“The times she’s talked to me about her past, it’s like she thinks of herself as Cinderella.”
–former friend Diana Reardon
The Sandra Bridewell who is the target of both gossip and police scrutiny did not have her roots in Park Cities society. In fact, the beguiling woman who loved champagne and trips to New York, who drove expensive cars and took gourmet cooking classes for fun, had no silver spoons during her childhood. Her early years were steeped in turmoil, and they contained no small amount of tragedy.
She was born in 1944 in the little town of Sedalia, Missouri. Given up as an infant by her natural parents, she was adopted by a couple who could have no children of their own. Her adoptive father was a man named Arthur Powers, the owner and manager of the local Dr Pepper bottling plant. Her adoptive mother, Camille, was killed, reportedly in an automobile accident, when Sandra was about 3 years old. Her father soon remarried. When she was 6 years old, Sandra and her family moved from Missouri to a middle-class neighborhood in Oak Cliff, where her father sold cemetery plots for Laurel Land Memorial Park.As Sandra grew to adulthood, the memories of her early childhood days would become a vivid source of conversation. Many of her friends and ex-friends can recall stories Sandra told of her unhappy youth. Susan Dreith, Sandra’s closest friend during her teenage days (she lived around the corner), says that Sandra and her stepmother “did not have a good relationship at all.”
“I remember how Sandra used to talk about a birthday party that her stepmother was throwing for her,” recalls a former friend who recently lived next door to Sandra. “The day of the party no one came. Sandra says it was because her stepmother forgot to send the invitations. Sandra would tell me that her stepmom would tell her that she was unwanted and had no friends.”
(Sandra’s father is dead. Doris Powers, her stepmother, would not be interviewed for this story. “I think Sandra’s been harassed enough,” Mrs. Powers says. “I don’t know why this is happening to her.”)
Sandra went to Kimball High School in Oak Cliff, graduating in 1962. According to Susan Dreith, she was always properly dressed with very nice manners — “sort of like an Eddie Haskell type” — but she was not very popular, nor did she seem involved in many activities. Her senior class photograph for 1962 does not even appear in the annual, and she is pictured in no other school organization except for the Future Homemakers of America. Dreith says that although Sandra’s beauty was well evident by this time, she didn’t date much.
“She seemed to be just on a pretty even keel,” says Dreith. “And she often seemed a little aloof — and yet there was this one thing that always made you wary. It was sort of like a deception about her. She would always make up stories about things. Now, I know we were all kids, and we all did that sort of thing sometimes, but Sandra was sometimes so ridiculous. One time, we were supposed to go somewhere on a weekend night, and I never heard from her. When I asked her about it, she said she had to leave for Missouri in the middle of the night. Well, of course, I knew that wasn’t true. She was over at her own house.”
Another intimate friend of Sandra’s, Paula Johnson, who got to know her when they were both in their early 20s, recalls Sandra’s habit of lying about her past. “Sandra never mentioned any of her friends from high school,” Johnson says. “I never met any of them. It was odd. There was this time when we were driving through a very nice area of Oak Cliff, and Sandra pointed to this very beautiful home. It was landscaped, it was by a city park, it was so lovely. And Sandra looked at me and said, ‘That’s the house that I grew up in.’ A couple of months later we had to go to her real house — I think it was for the funeral of her father — and when we got there, it wasn’t at all the house she showed me. How did Sandra think she could get away with that lie?”
Signs of deceit continued as Sandra grew older. Some people who have known her as an adult recall that Sandra claimed she attended SMU. The registrar’s office has no record of her taking any course at SMU. On her 10-year high school reunion questionnaire, Sandra wrote that she attended TCU. According to the school registrar’s office, she never enrolled at TCU.
It is documented that she attended Tyler Junior College for a year after high school, where she was a member of the local Sans Souci (French for “without care”) sorority. She returned to Dallas sometime after that, and by 1966 she was living the life of the young North Dallas single woman at the Windsor House Apartments near the Upper Greenville area.
