Neglected, abused his 13 kids; one died
San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 15, 2003
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
The patriarch of the cultlike “Family” whose neglect caused the death of one of his 13 children in their Marinwood home was sent to state prison Friday after an extraordinary hearing in which his deformed, malnourished offspring were shown on videotape.
Winifred Wright, 46, stood up in his own defense before he was sentenced in Marin County Superior Court and called the starvation death of 19-month-old Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright on Nov. 13, 2001, “the will of God.”
Judge Terrence Boren then glared at Wright and said, “It has been said that God’s work on Earth must truly be our own, and it just seems to me that should have been carried to the raising of these children,” before sentencing him to the maximum 16 years and eight months on six counts of child endangerment and an enhancement for the death of Ndigo.
The sentence was the first of three to be handed down in an appalling case of ritualistic abuse and neglect over the course of a decade in Marin County and San Francisco.
Mary Campbell, 38, who bore seven of Wright’s children, and Deirdre Hart Wilson, 38, who gave birth to six more, are scheduled to be sentenced on April 4 and April 18, respectively, on numerous counts of child endangerment.
A fourth suspect facing charges, Carol Bremner, died of leukemia last year.
Charges against Kali Polk-Matthews, a 21-year-old who gave birth to another of Wright’s children last summer, were dropped. (Wright is father to six children in addition to Ndigo and those living in the Marinwood home at the time of the boy’s death.)
Wright’s sentencing was the most widely anticipated because he was the one who lured the women into his home, allegedly brainwashing them into becoming his willing sex slaves.
But it was the children who were in the spotlight Friday.
Barry Borden, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, played a videotape for the court, made after Wright’s children were taken into protective custody, in which eight of them hobbled or crawled in front of the camera.
They all had deformities that doctors have said were caused by rickets and malnutrition, including severely bowed and crooked legs. Most were mentally deficient from years of isolation inside the family’s home in Marinwood, according to Borden.
The most tragic case was a 2-year-old boy who could not walk or talk. He sat on the floor and scooted around using his hands. Doctors said he sometimes put his forehead on the floor and pushed his head around like a wheelbarrow.
The sight moved at least one woman in the courtroom to tears.
“These children were in that condition for a really long time,” Borden said.
“They are going to suffer physical as well as emotional problems for the rest of their lives.”
Ndigo’s condition was even more horrific, according to Borden, who said the child was the size of a 3- to 5-month-old infant when he died.
Wright then stood up and said his family were vegetarians who rejected modern medicine and were thrown for a loop when their “head mother,” Carol Bremner, contracted leukemia.
He said he was profoundly saddened by the death of Ndigo, but “I have learned to accept the will of God in my life.”
He said he was sorry that he hadn’t taken Ndigo to “mainstream Western doctors,” but professed to have extensive knowledge of dietary supplements.
“I have great sorrow that this temporary blind spot — when Carol Bremner developed leukemia — had such tragic consequences,” Wright said to the packed courtroom. But “we had love in our hearts. It seems unfair . . . that we should end up being so demonized for our mistake.”
The co-defendants pleaded guilty in December, and the judge lifted gag and sealing orders blocking the release of information about the case. Only then were the horrifying details of the family’s crude “Book of Rules” — prescribing binding and whipping, mouth tapings, isolation and humiliation to punish the children — fully revealed.
The children often were locked inside the family’s home with hardly any toys, while loaded pistols and assault rifles sat out in the open.
Although the parents presented a unified front immediately after their arrests, attorneys for Campbell and Wilson have turned on Wright, accusing him of manipulating the women with abuse and intimidation. They have both applied to the court to be allowed into cult deprogramming centers.
Wright, in turn, has claimed the care of the children was the responsibility of the women in the house. He will get 600 days taken off his sentence for time already served.