It’s 2008 in New York City, and Kwame Seku is walking the streets thousands of miles from his California home. Then, out of nowhere, he is recognized. Yet Kwame is not identified as a retired teacher from San Diego. Rather, he’s believed to be a missing man named Winston Bright. There’s just one problem, however: Winston has been officially dead for eight years.
This strange tale begins on June 20, 1970. On that day, you see, Winston and Leslie Bright tied the knot. And with the groom dressed in a smart black tuxedo and the bride sporting a delicate white lace veil, they looked the very picture of the perfect happy couple. Yet just two decades later, their story would take a bizarre turn.
At first, though, Winston and Leslie set up home in Stuyvesant Town – a sprawling post-war plot found on the edge of Manhattan in New York City. And over time, the couple welcomed three children to their family. Winston also established a career with the New York Telephone Company, where he worked as a switch operator.
All in all, then, the Brights appeared to live a relatively comfortable and happy life. All that changed on October 12, 1990, however, when Winston failed to return home from work. The day had begun just like any other, though, with the switch operator leaving home as usual and telephoning his wife during a break.
“He kissed me on the cheek, called me at lunch time like he always did and again when he was on his way home,” Leslie told the New York Daily News in 2014. “He never made it.” Bizarrely, in fact, Winston seemed to vanish into thin air. And for Leslie, Winston’s unexplained disappearance would be the start of a long and strange search for the truth.
Desperate to find her husband, you see, Leslie initially contacted the New York Police Department for help. And for years the police tried to find out what had happened to Winston. But even though the NYPD released posters appealing for information about Winston’s disappearance, there was no sign of the missing man for a long time.
And what’s more, with Winston now gone, Leslie and the children fell on hard times. The family struggled financially, in fact, and were forced to leave their apartment in Stuyvesant Town to relocate to a public housing development. Perhaps as a result of these challenging new circumstances, too, her sons, Aaron and Eric, turned to crime.
“We had it rough. We had no money,” Leslie explained to the New York Daily News. Aaron was at one point arrested and imprisoned, in fact, while Eric also spent time in jail. And strangely, Winston’s other family members were distant throughout his disappearance, too.
So in 2000 Leslie decided that Winston had gone for good. She therefore made her way to New York’s Surrogate’s Court – the institution that deals with estate matters for the state. And there, Leslie had her husband declared legally dead. “I honestly thought something happened to him,” she told CBS New York in 2014.
And with Winston now officially deceased, Leslie was able to claim his pension from New York Telephone, which by then had become the telecommunications company Verizon. So, as his widow, she was entitled to receive around $300 a month. However, the family still struggled financially, and without Winston’s support they continued to experience tough times.
For the next eight years, though, Leslie seemingly believed that Winston was really dead. But then in 2008 something quite unbelievable happened. According to reports, an acquaintance of the missing man spotted Winston somewhere in New York City. And the friend went on to inform Leslie about this bizarre supposed sighting too.
Then in 2009 Winston reappeared in his family’s lives. And according to the missing man, he had never intended to disappear. Instead, Winston claimed that his absence had been caused by a bout of amnesia. This condition, he alleged, left him unable to recall his life with Leslie and their three children.
Somehow, then, Winston had made his way from New York to San Diego – more than 2,750 miles away on the opposite side of the country. And once there, in 1990 or 1991, Winston had allegedly found himself with no recollection of who he was – and only a small amount of money on his person. He had also been missing any forms of identification.
Winston claimed that he had wound up staying in a shelter for homeless people too. And while Leslie had still been desperately searching for her missing husband, Winston had been busy building himself a new life in San Diego. The man had even given himself a new identity: Kwame Seku – a name he’d chosen after seeing it in a magazine.
In California Kwame had also gained his GED before going on to study for a master’s degree. He had later ended up teaching in public schools, too, and he’d worked with troubled youths until his retirement. Some time around 2008, however, he allegedly began to remember snippets of his previous life.
Little by little, Kwame claimed, his memories then began to return. “Bits and pieces,” he told the New York Post. “You think of places you remember, I had dreams of this and dreams of that, and I’d go and investigate it.” And using the internet, Kwame was able to slowly reconstruct his past identity.
Also around this time, Kwame claimed, an aunt was able to contact him in California and so informed his family of his whereabouts. The man who had once been Winston then reconnected with the wife and children he had left behind. However, it was far from a joyous reunion.
By this time, you see, the three Bright children were grown, and Kwame had become a grandfather. Yet according to some sources, Leslie was not happy to see her husband. “I guess she was bitter because of me not being there because according to her – and I talked to my daughter – they had a pretty good life when I was there but when I left it became hard times,” Kwame explained to the New York Post.
Other sources relay a different side to the story, however. According to Leslie, in fact, her errant husband had only one concern after his miraculous return. “All he talked about was money,” she told CBS New York. Leslie even claimed that Kwame hoped to get his hands on the Verizon pension that Leslie had been claiming since being officially widowed almost a decade before.
In 2012, in fact, Kwame made his first attempt to get Winston’s death overturned and establish himself as the rightful recipient of the man’s pension. However, the case was reportedly dismissed. Then, two years later, Leslie appeared in court – denying that Kwame and Winston were the same man.
Instead, she referred to Kwame as a “scammer” who refused to substantiate his claims. “I know if I had a family and I had amnesia, I would show them,” she told the New York Daily News in 2018. “He just expected us to believe it. I would have been shouting it off to the roof to my kids to let them know what happened.”
