San Rafael -- In the days after sheriff's deputies surrounded the neat tract house at 35 Mt. Muir Court and arrested five people accused of starving and otherwise abusing the 13 children who lived inside, someone spray-painted the garage with the words, "It takes a village."
To Malcolm Sullivan, the ruddy-faced retired engineer who lives next door, the meaning was clear. He and other neighbors should have noticed something was wrong.
Yes, said Sullivan, it was strange the way the children played in complete silence in the backyard. And the way that whenever anyone left the house, they would back a van with tinted windows into the garage first so nobody could see who was getting in. But there was normalcy, too, he said while talking over his kitchen counter recently. One of his new neighbors brought over a bottle of ginseng one day. "I am the roommate," she said.
How was he to know, Sullivan said, that she was one of four women next door who had given birth to the children crowded in there? The father was Winnfred Wright, a charismatic, dreadlocks-wearing former social worker who, according to court records and interviews, recruited women to serve him and have sex with him to work off the bad karma of their white race.
"Let me put it this way: It wasn't out of normal enough for us to interfere in a politically correct world," Sullivan said.
Nobody interfered until after Nov. 13, when the lifeless, emaciated body of Ndigo Wright, 19 months old, was brought to a hospital in Terra Linda. Court documents say the boy died of severe malnutrition and neglect. He was "frighteningly small," according to prosecutors. Investigators said he had rickets, caused by a severe deficiency of vitamin D almost unknown in the United States.
The other 12 children, ranging from 8 months to 16 years old, suffered varying degrees of malnutrition. Several were "obviously deformed," according to prosecutors. They were taken from the home and an investigation began that last month resulted in the arrests of all five adults, on charges ranging from second-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter.
Four remain in jail, while the fifth and newest member of the household, Kali Polk-Matthews, 20, is out on bail. None has entered a plea yet; their lawyers say they are slogging their way through the 900-page grand jury transcript.
To avoid tainting potential jurors in Marin County, a local judge has sealed police reports and the grand jury transcript, and forbidden attorneys, law enforcement officers and others in the case to give interviews.
However the case turns out, locals are wondering whether something has gone sour in this famously off-center haven for ex-rock stars and New Age gurus. Marin's proud celebration of the alternative and the unusual had earlier come in for a public pounding with the capture of John Walker Lindh, the American accused of fighting with the Taliban. Former President Bush referred to him as "some misguided Marin County hot-tubber," a remark for which he later apologized.
"How can you live on a block with 13 children in a home and not know it?" said Margaret Brodkin, executive director of a Bay Area children's services agency. "What horrifies me is that something this devastating was going on in our midst in a normal community. Of course, what does normal mean anymore?"
Judy Campbell, a producer at San Francisco public radio station KQED, said the tale of the group that has come to be called the Family "is a very Marin story: the white guilt thing, the New Aginess. Also the fear of reporting it."
Attorneys for the defendants believe the public is getting a wildly distorted picture of the group. In interviews before the judge imposed his gag order, they described the group as peaceful and caring, vegetarians who shunned modern medicine and believed in home schooling. In court documents, Wright's attorney, Mary Stearns of San Rafael, denounced media coverage of the case as "inaccurate, racist and inflammatory."
As for their secretiveness, one attorney said the group members avoided contact with the outside world because they knew their lifestyle would be frowned on. And as for charges of abuse, a relative of one of the women told the daily Marin paper he never saw anything wrong and in fact witnessed "a lot of happiness" in the home.
The group consisted of Wright, 45, Carol Bremner, 44, Deirdre Wilson, 37, Mary Campbell, 37, and Polk-Matthews.
The women came from mixed backgrounds. One was the granddaughter of the founder of Xerox Corp., according to press accounts, and another worked in a hotel. They appeared to have been highly educated and idealistic. Bremner, an anti-apartheid activist in the '70s, was known to friends as Carol the Saint, the Associated Press reported. Polk-Matthews organized food and clothing drives for battered women.
Other punishments included taping the children's mouths shut and force-feeding them jalapeno peppers. One girl said she was tied to a playpen each night for two weeks as punishment for sneaking food.
At the house on Mt. Muir recently, two pots of red peppers stood on the front porch. The lawn was overgrown, but otherwise it looked much like the rest of the houses on the block, set in a rural subdivision adjacent to a creek.
Authorities began hearing about Wright and his adherents more than a decade ago, when Wright's 3-month-old daughter, named She, died in San Francisco, where the group lived for a time.
Decade-old police reports reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle said the infant had been dead three days and was kept at home in a swinging hammock to give the baby's soul time to leave the body.
There were no signs of malnutrition, and the coroner declared the death of She W. to be "sudden death in infancy." San Francisco's current coroner, Dr. Boyd Stephens, announced last month that he may reopen the case.
Cult expert Margaret Singer said she was called in by police in 1992 to interview the mother of the dead baby, who eventually fled the group. "There were about five ladies living with him then," the frightened woman told Singer.
"She had a little kid with her, and she was really scared. She said he threatened them with a gun," said Singer, 80, a professor emeritus in psychology at UC Berkeley.
Singer said Wright had apparently preached no particular religion but adopted some Rastafarian beliefs. In a motion opposing bail, Marin County Dist. Atty. Paula Freschi Kamena suggested that the group shared an apocalyptic vision: Wright ordered the women to take target practice with squirt guns in the streets of San Francisco to prepare for the "fall of Babylon."
Back in 1992, Singer was told by the group member she interviewed that Wright also focused on the need for white people to exculpate past sins against blacks. "He was telling them they had bad karma and needed to work it off," Singer said. "The way they could do it was having sex with him and supporting him." The women living with Wright were not without resources; they were middle class and educated. But, Singer said, "Education and wealth are no vaccine against getting tricked."
It is unclear how the group supported itself, but at least two of the women now jailed held jobs, one for a local painting contractor. Bremner had been with him since the mid-'80s and was, the prosecution maintains, the recruiter dispatched into the streets of San Francisco to solicit new women members. In years past, she would invite them to have their pictures taken for a woman-themed mural project, according to police reports cited by the Associated Press.
Once in the house and relaxed, the women might be asked to read aloud from the Bible. One potential recruit said she smoked a cigarette that made her pass out. When she woke up, according to the reports, she was surrounded by women, who told her she was Eve and Wright was Adam.
She ran away after he tried to have sex with her, said the Associated Press.
Three years ago, the group settled into the home on Mt. Muir Court. Malcolm Sullivan and his wife, Irene, welcomed them the way they would any new neighbor. He offered to haul off some of the trash left over from moving; she took over a plate of brownies.
"We tried to get close," said Irene Sullivan. "We didn't have any success."
After the house was raided in connection with the death of Ndigo, the Marin paper published reports that the child's diet of tea and supplements left him thinner and thinner. The night he died, he was having trouble breathing, so he was placed in front of the television to stimulate his brain, the Marin paper said, citing the search warrant affidavits.
Surprised and saddened by the events alleged next door, Sullivan is hurt by suggestions in the press and on radio talk shows that he and the other neighbors failed to be vigilant enough. "If people are trying to blame us, that bothers me," he said.
Others say the case should be a wake-up call for Marin.
"To be connected, you can't be politically correct," said Michael Pritchard, a Marin social worker and filmmaker who works with troubled youths. "You can't say, 'Oh my gosh, that's a big Rastafarian. I can't say anything because someone might think I'm a racist.' Children were starving."