Cautionary tale: Victim says Bridges used religious ties to gain trust

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 31, 2013

If you drove down South Fulton Street past the Maupin Avenue ARP church this past summer, you might have seen church member Knox Bridges mowing the grass. Despite the fact that he was a convicted criminal, Bridges not only had access to a lawn mower but also had a key to the church.

Of course, church pews are full of sinners. And people might well agree that atonement for sins is possible, even if those sins happen to also be felonies. Still, one might think twice before entrusting a church key to a sophisticated crook who has made off with $2.3 million, much of it from family friends.

Bridges used that key to enter the church and hole up Saturday with a gun in a women’s bathroom. Police, who’d been searching for him since Friday afternoon when he failed to show up for his sentencing in Charlotte, took him away in handcuffs. Although under the terms of a plea agreement he probably would have received a sentence of only five or six years, his recent shenanigans could leave him facing up to 30 years in federal prison for defrauding friends and investors in a Ponzi scheme that involved the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.

That his sentence will likely be pumped up is some consolation to victims like writer Sherry Austin, who wants to share her story as a cautionary tale.

After knowing Bridges for most of her life, the Flat Rock resident is now convinced Bridges used his folksy charm and religious ties to win people’s trust in order to separate them from their money.

Austin has known Bridges since he was 10 and she was about 14, when they lived in Charlotte. They both attended Back Creek Church, a conservative Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. The pastor was Bridges’ father, Arthur Charles, known as A.C.

With the style of an old country parson, A.C. and his wife Jeanne were very highly regarded, says Austin. A.C. Bridges loved visiting his flock, and Jeanne, always proper with her hair in a bun and a hat on Sundays, would often accompany him. They had a habit of showing up unannounced, but folks couldn’t get too upset about it, since Jeanne was likely to be bearing a loaf of her sourdough bread or a jar of pickled pears. Jeanne was so highly regarded, Austin says, that they’d joke about making little bracelets with “WWJD”: what would Jeanne do?

“She always knew what to say, and she was always there when people were sick,” Austin says. When Austin’s mother was dying, Jeanne brought her a bell, explaining that her mother might need it to summon her if she was too weak to call out. Such acts of kindness were typical of Jeanne Bridges, Austin says.

A.C. and Jeanne had three sons. Mac, the oldest, is now a surgeon. Knox was the middle child and most favored his daddy, Austin says. Joseph was the youngest.

Bridges, Austin says, was the stereotypical preacher’s kid, a tad rebellious, with a little bit of a wild streak in his teens. Still, he had a lot of personality, Austin says, and was the easiest to talk to of the three boys.

He was known to be a bit of a braggart, Austin says, but people chalked it up to him being a raconteur, something of a storyteller. Nothing about him suggested blatant dishonesty, and certainly not criminal intent. If he seemed prone to stretching the truth or spinning a tall tale here and there, “on things that mattered, nobody doubted him,” Austin says.

What Austin and Bridges’ other old friends didn’t realize was that among those who didn’t know better, Bridges created elaborate fictions about himself, saying he’d come from a family worth billions and had a private jet. He fashioned different personas for different people, depending on what he had decided would endear himself to them, Austin says.

“To the devout, he would discuss the Bible,” Austin says. “To the skeptic, he’d profess his own skepticism about matters of faith.” She later discovered there were people out there who suspected him of dishonesty, but who refused to air their suspicions out of respect for his parents, Austin said.

The ties between the Austin and Bridges families were tight. Austin’s brother, who still attends Back Street Church, was one of Bridges’ closest friends, Austin says. Bridges’ father had performed all of her family’s marriages and funerals. Bridges was a regular drop-in guest at her brother’s home and was always welcome to dinner, Austin says.

He was a dutiful son when his father had Alzheimer’s, Austin says, moving next door to Austin’s mother, Jo Ann Jones, in Charlotte. Bridges was the one among the three siblings who “came in and did the unpleasant things you have to do” as his father’s health declined.

After A.C. died, Bridges seemed to be living the high life, traveling frequently to Europe, sometimes with his mother, sometimes with Austin’s brother-in-law and his wife. He liked to show his companions around the back streets of Paris, where he seemed to have the reputation as a serious art collector.

He was also talking a lot about his famous acquaintances and connections — dropping names like John Rockefeller and Richard Branson, among others.

