A 62-year-old woman known as the "Black Widow" is being held in a North Carolina jail on $1.5 million bond for relatively petty charges, while police race to unravel a web of mysteries — including the deaths of her two husbands and a female "best friend" — before time runs out and "she's outta here."
Police in Brunswick, N.C., are appealing to the public to help find possible victims of Sandra Camille Powers (a.k.a. Sandra Stegall, Sandra Bridewell, Sandra Rehrig and Camille Bridwell, among other aliases), a self-described Christian missionary, alleged con artist, master manipulator and elusive target of an untold number of lawsuits from California to Boston.
Some intimate that Powers had a hand in the "suicide" deaths of her first husband and the wife of a doctor who treated her cancer-stricken second husband, and the unsolved murder of her third husband.
“She's kind of like a chameleon, changes colors and changes shapes according to whatever the situation is,” Det. Marty Folding of the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office, who is leading the investigation, told FOXNews.com. “Personally, I'm shocked. It's like something that reads out of a fiction book.”
"If we don't get her, she's outta here," Folding added.
• Story: 'Victim' of 'Black Widow' Tells Story of Faith and Betrayal
Even as a work of fiction, Sandra Powers' story would have stretched readers' credulity — a woman driven to deception — and possibly more — again and again by her taste for the high life and her need to be adored and cared for.
She started as a shy, small-town girl from Sedalia, Mo., adopted by a working-class couple and making few waves while attracting little notice from men. Somewhere, however, between high school graduation in 1962 and 1967, she remade herself, inventing stories about colleges attended, boys dated — reportedly telling friends she dated a West Point cadet who later committed suicide — and adopting the persona of a helpless-but-seductive Southern belle looking for Mr. Right to rescue her and provide a world of materialistic bliss.
Nineteen sixty-seven was a turning point in her life, when she would move to Dallas, take her first new name, and get a taste for the kind of lifestyle she would never, never be willing to give up. It was the year she married Texas dentist David Stegall, whose mysterious death would prove to be only the first she'd be linked to.
The couple had three children, and what seemed to be a perfect American life: an expensive home, best neighborhood, wealthy friends, live-in maid, and magazine-cover looks. Sandra Stegall did everything she could to climb the social ladder, spending vast sums in the process and driving her family into debt.
David Stegall reportedly considered divorce, even raising the subject with his lawyer. At the same time, investigators say, Sandra Stegall was asking the couple's insurance company a question of her own: Did David's life insurance pay out for suicides?
In 1976, David Stegall was found dead in their home, his wrists slashed and a .22-caliber bullet in his head, the police report said. The coroner ruled his death a suicide, the insurance company paid out more than $100,000, and Sandra Stegall paid off her debts.
That same year, Sandra again began dating aggressively, focusing on men with thriving businesses or fat bank accounts — restaurateurs, financiers, oilmen, married or single.
At one point, she reportedly engaged in a little blackmail, telling a lover she was pregnant, then asking for money to have an abortion.
Writer Glenna Whitley, who over the years has closely followed Powers, reported in the Dallas Observer that the aspiring socialite used the same story many times over the next 15 years. But, Whitley reported, one of Powers' best friends, said Sandra had undergone a hysterectomy a year after Stegall's death.
In 1978, she married Bobby Bridewell, racehorse owner and member of a wealthy oil family. Once again, she got the pricey house and began clawing her way up the Dallas social ladder.
In 1980, Bobby Bridewell was diagnosed with cancer. Sandra, meanwhile, concentrated on remodeling the house.
While her husband got weaker, Sandra ingratiated herself with Bobby's oncologist, John Bagwell, and his wife, Betsy.
In 1982, Bobby Bridewell died — but not before Sandra's next plan appeared to be already in motion.
Just after the funeral, she showed up unannounced where the Bagwells were vacationing in Santa Fe, N.M., and barraged them with pleas for help and attention — especially from John.
Concerned by Sandra's overbearing nature and apparent romantic interest in John, the couple tried to distance themselves from her.
Less than two months after Bobby Bridewell had died, police arrived at the Bagwell home to tell John they'd found Betsy's car in a parking lot, her body slumped in the front seat with a single .22-caliber bullet in her head. There was gunpowder residue on her hand and a stolen handgun gripped in her fingers, police said. The coroner ruled her death a suicide, but people noted that Sandra had asked Betsy to drive her to that same neighborhood twice that day.
The investigation determined that Sandra was the last person to see her alive.
It took only two years for Sandra to find her third husband, Alan Rehrig, a young banker and real-estate investment executive from Oklahoma City and her junior by 11 years. The relationship sped up to marriage by her claims, again, of a pregnancy. Shortly after the wedding, Sandra called Rehrig from a convenience-store pay phone to say she'd miscarried.
The marriage quickly fell apart, but not before Sandra convinced Rehrig to take out a life insurance policy. Meanwhile, she resumed her lavish spending, running up a $20,000 bill on his credit card. In November 1985, they separated, and he moved out.