However, Winston’s mother, Mary, was seemingly convinced of Kwame’s identity from the moment that they met. She later said that she had actually recognized her missing son’s eyes and mannerisms as well as his personality. “He was always making jokes and things,” Mary told the New York Daily News. “He still had that sense of humor about him.”
And as the court case dragged on, Kwame took a DNA test in an attempt to prove that he was Mary’s son. Then, over time, it seems as if Leslie came to accept that Kwame and Winston really are one and the same. But rather than express joy at her husband’s unexpected return, Leslie told the media that she intended to sue.
“He wants to come back as Winston Bright? That might be the sorriest thing he ever does, including walking away from us, because I am going to sue for everything,” she told CBS New York. “I will go at him for back child support, cat support, everything! If he wants a fight, I’ll give him a fight!” she further stated in an interview with New York Daily News.
Meanwhile, Winston’s son Aaron was also suspicious of Kwame’s amnesia claims. “You don’t just walk down the block and catch amnesia,” he told CBS New York. And while Winston’s siblings and Mary came forward to support Kwame’s claims, Leslie began to wonder whether or not the family had been in on it all along.
For years, though, Kwame tried everything to convince the courts that Winston Bright was not dead. And eventually, on April 13, 2018, the court ruled in his favor – effectively bringing Leslie’s late husband back to life after 18 years. The DNA evidence had seemingly played a crucial part in the judge’s decision too.
Having finally won his battle, however, Kwame appeared to have a change of heart. And after the court’s decision, Leslie told the media that her estranged husband had decided not to claim his pension for himself. Yet although the pair are still married in the eyes of the law, Kwame has since returned to California.
But is that really the end of the story? Well, according to Leslie, Kwame still contacts her on occasion. “I think he wants to be a part of my life,” she told the New York Daily News. But while she has accepted that her husband is still alive, Leslie continues to refuse to believe the amnesia story – meaning that any reconciliation seems unlikely.
Yet according to reports, Kwame has been able to salvage a relationship with his adult children and remains close to Mary. He was also able to make contact with his grandmother and father, although both have since passed away. “I never believed that my son was deceased,” his mother told DNAinfo in 2014. “I assumed that he was stressed about life and left town.”
So could there be any truth to Kwame’s story? According to experts, most amnesia cases fall into two categories: anterograde and retrograde. And the most common by far is the former, a condition that affects the short term memory of the sufferer. Those with this affliction can therefore struggle to remember the recent past – although older memories are often not affected.
But Kwame claims to have suffered from a form of amnesia that left him completely unable to recollect his previous life. Yet according to those who know, this condition is exceedingly rare. And what’s more, even sufferers of retrograde amnesia – the type that affects long-term memory – are generally able to recall their own identities.
Despite this, however, there is one disorder that would seem to fit the bill: dissociative amnesia. According to reports, sufferers of this condition can forget vital information about their own identities – sometimes for a number of years. And even though it affects a very small portion of the world’s population, it often appears in fiction as a plot device.
In many cases, in fact, it’s believed that amnesia is caused by a blow or traumatic injury to the head. However, it can also be the result of a neurological condition, such as a stroke or infection. When the brain is injured, then, it can affect how information is processed and understood, causing an individual to lose or forget their memories.
But given the rareness of total amnesia, it seems improbable that Winston really did leave New York and forget everything that he had ever known. Yet it is not a completely impossible scenario. In fact, there have been a number of cases over the years in which individuals have come forward with seemingly no recollections of their previous lives.
For example, in 2004 an injured man was discovered outside a fast food outlet in Richmond Hill, Georgia. The man then recuperated in hospital and found that he was only able to recall his first name: Benjaman. Apparently, though, the rest of his identity remained a mystery. So after taking the last name Kyle, Benjaman embarked on a long and difficult quest for the truth.
Interestingly, Benjaman was seemingly able to recall elements of his previous life – such as part of his social security number – by way of hypnosis. He also claimed to have memories of siblings and of a past visit to Indianapolis. And in 2015 experts studying his DNA managed to confirm his true identity as William Burgess Powell.
Of course, amnesia is far from a contemporary phenomenon. One the earliest recorded cases in fact took place back in 1887, when the American preacher Ansel Bourne left his home in Rhode Island to pay a visit to his nearby sister. But instead, Bourne wound up in Norristown in Pennsylvania, where he began living under the name Albert Brown.
Bourne subsequently lived as Brown for two months, even opening a business under his new persona. Then, seemingly without warning, he suddenly snapped back to his old identity. And amazingly, Bourne supposedly had no recollection of Brown or his life in Pennsylvania. He was even unaware of how he came to be so far from home. Interestingly, the 2002 movie The Bourne Identity features a spy with memory loss named after the Rhode Island preacher.
It’s not just genuine sufferers of amnesia who have become famous over the years, though. In fact, in 2007 Brit John Darwin made the news when he resurfaced after a five-year disappearance, claiming to have been struggling with the condition. It later emerged, however, that he had faked his own death as part of an insurance scam.
As in Kwame’s case, Darwin’s alleged amnesia also left behind children struggling to understand a father who claimed to have forgotten them. And according to reports, Darwin’s two sons have never forgiven him for what he did. But will Kwame’s family face the same fate? The truth remains to be seen.