At home, he was low-key. When Sherry would visit her mother-in-law, she’d spot Bridges outside, wearing a rumpled T-shirt, walking the dog or washing his beat-up truck. His frumpy appearance seemed evidence that despite his worldliness, Bridges was still one of their own.

And he knew how to get into people’s good graces, she says. For example, when Bridges was chair of the Lindbergh Foundation, he sponsored a table at which Reeve Lindbergh, youngest daughter of aviator Charles Lindbergh, was speaking. He invited Austin and other members of her family to attend as his guests. Bridges made sure to introduce Austin, a published author, to Lindbergh, who had publishing connections of her own.

In other ways, large and small, he ingratiated himself with people — and particularly women, Austin says.

He was capable of the grand gesture. When a family friend lost her husband in an automobile accident, Austin recalls that Bridges surprised her with a finely tailored suit for her to wear to her husband’s funeral. The two eventually began dating — although the woman didn’t know at the time Bridges was also dating someone else. Austin believes his actions were motivated by a financial settlement he believed to be in the woman’s future.

You don’t have to be overly cynical to view Bridges’ behavior with women as laying the groundwork to defraud them later. When the time came, Bridges wouldn’t even have to ask for money, Austin says, since he knew how to manipulate people into offering it to him.

Bridges’ financial house of cards almost collapsed in 2009. Austin remembers her husband, Rick, telling her Bridges had confided he had only $4 to his name. Bridges went to Rick’s mother, Jo Ann Jones, and cried at her dinner table, explaining that he was going to lose everything. His computer had been hacked, he said, and someone had accessed his finances. He convinced them that a big smear campaign had been started against him by Angus Long, son of fresco artist Ben Long, whose affairs he had managed for a while, and a stunt pilot who was linked to him romantically. To keep his business afloat he said he needed $1 million, but $600,000 would do.

Austin couldn’t understand how someone who could run foundations and was supposedly so worldly could have something like this happen. It didn’t sound quite right to Rick Austin, either. But their long history with him and his family won out, outweighing their nagging doubts. Rick and Sherry Austin loaned Bridges $100,000.

Jo Ann Jones gave him $300,000. Jones had recently come into a chunk of money from selling a parcel of family land adjacent to Concord Mills — something Bridges, her former next-door neighbor — was well aware of, Austin says. She now believes Bridges had been grooming her mother-in-law for a long time in order to defraud her. As much money as Jones lost, other victims sustained greater losses, Austin says. Lives were destroyed, she says, and people who were on track to have comfortable retirements are now having to scramble to save their homes.

None of Bridges’ old friends considered the money given as an investment; none was looking to get rich quick. They felt they were simply helping a friend through a rough patch.

A few months later, in October 2009, Jo Ann Jones called Austin and asked if she’d seen Ames Alexander’s story about Bridges in the Charlotte Observer: “He talked and the money walked.”

Even after reading it, Sherry and Rick Austin still believed Bridges, mainly because he’d already planted the idea of a smear campaign. Austin was “devastated” for Bridges, she said. How could anyone treat him so poorly? And poor Jeanne; she couldn’t possibly deserve this.

As Austin had time to reflect, those small doubts began to grow. She started digging around. At the Hendersonville office of a dentist they both went to, she queried staff members she knew he’d talked to about his relationship with the stunt pilot. Bridges had told the receptionist and others there that he was going to marry the woman. But with others, Austin knew, Bridges had insisted the relationship was purely platonic.

That moment was when the scales were lifted from Austin’s eyes. As she began to look at Bridges’ past actions through a new lens of distrust, she realized just how deceptive Bridges had been. After a year of investigating, Austin now believes the money her family and others gave Bridges went directly to repay the money he stole from the Lindbergh Foundation. And that was a replaying of a similar situation at the N.C. Transportation Museum.

Austin says she learned that after the Observer story came out, Bridges moved to Linville, where he was hatching new schemes through his involvement with a church and a local philanthropist. Fortunately, a former victim intervened before any money changed hands, Austin says.

Austin says she and her husband likely will never get any of their money back, though Bridges has been ordered to pay restitution. But she wants to warn others that there are predators among us.

And sometimes, the predator just might be the nice guy who mows the grass at the church.