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Woman left a trail of tragedy in her wake, used beauty to lure men, authorities claim

Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer (external - login to view)





Sandra Camille Bridewell lives these days in a cramped cell in the Brunswick County Jail in North Carolina, a long way away from her days as a charming and attractive Marin County socialite whom male admirers showered with money and gifts.
Now 62, she is awaiting trial on charges of swindling an elderly woman she was hired to care for.
Investigators say heartache and tragic death have followed her from coast to coast. Over the years, at least one of her three husbands and a best friend have died under strange circumstances. She is, to this day, the only suspect in the death of her third husband in 1985, a homicide case that Oklahoma City detectives recently reopened.
Which explains the unusual step taken by Brunswick County sheriff's Detective Marty Folding, who is pulling out the stops to keep Bridewell behind bars. He put out a nationwide plea for law enforcement officers and people who have known Bridewell to come forward with anything they know about her criminal exploits.
"We need to get the other agencies to start looking at her again," said Folding, who is leading the investigation. "If they don't, this woman is going to walk out again free."
What is it about this woman that has created so much alarm? Numerous interviews and searches through newspaper archives, court documents and dozens of articles on the Internet paint a picture of a person who apparently uses people for their money, status and connections and drops them as soon as they are no longer useful to her.
She has used a variety of names over the years, including Sandra Camille Powers, Sandra Stegall, Sandra Rehrig and Camille Bridewell. But she is best remembered by acquaintances as the Black Widow.
She comes off as intelligent and charming, but investigators believe she should never again be out on the streets.
"It's nothing we've been able to establish on the evidence, but, boy, I'd be scared to live with her," Folding said. "As far as financial fraud, I feel that's the way she has made her living for years. If she committed (any) murders, I want her to pay for them. That's why we wanted the media and the national attention on this -- to try to get the eyes opened again."
Bail in the North Carolina fraud case is set at $1.5 million, with a bail reduction hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Bridewell did not respond to a written request for an interview, but she is presenting herself as a devout Christian and has made it clear that she believes she is doing God's work.
Bridewell easily wove herself into the social fabric of wealthy Marin County after she arrived in the Bay Area in 1987, according to those who encountered her. Dark-haired and curvaceous, she moved into a home on the water in Belvedere and used her Southern belle allure to mesmerize wealthy men.
Elizabeth Merrill of Tiburon said she met Bridewell at a ladies' luncheon at the Franciscan Club in 1988 and later introduced her new friend to a wealthy financier from Hong Kong. He was smitten, Merrill said the other day. Dennis Kuba, a horseman and Santa Rosa lawyer, and Thomas Finney, a married insurance executive from Southern California, were similarly captivated.
According to subsequent lawsuits, Bridewell allegedly persuaded the men to lend her what was calculated to be about $100,000.
The money was never paid back, and Kuba and Finney sued in an attempt to collect the debt, but by then Bridewell had disappeared. That's when rumors surfaced about a previous life in Dallas, one that prompted investigators, former friends and in-laws of Bridewell to begin calling her the Black Widow.
That life began in 1967, according to court records, when Bridewell married a Dallas dentist named David Stegall. The couple had three children and traveled in wealthy circles, friends and relatives said.
On Feb. 22, 1976, Bridewell found her husband dead in a bedroom with slashed wrists and a bullet in the left temple, according to several news accounts. Dallas investigators concluded the fatal wounds were self-inflicted. Records showed that Bridewell collected more than $300,000 after selling the house and receiving her husband's life insurance.
In 1978, she married Bobby Bridewell, a hotel and real estate developer, who also hobnobbed with the cream of Dallas society, acquaintances said. He adopted her children and then, in 1980, was stricken with cancer. He died two years later at 41.
Meanwhile, according to investigators and acquaintances, Bridewell had made friends with her dying husband's doctor, John Bagwell. She called Bagwell's wife, Betsy, her "best friend," investigators confirmed.
One night in June 1982, Betsy Bagwell put some meat in the sink to thaw and told her children not to "pig out" while she went out to do an errand, according to various accounts to reporters and investigators. Before she could prepare the meal, though, she was found dead inside her Mercedes, which was parked near a rental car lot, investigators have said.
The county medical examiner ruled that Bagwell had shot herself in the right temple with a stolen .22-caliber revolver.
Two years later, Bridewell met Alan Rehrig, a handsome 29-year-old former basketball and football player at Oklahoma State University. Rehrig married Bridewell after she told him she was pregnant. She was 40 at the time, but she told the groom she was 36, according to his mother, Gloria Rehrig, who said Bridewell later informed her new husband that she had miscarried.
Her obsession with the Dallas beau monde put a strain on their marriage, and in 1985 they separated.
Then, on Dec. 7, 1985, Rehrig agreed to meet Bridewell at a storage locker in Dallas to move some belongings. His body, dressed in shorts, was discovered four days later by Oklahoma City police slumped inside his Ford Bronco. He had been shot twice with a .32-revolver and his body had frozen in the cold.
Bridewell, who was the beneficiary of her husband's life insurance policy, insisted that Rehrig never showed up at the storage locker. Oklahoma police and the FBI began investigating Bridewell. Among the things they and the Rehrig family learned was that Bridewell had undergone a hysterectomy almost a decade earlier.
Rehrig's mother filed a petition in Texas to prevent Bridewell from getting the insurance money.
"It took two or three years for her to bleed me dry in terms of legal fees and I finally had to give up and she got the insurance money," Gloria Rehrig said. "She got $100,000 from Al."
Some years later, Bridewell traveled through the South, presenting herself as a Christian missionary, according to Folding, the North Carolina detective. Allegations of credit card misuse and unpaid debts followed her wherever she went, Folding said.
In December 2003, Bridewell was back in California and ingratiated herself to Stephen and Karen Retter of Novato. Stephen's then 92-year-old father, John Retter, needed help, so they let Bridewell, now using the name Camille, move into his Santa Rosa home.
One day the elderly man's wife found Bridewell whispering "I love you" to him and kicked her out, according to Stephen Retter.
The family said they later discovered that Bridewell was soliciting checks from the elder Retter. Santa Rosa police were called in but no arrest was made, Retter said.
Last September, Bridewell moved into the Southport, N.C., home of 77-year-old Sue Moseley. This time using the name Camille Powers, she ran up a $1,900 bill on Moseley's credit card and dipped into her bank account to purchase clothes and other items, according to Folding. She was arrested on March 2 on charges of credit card fraud, theft of credit cards, forgery and passing forged checks.
Folding said two people in two different states have come forward saying she scammed them also. Oklahoma City detectives, meanwhile, are investigating the Rehrig slaying anew.
Bridewell, Folding said, is using her time in the North Carolina jail to spread the Lord's word.
"She's a very, very smart lady, and she is good," Folding said. "She's back there right now, I can tell you, preaching to the other inmates."