Four Marin County ‘family’ members plead innocent

By Colleen Valles The Associated Press
Wednesday April 03, 2002

SAN RAFAEL — The patriarch of a 13-child family, and three of the four women he lived with, pleaded innocent Tuesday to charges they let one young child starve to death and severely neglected the other 12 children. 

Also on Tuesday, a Marin County judge said jury selection for their trial will begin Oct. 28. 

Prosecutors allege the five defendants ran a house in which ill-fed children were beaten and neglected, culminating in the death of the 19-month-old boy. 

Winnfred Wright and three women — Mary Campbell, Kali Polk-Matthews and Deirdre Wilson — pleaded innocent. The fourth woman, Carol Bremner, was in the hospital for leukemia treatment and is scheduled to enter a plea May 13, health permitting. 

Defense lawyers suggested they may seek to move the trial from Marin County, where the family moved several years ago from San Francisco, though Wilson’s lawyer said she wants to be tried here. 

“This is clearly a complex case,” said attorney Nanci Clarence. “Rarely do we find a case where the defendants’ lives have been subject to such scrutiny.” 

Attorneys for the defendants argued for more time to prepare for trial, but the judge stuck with a tight schedule. Any motions, including a motion to dismiss the case, must be filed by June 3. 

Douglas Horngrad, Wilson’s co-counsel, said one motion to be considered was a “motion with respect to the composition of the grand jury.” He said he could not explain because of the gag order imposed by Judge Terrence Boren. 

“If there’s anything left to this case, perhaps we can get ready for trial by fall,” Bremner’s attorney, Jack Rauch, told the court. 

Prosecutor Ed Berberian said the case is unusual in that it likely will involve a lot of expert testimony. But, he added, “we would not have filed the case if we didn’t think we had a case we could prove.” 

The judge also ruled that attorneys can be present when the five give handwriting samples requested by the prosecution. Berberian said the gag order prevented him from commenting on why the prosecution had requested the samples. 

The judge did not rule, however, on whether to appoint the same attorneys that represented the children in a previous dependency hearing to represent the children in the trial. The prosecution claimed there could be conflicts with using the same attorneys, while the defense said not using the same attorneys would add another layer of bureaucracy. 

A grand jury indicted Wright, 45, Bremner, 44, Wilson, 37, and Campbell, 37, the dead child’s mother, in February on charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter and child neglect. Polk-Matthews, who has posted $100,000 bail, was indicted on charges of manslaughter and child neglect. 

Authorities began investigating the cult-like family when 19-month-old Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright was brought dead to a local hospital in November. A coroner concluded the baby died of malnutrition and neglect. 

The children allegedly lived in a home where they were lashed and force-fed chili peppers if they misbehaved, according to papers filed with the court. They also reportedly were deprived of sunlight and suffering from rickets, a bone-softening disease caused by a lack of vitamin D. The dozen surviving children have been placed in protective custody.