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Death in the Family 

Once you learn the full story of the mom-and-pop cult known as "The Family," you'll understand an unsettling reality: Any of us might have joined in.

During the 12 years that Dr. Thomas Meyer had worked in the Kaiser Permanente emergency room in San Rafael, not a single child in his care had died. Much of his work involved treating tykes whose overprotective parents had unnecessarily summoned ambulances in response to minor injury.

Nothing, certainly, had prepared Meyer for Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright's arrival on Nov. 13, 2001. At around 10:30 p.m., four women walked through the ER doors as casually as if they were entering a Safeway. One of them -- a middle-aged woman wearing a head scarf -- was cradling a baby in her arms. Meyer observed that the boy was limp and looked dead. "Our child isn't breathing," the woman calmly told an emergency medical technician. The women's facial expressions were weirdly "flat," remembers Meyer. They didn't, in any case, seem especially concerned.

Though the doctor learned the boy was 19 months old, he looked half that age. He had a pretty face and curly dark hair, but his belly was bloated, his limbs oddly bow-shaped, like frog legs. As Meyer had expected, attempts to revive Ndigo (pronounced IN-di-go) were unsuccessful. Later, doctors determined that the baby had died of severe malnutrition. Meyer entered the trauma room where the women were seated.

It turned out the person who'd carried the boy into the hospital wasn't the mother. Once Meyer found the mother, Mary Campbell, an attractive thirtysomething with deep-set hazel eyes and a wide mouth, he delivered the bad news by first asking a few questions. No, nothing had been wrong with Ndigo, Campbell responded meekly and politely, except for a cold he'd had for about a week. That evening, she said, he'd just stopped breathing. She and the other women had tried to revive him with a warm bath and CPR. When that failed, they drove him to the hospital.

"It seemed very bizarre to walk up with an obviously very dead child, and before that not realize that something very, very bad was going on, and not call an ambulance," says Meyer. When he told the women Ndigo was dead, there was no crying, no screaming.

"Their reaction was, 'Uh, OK,'" says Meyer.

The woman with the head scarf who had carried the boy into the hospital -- and who, Meyer noticed, appeared to be in charge of the group -- asked if the coroner had arrived yet. He had, she was informed.

"Good," she said, as if bored, "because we're ready to go home."

That November evening marked the beginning of what would become one of the most sensational child abuse cases the Bay Area has seen. In the investigation that followed, it was revealed that the four women -- Carol Bremner, then 43; Deirdre Wilson, 37; Mary Campbell, 37; and Kali Polk-Matthews, 19 -- were part of a mom-and-pop cult led by a dreadlocked, self-styled mystic named Winnfred Wright. Together, the women had borne him 13 children, who, investigators found, had been living in almost total seclusion in the family's rented house in Marinwood, north of San Francisco. The children didn't go to school, or to the doctor or dentist; they ate a strict, nearly vegan diet. Many of them were suffering from rickets, a disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency. A few of the children were in advanced stages of the illness and had noticeable bone deformities.

The national news media seized on the case of "The Family," as they collectively became known, even though they'd never referred to themselves that way. Three of Wright's four "wives," none of whom he'd legally married, were white. (Polk-Matthews is half black, half white.) They were said to have been serving Wright, who is black, to atone for the sins of their racist ancestors. Besides working to support him, it was reported, they lured women back to their apartment for him to have sex with.

There were other creepy details: As punishment, the children were strapped to a weight bench and whipped with a belt; they were forced to fast, to wear tape over their mouths, to eat hot chili peppers. There was a baby who had died earlier -- mysteriously.

The family's story was made more shocking by the seemingly odd fact that the four women involved in the case were not weak, shiftless individuals from tough-luck backgrounds. Rather, they were "classy," as Wright liked to joke. Before meeting Wright, Bremner had gone to UC Berkeley and Wilson to Wesleyan College. Wilson, moreover, was the trust-funded granddaughter of the founder of the Xerox Corp. Campbell was from a Mass-on-Sunday, middle-class Italian-American family from Brooklyn. Polk-Matthews had been a track star at the private Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco.

The Marin County district attorney responded to the death of Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright with a vengeance. Wright and the three oldest women were charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter, and felony child endangerment. (Lesser charges against Polk-Matthews, who was pregnant with her first child by Wright at the time of her arrest, were ultimately dropped. She is now living with her mother in San Francisco, raising her baby.) Before her arrest, Bremner had been diagnosed with leukemia; she died in custody. The other defendants, facing the possibility of life in prison, pleaded guilty to the child endangerment charges. Wright was sentenced to 16 years in state prison, Campbell to 10, Wilson to seven. All their parental rights were terminated. To date they have each served nearly two years of their sentences.

From the prosecuting attorneys to the media to Dr. Thomas Meyer to a titillated public, it appeared that justice had been done. A bunch of crazy child-killers had been locked up, put where they belonged. But it wasn't as simple as that. Beneath the lurid story of "The Family" was a human drama left largely unexplored.

SF Weekly spent more than a year researching the family's case, poring over public records and talking to friends and family members of the defendants. Both Campbell and Wright were interviewed in prison, and Wright wrote some 50 jailhouse letters detailing his philosophy, personal history, and feelings about his case.


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