On the street where they live

In only three hours, a Hammond Avenue neighborhood would change forever.

The Fresno Bee/March 21, 2004
By Cyndee Fontana and Doug Hoagland

In a cream-colored house tucked in a mature Fresno neighborhood just north of Roeding Park, Maria Leyva sits at a computer composing an e-mail when two sharp sounds stop her fingers.

She rushes to the front door to see what's happening, and she hears two more loud noises in rapid succession. They seem to be exploding inside the small blue house across the street where Marcus Wesson lives, the house where police officers have gone on that afternoon of March 12.

For about five minutes, Leyva stands at the door. She watches and listens and hears nothing more. Then she returns to the computer and types another e-mail to her sisters, Veronica and Adriana, describing what she just heard:

"Mijas luego les ablo porque ahorita estamos en pleno chisme acaba e aver una valasera a qui enfrente y al pareser ay muertos."

In English, it reads:

"Girls, I'll call you later because right now we're in the middle of gossip. There has just been a shooting here in front and apparently there are deaths."

It is 3:36 p.m.

Roughly an hour later, police find a stack of bodies in the back bedroom of the blue house on a usually quiet street in west-central Fresno. It is the worst mass murder in the city's history.

Nine days later, perhaps only two things are certain. It's a mystery what happened in the house at 761 W. Hammond Ave. that day. And there is no explanation for the varying accounts of neighbors, relatives and police over whether there was gunfire in the house after officers arrived. Some witnesses insist they heard shots. Some say they heard none. No one says they heard nine -- one for each of the victims shot to death. Police Chief Jerry Dyer says his officers heard no shots.

Marcus Delon Wesson, a hulk of a man with graying dreadlocks that spiral down his back, now sits in the Fresno County Jail accused of murdering Sebhrenah April Wesson, 25; Elizabeth Breani Kina Wesson, 17; Illabelle Carrie Wesson, 8; Aviv Dominique Wesson, 7; Johnathon St. Charles Wesson, 7; Ethan St. Laurent Wesson, 4; Sedona Vadra Wesson, 11/2; Marshey St. Christopher Wesson, 11/2; and Jeva St. Vladensvspry Wesson, 1.

It could be several more days before Wesson, 57, enters a plea to charges that could bring the death penalty.

Nine days ago everything seemed far less serious. Just after 2 p.m., police were dealing with a child-custody dispute at the Wesson home.

Two nieces who had children by Wesson want their 7-year-olds back. Accompanied by family members and a friend, Wesson's nieces -- Ruby Sanchez and Sofina Solorio -- come to the house where Wesson lives with family and where he keeps 12 coffins, perhaps for their wood. He refuses to give up the two children.

Someone calls police. Officers are dispatched. They talk with Wesson, who retreats into a back bedroom. At one point, a woman cries out: "It wasn't supposed to happen this way!"

Barbara Alec, who lives next door to Wesson, watches the events unfold from her front yard. She has seen Wesson during the months they were neighbors. But she does not know his name or that children live in the house. Alec's most vivid memory before March 12 is the day she's working in her front yard and senses someone's eyes bearing down on her.

Marcus Wesson is the one staring. He stands near their property line, but Alec does not see him because her back is to him.

When she turns around and looks into his face, she quietly utters: " 'Oh, my God.' "

Then she manages a weak "hello."

Wesson silently acknowledges her greeting.

The house on the corner of Hammond and Weber avenues wasn't really a house, at least in the city's eyes. Built in 1966 and last used as an attorney's office, the 1,066-square-foot box with the prefabricated pebble wall still had a cardboard clock with movable hands propped in a front window last week.

It wasn't the Wesson family's first unorthodox living arrangement. They sometimes spent summers on a 63-foot wood-and-concrete tugboat in Marshall, a small Marin County town on the northern coast of California. For several years, while struggling to rebuild a 1935 Tudor ravaged by fire, the family apparently lived in a toolshed behind the historic home near Fresno City College.

Neither the 1935 Tudor, nor the Hammond Avenue building bought for $100,000 last September, appeared in Marcus Wesson's name. But he certainly seemed to command the Hammond house and the old school bus parked in his driveway.

At all hours, even deep into the night, neighbors would see Wesson working inside the bus while women or children held lights for illumination. He apparently controlled a near-invisible brood of children and women in dark skirts who always seemed dressed for church, work or school.

When Wesson bought a dozen caskets at an antique store, it was the women and children who loaded them into the school bus.

By December, the bus and house were on the city's code enforcement radar. The bus was too big to park in that neighborhood, and the building never was formally converted from commercial to residential. The family had until March 12 to clear up the problems. They never did.

Nor did the family fit seamlessly into a working-class neighborhood where residents borrow money from each other and visit on front porches after the children are tucked into bed. The Wesson children didn't go to school or make friends. The Wesson women rarely spoke.

Some of Wesson's sons see nothing sinister in their father. They describe him as strict but loving, a prolific writer who dabbles in real estate and hobbies.

But a few weeks ago, a woman from the Wesson house sought refuge in neighbor Linda Morales' duplex. Hysterical and shaking, the woman never explains why she is hiding.

When 300-pound Marcus Wesson comes to the house, Morales blocks the door with her 5-foot-3, 108-pound frame. She doesn't admit the woman is there.

Says Wesson: "Tell her I'll be out here." Eventually he goes away. The woman leaves the next morning.