In early December 1985, Rehrig told his roommate that he was meeting Sandra to get his things. Four days later, he was found shot to death in his car in Oklahoma City. Sandra Rehrig again collected more than $100,000 in insurance money. She told police that Alan had never arrived to claim his things, and then stopped cooperating with Oklahoma City investigators. The murder remains unsolved.
News reports about the mysterious deaths started swirling, and the Dallas media dubbed her "The Black Widow."
Sandra moved from Texas to Marin County in northern California, where investigators say she resumed her old tricks. Retaking the WASPier-sounding name Bridewell, she again went on the prowl for rich men, but eventually was hounded by lawyers representing men who claimed they'd dated her and loaned her hundreds of thousands of dollars without seeing a dime in repayment.
She left California in 1989, apparently using her date-and-scam routine to support herself on a cross-country Odyssey, always disappearing when men filed lawsuits and local media raised questions.
In 2002, she reappeared with her latest persona, and a dangerous new method of getting what she wanted.
That new man who would save her and bring her a life of worldly comfort? God.
By aiming higher than the businessmen and wealthy scions she'd targeted in younger years, and making a warped, materialistic version of a deity the main man in her life, Sandra indulged in a bizarre amalgam of self-pity, paranoia and naked greed that in her eyes passed for religion.
Though she could quote Scripture, she kept a picture of a luxury car in her Bible and wrote weird self-help mantras in which God gave her back her lavish lifestyle. When someone confronted her or contradicted her wishes, Sandra — now calling herself by her middle name, Camille, or by the surname Bridwell, without the “e” — said that the person was opposing God's command.
She was popping up in places like Alabama and Atlanta, touting a supposed history of work as a missionary in Third World countries and a direct line to God's ear. Her carefully groomed look as a sophisticated upper-middle-class woman was gone, replaced by bags of leftovers and other odd scraps of trash and a noticeable lack of personal hygiene.
She began meeting religious people through churches or good Samaritans, invoking their charity by asking for a place to stay for a few weeks, then staying on for months while reportedly stealing Social Security cards and the like.
She would convince people to become partners in real-estate schemes or in a mission she claimed to be founding nearby — in an expensive mansion, naturally — where she said she would teach organic farming to people from the Third World. In at least one instance, she showed that she could still play the seductress, marrying a religious man who ended the marriage quickly after she allegedly cleaned out his bank account and practiced what he described as “witchcraft.”
In September 2006, Sandra moved in with a 77-year-old woman named Sue Moseley in Southport, N.C., ostensibly as her live-in caretaker (she'd previously been living with Moseley's sister). With Moseley, she began shopping around for million-dollar homes to house her supposed training center, tried to isolate Moseley from her family, even began trying to meddle with Moseley's intake of prescription pills. Sandra allegedly ran up a $1,900 bill on Moseley's credit card and used Moseley's bank account to write checks for clothes and to herself under the name Camille Powers.
Police told FOXNews.com that rumors that Sandra Powers took out a life-insurance policy on Moseley have not turned out to be true.
Finally, thanks to a suspicious real-estate agent and writer Glenna Whitley's investigation, Moseley's son was convinced that Sandra was dangerous.
Cooperating with police, Moseley's son helped lure Sandra to a cafe in Charlotte, N.C., where police arrested her for what appears to be the first time in her life.
Sandra — under her original name, Sandra Camille Powers, again — was charged with one count of obtaining property under false pretenses, two counts of forgery of an instrument and two counts of uttering a forged instrument. She was ordered held on $1.5 million bond — an unusually high amount because she is considered a flight risk, police said. She has said she will hire her own lawyer, but investigators are looking into whether she actually has any money. A probable-cause hearing is scheduled for March 27.
News of Powers' arrest came as a relief to Sandy Hodgins, who says she, too, was a victim of the "Black Widow." Hodgins told police that Powers used her credit card to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in furniture and rent. Hodgins told FOXNews.com that the mountain of debt forced her to move in with her daughter.
"When I started reading about her, I thought, 'Dear God, you just don't know people,'" Hodgins said. "I'm very glad they caught her."
Hodgins has notified Brunswick County authorities about her own grievances against the woman she knew as Camille Powers.
Brunswick County police, meanwhile, are appealing to the public to come forward and help them find other victims who may have been taken in by Sandra Powers.
“We feel there may even be some churches out there that have donated certain things, possibly missionary trips overseas, or might have donated money," Folding said. "We're looking for churches and possible victims that may have had contact with her that would initiate other charges for false pretense.
"There are a lot of prongs to this investigation, and we'd like to make this a clearinghouse to make sure these things are looked at. We're expecting to file new charges,” he said.
Folding said Oklahoma City police have expressed an interest in speaking to Brunswick County investigators, but that Oklahoma authorities had not yet contacted their North Carolina counterparts. Oklahoma City police did not return calls from FOXNews.com.
Folding asked that anyone with information about Sandra Powers call him or Det. Jane Todd at the Brunswick County, N.C., Sheriff's Department, 910-253-2777.