by the Marin County Sheriff's Department.

Ndigo was brought by members of the cult -- which called itself "The Family" -- to a hospital in November after he died of malnutrition, and his bones were so brittle they had been fractured in dozens of places, authorities said. According to the coroner's report, doctors found he was so deprived of vitamins that he had developed rickets, a rare bone disease. Other children in the house also suffered from rickets, an investigator disclosed last week.

The children, ranging in age from 8 months to 16 years, are in protective custody.

Polk-Matthews was the newest member of The Family, which detectives and Margaret Singer, a cult expert who has assisted police, investigated and concluded fit the definition of a cult. Having joined the group after last summer, Polk-Matthews was the only one of the four adult women who hadn't borne a child by Wright.

The remaining 12 children were kept so hidden in The Family's Marinwood home that they suffered from lack of sunshine and activity, investigators said.

Wright and the other women -- Carol Louise Bremner, 44, Mary Campbell, 37, and Deirdre Hart Wilson, 37 -- are charged with involuntary manslaughter, second-degree murder and child endangerment in the death of the 19-month-old boy and the alleged abuse of the other children. Polk-Matthews faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment.

None of the defendants has yet entered a plea to the charges.

At the request of defense attorneys, Judge Boren yesterday issued a gag order on attorneys and investigators involved in the case and ordered many court documents sealed until a hearing on March 12.

One document that wasn't sealed yesterday described a failure to provide basic medical care in the cult -- which Singer said was ruled by Wright through a combination of "Rastafarianism and karma and white guilt" -- as well as a frightening atmosphere where guns were easily available to the children.

"Defendant Wright had the women doing 'target practice' on the streets of San Francisco from their vehicle with water guns in preparation for the impending 'fall of Babylon,' " the document read.

Several visibly shaken relatives of the women showed up at the court hearing and then went to the jail to visit the prisoners. But Jim Matthews, Polk-Matthews' uncle, was the only one who didn't wave reporters away with no comment.

Calling his niece "a kind and decent person," Matthews said he hoped she could reconstruct her life soon. "It's a tragedy all the way around," he said.

In the jail waiting room, a couple from New York waited to see Hart Wilson, granddaughter of the founder of Xerox. They stared stonily at the wall while a roomful of people who came to see other prisoners loudly derided the cult members.

"They ought to be put down like dogs -- they're freaks," snarled one man who was in to see his jailed wife and identified himself only as Keith. "These people were programmed to procreate, and it makes me sick."

The dozen others in waiting chairs chimed in with hoots and more insults while Hart Wilson's visitors stood silently, jaws clenched. When a guard finally came to escort them, they hurried through the cell-block doors.

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