In a spacious apartment near the San Francisco Yacht Club, over-looking the bay, there lives a pretty woman who mostly stays to herself. She is 43 years old but looks younger. Always dressed immaculately, she carries herself in that calm, refined way of those who have known the comforts of money for a long time. Whenever she goes to the shops down the hill, her magnificent dark eyes lock onto the gaze of those she meets, and her smile is so natural that it can make men, even at a first meeting, feel oddly enchanted.
But here in Belvedere, a quiet shoreside village in posh Marin County, the woman keeps her distance. She comes to pick up her mail at a private mail box, and occasionally she eats lunch at one of the little restaurants that face the water. In the afternoon, she picks up her children at their school. Few of her neighbors have even met her. “She had this beautiful voice,” recalls long-time resident Silvia Davidson, who briefly leased a home to the new woman, “and she looked beautiful. But — how do I say this? She was like a mystery. She would say very little about herself.”
Three times she married, and all three times her husbands died. Her first husband, David Stegall, a young, talented dentist, shot himself to death in 1975. Her second husband, a popular hotelier and investor who conceived the luxurious Mansion Hotel on Turtle Creek, died of cancer in 1982. Her third husband, Alan Rehrig, a former college basketball star in Oklahoma who had come to Dallas to hit it rich in real estate, was found murdered in December 1985.
For a while, it seemed that Sandra Bridewell — an elegant woman who is regularly described by those who knew her as delightful and caring, who had raised three wonderful children and devoted herself to charities and taken an active interest in the arts — was also the victim of a very cruel twist of fate. Tragedy hounded her relentlessly. “You look at her,” says friend Barbara Crooks, a Highland Park native, “and wonder how she has withstood it. Despite everything that has happened to her, she has had to hold up and continue raising those kids.”
But since the murder of her third husband, Alan Rehrig, whose body was found in Oklahoma City, Sandra has had to endure something else. The police are interested in her. Oklahoma City homicide investigators say Sandra Bridewell herself is a suspect in the death of her third husband. Now, in a highly unusual move, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined the murder probe and is looking not only at the Rehrig murder but deep into Sandra’s clouded past.
Throughout the spring, FBI agents have been searching for clues to Sandra Bridewell’s personality. They have gone so far as to try to find a paper that Sandra allegedly wrote in college dealing with murder, guilt, penance, and salvation.
The FBI has also heard about the other bizarre death that touched Sandra, one that many people in the Park Cities have been whispering about for a long time. Two months after Sandra’s second husband, Bobby Bridewell, died of cancer, Dallas police found a Highland Park woman named Betsy Bagwell in a Love Field parking lot with a bullet in her right temple. The dead woman was the wife of the prominent cancer doctor John Bagwell, who treated Bobby Bridewell throughout his illness. During that time Sandra became very close to the Bagwells. She was, in fact, the last person reported seen with Betsy, less than four hours before her body was found. Betsy’s death was officially ruled a suicide, but those who knew her well say they cannot believe that she actually pulled the trigger.
The investigators have yet to present evidence to a grand jury that would link Sandra to any crime. Nor have they arrested anyone, but that has only added to the intrigue. Few can remember a time in the history of Dallas’ wealthy circles when the circumstances combined to produce such a sensational story — involving an attractive young mother, the men who loved her, and the affluent society that enveloped them. “There was something about her that you just couldn’t ignore,” says Diana Reardon, whose husband is a well-known Dallas home builder. “She would become very close to you, she would hook her arm around your arm when she talked to you. I’ve seen her charm entire groups of people. It was like she seduced them.”
Sandra Bridewell is now a target of constant gossip. Long lunch conversations at the Dallas Country Club are devoted to her past. A group of women, all wives of prominent businessmen, call themselves the “Snoop Sisters” as they track the latest Sandra story. Another well-known woman from one of the state’s old-money families keeps a thick file on Sandra’s doings. They are not alone in considering Sandra Bridewell guilty until proven innocent.
FBI agent Jon Hersley, who is in charge of the case, must be amazed at the attention paid to Sandra. Whenever he shows up at someone’s home for an interview, phone lines begin buzzing all over the Park Cities. In fact, it was Park Cities gossip that drew the authorities to Sandra in the first place, She became a suspect in the death of her third husband when the police got a phone call from an anonymous woman, called “the Highland Park Deep Throat” by one of her friends. The unknown caller spun a tale of mystery that was plausible enough to warrant further scrutiny. As word spread of the investigation, many Park Cities residents began to wonder if the Sandra Bridewell they thought they knew had another, darker side.
But others are quick to defend Sandra. They believe that a flood of unfounded gossip was ruining Sandra Bridewell’s life in Dallas. To Sandra’s defenders, the real crime has been committed by a Park Cities rumor mill operating at dizzying speed. “Highland Park is like a small town,” says Carolyn Day, a Bridewell friend who operates the popular Travis Street Market. “Everybody talks. It’s part of life here. I think it’s like that game you play where people sit in a circle and one person starts a rumor and passes it on down the line, and by the time it gets back to him the story is completely different.”
“Everyone has just jumped on the bandwagon against Sandra,” says another of her friends. “And they don’t even know her. It’s so ridiculous what is being said about her, so far from what she’s all about. People have conveniently forgotten all about the Sandra who once was their close friend.”
Last year, feeling the pressure of a community that scorned her, Sandra moved from Dallas to California with her three teenaged children. The rumors had done their work. Sandra was embarrassed to go out. Some mothers told their children that they could no longer carpool with Sandra’s two daughters. They were being frozen out of their society. Recalls her friend Suzanne Sweet, who now lives in California, close to Sandra: “There are several of us who said to her, ’You can’t do this to your children. The other kids will rip them apart. Highland Park is not going to give up hurting you.’
In time, the police and the FBI will finish their investigations. But whatever their findings, many Park Cities people will go on believing that Sandra Bridewell is guilty of at least one murder. The story of Sandra Bridewell is perplexing and fascinating, like one of those Renaissance paintings in which the woman’s face is half in shadow, half in light, a tableau of innocence blending into mystery, perhaps evil. The fact that people gossip about her does not mean she is guilty; nor does it mean she is innocent. Sometimes rumors build from nothing. Sometimes they are the advance guard of the truth.
“There are times when I’ve lost sleep because of what has been said about Sandra,” says a respected Highland Park woman. Last February, the FBI interviewed her about Sandra for an entire afternoon. “I know there is something very, very different about that woman than the rest of us. But then there are times when I wake up at night and wonder, ‘What if she had nothing to do with this after all? Then what have we done to her?’”