Perhaps as a reaction to her uncertain, troubled upbringing, Sandra developed a taste for the exquisite and expensive things in life. Those who knew her in the ’60s say that even then she was striving for a kind of sophistication that others her age didn’t have.
“She was phenomenal to the rest of us,” recalls Kathy Woodson, a Dallas secretary who was part of Sandra’s crowd at the time. “She was this sort of Southern belle who had come out of nowhere. She had these real sweet manners, and she knew how to make flaming plum pudding. I mean, we were taking movie magazines, and she was taking Southern Living. She instinctively knew what men would want.”
With these charms, it didn’t take long for men to come flocking to Sandra. She began dating a young dental student who had ambitions to become a great dentist in Dallas. He lived in an apartment complex across the street from Sandra, and after just six weeks of dating, he asked her to marry him. In May of 1967, David Stegall became Sandra’s first husband.
THE FIRST HUSBAND
“They loved the idea of being rich. David liked rich things, and so did Sandra. But, being young, or whatever, they had no idea about money.“
–Dr. E.T. Stegall Sr., David’s father
David Stegall was a rather quiet, good-looking young man born and raised in Fort Worth. Following in the footsteps of his father, he went to the Baylor College of Dentistry, where he graduated with honors. But he wanted to do something more in his profession than run a family practice like his father had. “He was obviously set on becoming the big-time, society dentist of Dallas,” says a dentist friend of his who knew him in dental school and later had an office in the same building with Stegall. “He didn’t want to do normal stuff like fillings. He was into full mouth reconstruction, where some patients would get charged over $10,000. And that was an enormous amount of money back then.”
Stegall went to Los Angeles to study with a prominent dentist, Dr. Peter K. Thomas, who had a long client list of Hollywood celebrities. From Thomas, Stegall learned how to make all the right moves to attract the proper clientele. The newlyweds also joined St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, which on Sundays is filled with some of the wealthiest people in Dallas. In Stegall’s new office at Douglas Plaza near Preston Center, there were Gittings portraits of his children on the walls.
David’s father says Sandra was David’s first girlfriend; he had never seriously pursued a relationship before meeting her. Says Kathy Woodson, who watched the courtship of David and Sandra develop: “David was a real sweetneart, but not a lot of people really liked him because he was a real loner and serious about his work. He never was the type that would have gotten involved in the high society life. But when he married Sandra, it all changed.”
From the beginning, Sandra moved easily into the upscale world, as if this were her natural element. “She was the most beautiful entertainer,” recalls Highland Park resident Marian Underwood, who once was a close friend of Sandra’s. “She was so creative in her home. If she had a little dinner party, she’d go all out for you.” She was a wonderful hostess, she made perceptive comments in the neighborhood book club, she was cookbook chairman for the St. Michael church (her recipe was quail in wine). “Her main goal was to be in the Junior League,” says Kathy Woodson. “She wanted to be the classic Junior League woman. I never really understood why she never got in.”
“She was trying to gain a lavish social identity,” says Jack Sides, who was the Stegalls’ attorney. “She wanted to do things first class.” One acquaintance of the Stegalls recalls a birthday party thrown for one of the neighborhood children. While the other mothers brought little presents that cost no more than $5, Sandra showed up with an elaborate $30 balloon arrangement.
Another acquaintance met David and Sandra Stegall in 1971 at a backyard beer-and-oyster party thrown by the noted Highland Park real estate agent Charles Freeman. She recalls that Sandra seemed offended when she was offered a beer. “She said that she didn’t drink beer,” recalls the woman. “That’s fine, but it was just the pretentious way she said it, you know. We could all tell she was trying to be a social climber.”
But the truth was, David Stegall also found himself enjoying the high life. He didn’t mingle well at parties, but Sandra was able to lead him through it. And the social whirl certainly didn’t hurt his dental practice. Finally, he was making some money: his income almost tripled, from $27,000 in 1972 to $68,000 in 1973. The Stegalls had caught a glimpse of the good life that belonged to Dallas’ old-money crowd, and they found it addictive. Soon they began trying to live like the people whose opulent parties they were attending.
