EAST VILLAGE — A California amnesiac who says he’s a married Manhattan father of three who mysteriously disappeared more than 20 years ago claims he now has hard proof of his true identity.
Kwame Seku, 65, wrote in a court filing in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court last week that he took a DNA test that proves he is Winston Bright, an East Village family man who vanished without a trace in 1990 after leaving his job at New York Telephone.
DNAinfo New York first reported in a Dec. 3 story that Bright’s wife had him declared dead in 2000 after a decade of searching for him turned up nothing.
After spending years living in California and wrestling to remember his past, Seku said he realized he was Bright in the late 2000s. In 2012 he went to court to show the connection.
He asked a Manhattan judge to vacate the death decree so he could collect a pension from New York Telephone. But a judge threw out the case because Bright’s wife, Leslie, and their children didn’t back up his story and Seku had no other proof than his words.
In a Feb. 10 filing, Seku said that in December he and Bright’s mother, Mary Bright, took a DNA test that proved they were related.
“I am hoping the [DNA] test is enough and my appearance with my mother will be sufficient to vacate the death decree,” Seku wrote in the filing.
Seku, who lives in San Diego, told DNAinfo New York on Tuesday that he plans to fly to New York in March and hopes to see a judge then.
“My mother is certainly my mother,” he said. “I want to have this death nonsense behind me.”
The positive test caps a bizarre transcontinental journey for Seku that he said began on Oct. 12, 1990, when, then Winston Bright, he left his job as a switchman but never returned to his wife and kids.
Seku claims he suffered a form of long-term amnesia and forgot his identity — a psychiatric condition that researchers say exists.
“I really don't know what happened,” he said when asked about the memory loss.
What Seku does know is that two years after the disappearance, he ended up in San Diego without any identification and living in a homeless shelter. Because he couldn’t remember his real name, a judge officially changed it to Kwame Seku.
“I was reading a magazine and I saw the name there. I said, 'I like African names.' I’ve been Kwame Seku ever since,” Seku said.
With the help of a lawyer, Seku slowly got his life back on course, enrolling in a GED program, then taking college courses. Eventually, he received a master’s degree in counseling and became a certified teacher, working in California’s public school system.
“I spent more time trying to rebuild my life rather than trying to go back and find out what happened,” he said. “I didn't have resources. No job. No ID. So I had to start from ground zero. I even had to go back and get a high school diploma.”
In the first years after Winston Bright vanished, his family tried desperately to find him, plastering missing person posters around New York City. NYPD detectives checked the morgue, hospitals and homeless shelters, but their search came up empty. Investigators also determined that Winston’s credit cards and Social Security ID were never used after he disappeared.
In 2000 Leslie Bright got a judge to declare her husband dead so she could collect his insurance and his pension from New York Telephone, which is now Verizon.
Seku told DNAinfo that he began remembering pieces of his past life in the late 2000s. He went online and was able to make contact with an aunt, he said.
“I found out a lot of things, including family members I was able to call,” he said.
The reunion went well with his parents and extended family, but his wife and children haven’t welcomed him back.
Seku said they believe he’s Winston Bright, but they don’t want anything to do with him because he’s trying to get his pension back from Leslie.
“She can believe [my story] or not, that's up to her. I'm not going to spend the rest of my years trying to convince her,” he said. “She should be applauding that I was able to survive, rebuild my life and move on. I moved on.”
Leslie’s life hasn’t been easy since her husband went missing, according to her son Aaron Bright.
She had to get a job to support her three children. Strapped for cash, she eventually moved her family out of their Peter Cooper Village apartment and into her parents’ East Village home. In their new neighborhood, her two sons got involved with the wrong crowd and had run-ins with the law when they were younger.
Aaron said he, his siblings and their mom don't believe Seku's amnesia story.
“Nobody just walks down the street and says, ‘Oh snap, I don’t know who I am,'” he previously told DNAinfo.
Aaron said on Tuesday that Seku should just leave his family alone.
"That's what a man would do, but I think we're dealing with something different," he said.
Seku said he earned his pension by working 20 years for New York Telephone before he disappeared. He believes he doesn't owe any of that money to Leslie.
“She's not destitute,” he said. “She's not left in the lurch. She has enough, and that's not my responsibility. I am trying to survive myself.”
Aaron Bright said his mom deserves the pension, but he thinks Seku's desire to prove his identity goes beyond just getting money.
"It seems like he's trying to hurt her in some way," Aaron said. "What's his vendetta? Who is he? The way I see it, he's a stranger now trying to hurt my mother."
Seku, who is now retired, lives alone in a San Diego apartment on a fixed income from his teacher’s pension and Social Security payments. He said he is not bitter, noting the stories he sees on his local news broadcast sound much worse than his life experiences.
“I look at things like that and I go, ‘Geez, what am I complaining about?’” Seku said. “No, I'm not bitter about that. I wish I had a better relationship with my family. But I've seen too much. I've gone through too much and being bitter, that's not going to help at all.”