Winnfred Wright believed his regimen of strict discipline and a diet of herbal supplements was a holy pursuit that would bring his large family closer to God.
But a Marin County judge concluded Friday that Wright's lifestyle was not only unconventional, but resulted in the starvation death of one of Wright's children and sentenced him to the maximum term for felony child abuse.
Wright, 46, had initially been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death of his child, who lived in a Lucas Valley home along with a dozen siblings and their three different mothers. But prosecutors offered him a plea bargain and Judge Terrence Boren sentenced the patriarch to 16 years and 8 months in prison.
The case broke in suburban Marin County after one of Wright's lovers, Mary Campbell, brought her dead 19-month-old boy to the hospital in November 2001. Speaking publicly for the first time since his arrest, Wright read a short statement in which he said the child's death "struck me like a sledge hammer in the heart."
Earlier, prosecutor Barry Borden said the boy, Ndigo Campisi-Nyah-Wright, was no more developed physically than a 5-month-old. Doctors determined the boy had suffered from rickets, a rare disease contracted if someone is not exposed to the sun, and that dozens of the toddler's bones were fractured due to a calcium deficiency.
Wright said it was a horrible irony that his son died despite his own extensive research into certain alternative health practices.
"If we had believed in taking him to the mainstream doctors for a checkup, his life would have been spared," he said. "I have great sorrow over this, but our shunning of Western doctors was not based on blind belief," he said.
But Borden argued that regardless of what Wright believed, he deserved the harshest punishment allowed under the law. Police investigators said that Wright used physical force and psychological coercion to control his family in a virtual stockade.
His "Book of Rules" included strict behavioral codes that, when broken, resulted in harsh punishments. Sneaking food during routine three-day fasts, for example, might result in belt lashings or force-feedings of jalapeno peppers, according to prosecutors.
"Winnfred Wright was in fact the architect of that little house of horrors," Borden said. He characterized Wright's world view not as compassionate, but paranoid, sadistic and contemptuous of society at large.
As proof, Borden offered a video taken in Nov. 2001. The tape showed a procession of children being examined by a doctor diagnosing their visible ailments. One of the children, a 2-year-old who cried incessantly, could not stand and moved around by scooting on his bottom.
A 5-year-old walked awkwardly with legs bowed in at the knees and feet splayed out to shoulder-width. The doctor said several of Wright's children also showed signs of rickets, and since then, two have undergone surgeries requiring doctors to break their bones in order to reset them.
In arguing for a reduced sentence, Wright's lawyer, Mary Stearns, said that while the family's beliefs and practices were certainly unorthodox, and perhaps even delusional, all of the adults were well-intentioned.
She brandished letters and cards decorated with colored markers from the three oldest offspring in which they expressed both their devotion to their father and their dismay at his prosecution and media coverage of the case.
"He loved his children. His children loved him," Stearns said.
Stearns also said that Judge Boren should be lenient because Wright had delegated responsibility for the children's well-being to the women in the household, one of whom died of leukemia last year.
The other two mothers, Campbell and Deidre Wilson, have pleaded guilty to child neglect charges, but asked to enter a residential treatment program in Ohio for former cult members. They are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Members of Wright's once-tight household have drifted apart since their February 2002 arrests. During Friday's hearing, Wright expressed resignation over what has become of the family he created and that the lifestyle he chose has landed him in prison.
"Unlike most in our society, I spent the greater part of my life in contemplation of God," Wright said. "And I have learned to accept the will of God in my life."
Judge Boren, however, explaining why he imposed the maximum sentence, said that though Wright may have believed he was acting righteously, neglecting 13 children, one to the point of death, was not a pious life.
"God's work on earth must truly be our own," he said.