By 1973, they had moved to the upscale Greenway Parks neighborhood, buying a $65,000 house that they quickly began to remodel at a cost of $45,000. Sandra was taking care of the bills at home, and David was heading off to work in a new 1973 Cadillac and a $300 sport coat. They got a live-in maid and had their groceries delivered from the chic Simon David grocery store on Inwood Road. They even looked into purchasing a much larger home in Highland Park.
As the spending escalated, Sandra paid the renowned Dallas interior designer John Astin Perkins $35,000 to redecorate the home with antiques. A dentist’s wife walked in and breathlessly said the house reminded her of the Palace of Versailles. One friend remembers that David and Sandra were quick to point out special touches like a little table in a corner that cost $4,000. Another friend, a member of Sandra’s church, recalls hearing Sandra say that her goal was to get her home featured in Architectural Digest.
By 1974, about the time the couple’s third child was bom, the debts were getting out of control. “They were literally talking each other into spending,” recalls one close friend. The IRS put a lien on their house forunpaid taxes. The Stegalls owed a North Dallas bank more than $30,000. David had stopped referring patients with simple dental problems to other dentists and begun doing the work himself. “He was working night and day to pay the bills,” recalls Paula Johnson, whose former husband, a dentist, also committed suicide. “I would ask Sandra why she would spend and spend, and she would say, ’Well, David is doing so well.’”
But David Stegall was not doing well. A psychologist who had a counseling session with David a few days before his suicide recalls that David did seem “pretty put out by the bills for household furnishings … The wife seemed to have him in a very painful box. He was completely intimidated by her. The idea, as he saw it, of his inability to pay the bills, stood in pretty sharp contrast to his professional skills.”
In the fall of 1974, the financial picture worsened. David borrowed $100,000 from his father to try to stay above water. But the problems were affecting David’s work in the office. “You could tell that the quality of his work was deteriorating,” recalls an associate, Dr. Paul Radman. “I didn’t know anything about his personal problems, but I knew something was wrong.”
One friend remembers how David, in the final weeks of his life, talked about moving to California, buying a Porsche convertible, and finding a young blonde. Life at home was miserable. Sandra and David argued constantly. Paula Johnson remembers that Sandra accused David of having an affair. One time Sandra came over to another friend’s house with a black eye and said that David had hit her. Sandra had begun to sleep in the children’s bedrooms; friends say she was scared of David’s “violent” temper. Late one night, about three weeks before Stegall actually killed himself, his attorney, Sides, got a frantic phone call from Sandra saying that David was drinking heavily. Sides rushed to the house and found Stegall crouched in a closet pointing a pistol at his head. Sides took the gun away from David without a struggle.
After that night, Stegall told friends that everything was fine and said he would never try suicide again because of his love for the children. But on February 22, 1975, David did try again. This time he succeeded. Sandra told police she was sleeping in another wing of the house and awakened to find David lying in his bed in a pool of blood. Police found the dentist with his wrists slashed and a bullet wound to his left temple. A .22-caliber pistol was in his hand. Later, police would discover that the gun Stegall used to kill himself had apparently been stolen from one of his patients.
Sandra sold the home for $147,500 and got $160,000 in life insurance. Her dead husband’s dental practice sold for less than $15,000. Even after paying off all the bills, she and her children had enough money to live comfortably.
Neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist who had examined David Stegall days before he died concluded that he was suicidal. But to Sandra’s dismay, David’s own problems didn’t stop many of David’s friends from turning against her. “At David’s funeral,” says Kathy Woodson, “all of the old gang sat around and talked about how David tried to take the charge cards away from Sandra because he felt she was driving him into ruin.”
One of Sandra’s staunchest defenders from that time admits Sandra painted “a fantasy-land portrait of life.” Tragically, that fantasy — of a prosperous little family on the way up in Dallas’ wealthiest community — had come to a shattering conclusion. For Sandra, it was time to pick up the pieces of her life and start again.