Oct. 12, 1990, began as an ordinary day for the Bright family: Winston, 42, left for his job at Verizon, made his usual call at lunch to his wife, but when 6 p.m. came and passed, he still hadn’t arrived home from work. Leslie Bright’s first instinct was to call his coworkers. Next, she contacted the police. After a few days passed, NYPD opened an official missing person’s investigation and for more than a year, alongside his family, detectives searched for Winston, checking hospital records and homeless shelters, hanging posters with a photo of his face, and also monitoring his finances. The hunt was fruitless: The paycheck Winston received on the day he went missing was never cashed, his credit cards showed no activity, no withdrawals were made from his bank accounts, and his Social Security number didn’t turn up either. Gone without a trace, he was most likely dead.
Ten years slowly passed. In that time, Leslie fell on hard times. Although her data-entry job paid $8.25 an hour, she could not maintain her Stuyvesant Town apartment and moved into a public housing project with her two sons and a daughter. Having given up hope, Leslie Bright turned to the courts in 2000 and had him declared legally dead. His pension and insurance money would help, but of course income could never replace a father.
“If an outside person was looking at our family up until the day he left, we looked like the Brady Bunch,” his son, Aaron Bright, 35, told DNAinfo New York. A loving man, his father had played ball with his sons and served his Jehovah's Witnesses congregation as a minister. He had been essential to his family. In fact, his loss was so difficult, his two sons made some wrong turns in life and ended up doing time in prison. Although Aaron is well on his way today, attending school and working as a personal trainer, he believes he has turned his life around, but feels his time on earth would have been much different if tragedy hadn’t struck.
Now, a new drama is playing out in his life, but this one has a somewhat comic tone... almost.
Three years ago, Kwame Seku, a man living in San Diego, woke up and decided he’s the former Winston Bright. According to Seku, he developed amnesia on that fateful day in 1990. Somehow he ended up in California, and there he created an identity from scratch. He chose an African name because it sounded nice, and then, like he had wanted to do during all those years in New York, he earned a master’s degree and began teaching in public school. He even worked with troubled boys. Seku was living his dreams, all while his family was living in despair.
But the story does not end there. No, Seku traveled back to New York to reunite with his parents and siblings who were thrilled to find him alive and well. Even his children were pleased to see him, but the family feeling quickly turned cold when he tried to take his pension benefits — $617 a month — from his wife. Amnesia may be common on TV, but the Bright family knows such things don’t usually happen in real life. In fact, real amnesia doesn’t even cause an entire loss of identify, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most often, people with amnestic syndrome have had damage to some area of the brain and they know who they are, though they have trouble forming new memories. In very rare cases, experiencing an emotional trauma, such as being the victim of a violent crime, may cause a person to suffer psychogenic amnesia, in which he will lose personal memories and autobiographical information, but usually this loss lasts only briefly.
When he first returned from California, Seku, who is now 65, decided it was time to draw his pension from Verizon. Initially, the company sent him his payments, but then discovered his wife was also receiving a check from them so they issued a statement, saying Leslie gets the benefit until a court officially tells them Seku is truly Winston Bright. In September 2012, a surrogate judge in New York threw out Seku's petition for his pension because he lacked proof of being the man who had been legally declared dead. But now, Seku is petitioning the courts once again and this time he has a blood test with DNA from himself and his mother and he believes this will prove his identity.
“He hasn’t come back to me as his wife or to have a relationship with his children,” Leslie Bright told the NY Daily News. “I will go at him for back child support, cat support, everything! If he wants a fight, I’ll give him a fight!”
As might be expected by everyone but Seku, public opinion favors his wife. “It was not fraud on her part. …He should be held responsible,” Samantha Vicente wrote in the comments section of the News. “'Cat support’ gotta love that spirit of hers.” Another reader, Michele Bonder commented: “i love this woman, and I hope she gets what she deserves as a deserted mom and wife, while I hope the husband gets what he deserves — nada.”