Fresno Police second-guessed on killings of nine family members

Associated Press/March 17, 2004
By Juliana Barbassa

Fresno -- Fresno's police chief acknowledged Wednesday that his department is looking into whether Marcus Wesson fatally shot nine of his children while police waited outside his house.

Relatives of the victims, as well as neighbors, say police could have done more to prevent the deaths, which came despite frantic pleas from two of the children's mothers to intervene.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer said even some officers were wondering, as police often do after horrific crimes, whether they did all they could. But Dyer defended the response to what began Friday as a call to intervene in a custody dispute.

Timeline in slayings

Here's a timeline of events from March 12, when Marcus Wesson allegedly murdered nine of his children.

2:13 p.m. - Police receive call about child custody dispute from two women outside Wesson's home.

2:23 p.m. - First officer is dispatched.

2:35 p.m. - Several officers respond to scene, interview women and decide they have no legal authority to enter home at the moment.

2:50 p.m. - Wesson is in doorway and officers are talking to him, asking him to come out of the house. During this time, officers are seeking guidance from Fresno city attorney on whether they have legal right to enter the home. They are told they do not have cause.

3:03 p.m. - Officers call Child Protective Services for a consultation.

3:35 p.m. - Wesson darts from the doorway into the back bedroom. Within minutes, two more women run from the home and tell officers Wesson is armed with a handgun. More officers are now on the scene and negotiators are trying to make contact with Wesson by yelling. He did not respond.

3:47 p.m. - Officers request SWAT team.

4:45 p.m. - SWAT team begins to take up positions around the home.

4:47 p.m. - Wesson emerges covered in blood and surrenders. Officers enter home to find the bodies.

Source: Fresno Police Department.

By all accounts, it was a chaotic scene when a group of adult relatives confronted Wesson at the home where he lived with an extended clan of children he fathered through six women, including two of his own daughters.

"The officers made what I believe to be an appropriate decision to summon negotiators and a SWAT team to negotiate the situation peacefully without entering the residence and escalating the situation," Dyer told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Wesson, 57, has been charged with nine counts of murder and could face the death penalty if convicted. The victims include children ages 1 to 17, as well as his 25-year-old daughter, who was the mother of one of the infants killed.

Wesson's arraignment was delayed when he appeared in court Wednesday without a lawyer and said "I don't want a public defender, I beg thee." He was ordered to return Thursday with an attorney, or accept representation by the state.

Two of Wesson's sons attended the hearing. One spoke out, saying four times: "I love you, dad." He then was led from the courtroom, and could be heard crying outside.

Police haven't said exactly when the victims died or what kind of gun was used, and the coroner's office was still preparing its report Wednesday. Officers at the scene Friday said they heard no gunshots, but other witnesses said gunshots could clearly be heard.

The mothers, who had come to the house to try to get their children, told officers the children were in danger, according to a relative who spoke on condition he not be named.

But while the women appeared quite distraught, Wesson appeared calm.

The officers had no legal authority at that point to apprehend him and Wesson disappeared into a back bedroom. Only then did the relatives tell police he had access to a gun, Dyer said Wednesday.

By then, Wesson stopped communicating, police said, and officers evacuated the other adults from the front of the house.

"We did not have information provided to us that Wesson would harm his children - and they are his children," Dyer said.

The relative of the victims, sobbing repeatedly during an interview with the AP, said officers missed an opportunity to defuse the situation.

"All the kids were alive" when police arrived, said the man. "The guy was just standing there, at the door, with no weapons."

The man said that shortly after police arrived, the mother of one of the victims managed to get inside Wesson's house and briefly hold her 7-year-old son's hand as police talked with Wesson outside.

"She feared for her life and the kids' lives," he said. "That was the last time she saw him."

The women then pleaded in vain for officers to intervene, one pounding on the hood of a police cruiser, according to the relative and neighbors at the scene.

More than an hour passed as police tried to make contact with Wesson. A SWAT team finally arrived. Moments later, Wesson emerged with blood on his clothes and surrendered.

Lt. Herman Silva has said officers may have responded rapidly had they heard gunshots, but they never did.

But neighbors dispute that, saying officers were present when shots rang out.

Michael Caskey, 14, who lives across the street, said he heard two shots, and he thinks officers heard them as well because he saw one take cover behind Wesson's school bus and another officer duck behind a cluster of pines in the front yard.

At about 3:30 p.m., an hour after officers arrived, Maria Elena Leyva, a 34-year-old housewife who lives across the street and has a clear view of Wesson's house, said she heard at least four shots. She said she pulled her children away from the window as more officers arrived by car and motorcycle.

"I heard the women shouting and crying," she said in Spanish. "One of the women was crying 'My baby. My baby.'"

Police briefly thought all was well when Wesson surrendered at 4:45 p.m.

"When we heard he was coming out, we all breathed a sigh of relief, thinking it would be over soon," Silva said Monday.

Inside the back room of the house, they found a knot of bodies so tangled that it took hours to accurately count the dead. The chief said at least 17 employees were either on leave with pay or receiving help from grief counselors, some wondering whether they could have done more.

"Perhaps it's the second-guessing that goes on in the mind of an officer," Dyer said. "Also, they were exposed to an incident that most officers will never be exposed to in a lifetime."

Also Wednesday, the Marin County Sheriff's Office said its investigators are assisting Fresno police by looking into two boats Wesson owns that are currently moored a few hundred yards off the shoreline in Marshall.

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