On March 12, there is nothing remarkable about the day in the neighborhood. Kids go to school. Parents go to work. Trains rumble along tracks that parallel nearby Weber Avenue.

Across the street from the Wessons, Brian Caskey and his two sons practice building campfires in their driveway. It is only 10 or 11 a.m., but 14-year-old Mike, dressed in black, complains about the heat. They do not notice their neighbors.

About 2 p.m., fire Capt. Tony Escovedo drives by the Wesson home in an engine on his way back from a call. He sees a teenage girl holding a baby and Wesson kneeling by the bus with several other children at his side.

Wesson stands and stares. Escovedo waves to the children.

They wave back.

Over the next three hours, the accounts of police and witnesses will track closely but diverge widely on one key point. Family members and witnesses -- at least four -- will say they heard what sounded like gunfire after officers arrived. Several will tell that to reporters that night.

Yet other witnesses, relatives and police will say they heard no loud bangs -- certainly no gunshots.

"I am not going to refute whether or not a person heard gunshots out there in the neighborhood, or whether they thought they heard a gunshot," says Police Chief Dyer. "But what I can state is that our police officers that were on scene did not hear gunshots."

Eric Hickey, a criminology professor at California State University, Fresno, says research shows that eye -- or ear -- witnesses may be unreliable: "Take three witnesses, and they'll give you three different stories."

Memories become fuzzy. One witness can be influenced by another.

"The power of suggestion is quite strong in our hindsight," Hickey says.

As for gunshots that afternoon, Hickey says: "Police are trained for hearing gunshots -- they know a gunshot when they hear it. It's unlikely that police would be over there and if they heard gunshots, to ignore it."

Variable, too, are the time frames offered by witnesses. They're focused on events, not a clock.

Several witnesses who talked to The Bee anchored their recollections around everyday activities: a television movie, work or school schedules, an e-mail whose time stamp was verified by computer experts.

Others are far less certain.

The account that follows integrates the recollections of witnesses, police and several Wesson relatives at the home.

In some cases, times are approximate.

2 p.m.

In the duplex across the street from the Wesson house, Linda Morales opens her front door for her kids. The two girls will be coming home from school soon and Morales is going to watch the Lifetime movie, "Mockingbird Don't Sing." But first she goes outside to talk with a neighbor.

Barbara Alec sees several carloads of young men and women arrive at the Wesson house.

Alec, 61, has been gardening in her front yard since morning and she gets a Diet 7-UP. She wears an orange T-shirt that reads: "Too many freaks, too few circuses."

Alec does not see what the group of people is doing at Wesson's house, but Maria Leyva does. As she drives from Weber onto Hammond, she notices the group of eight to 10 men and women. Two women stand out. They are arguing near Wesson's front door, with little space separating their angry faces.

Marcus Wesson is nowhere to be seen, and Leyva would have spotted him. She knows him for the wild hair and all-black clothing he seems to prefer.

Leyva passes by Wesson's house after picking up her 9-year-old son, Eddie, from school.

Another boy, Mike Caskey, takes a break from his home-school studies and saunters into the kitchen as the crowd at the Wessons grows restless. From a kitchen window facing the Wesson house, Mike sees people banging on the door. The group is divided into two factions, each cursing the other. Two men seem on the verge of throwing punches.

Sensing trouble, Mike gets his father, Brian Caskey, who is finishing a shower before heading off to a swing shift at work. Brian Caskey's wife, Michelle, is already at work.

Brian Caskey isn't sure about leaving Mike and his 12-year-old brother, Cameron, alone.

2:30 p.m.

Just as Brian Caskey tells Mike he might call the police, two officers walk down Hammond toward the Wesson house. The officers get the two groups together, start talking to them and the tense situation calms down.

Mike calls his grandmother Joan Byers, who is listening to a police radio at her home in Clovis. She already has heard the call on Hammond, but doesn't pay much attention, not realizing it was so close to her family.

Brian Caskey leaves for work, but not before telling his sons to stay inside and not to bother with the yardwork planned for the afternoon: "Wait until whatever is going on over there blows over, and then we'll worry about it."

Leyva hears a car door slam and looks out the front door. A third police officer arrives and walks toward Wesson's house. But nothing alarms the 34-year-old homemaker, and she falls back into the rhythms of family life.

She gets back on the computer to continue a running e-mail conversation with her sisters, and in between the chatting, she starts preparations for Friday night dinner: spaghetti.

Morales goes back inside her duplex where miniature, white Christmas lights still twinkle. She waits for her daughters, 8-year-old Sandra Menchaca and 12-year-old Melissa Menchaca, to get home from school.

As Morales' Lifetime movie nears the hour mark, police still are trying to sort out who has legal custody of the children in the Wesson house. Mike Caskey sees one officer talking on his cell phone.

His father will soon be calling from work to check in on his sons.

No one will answer.

3 p.m.

Mike sees Wesson in the doorway of the blue house, talking with two of the officers. The officers will never be invited inside. Without permission, a warrant or an emergency, they cannot enter.

Mike sees some of the eight to 10 people in front of the house move to the other side of the street, but they occasionally shout toward Wesson.

Down the street, Leyva drives away to pick up her 12-year-old son, Cesar, at a school bus stop. When she returns, she sits back down at the computer in Cesar's room.

Her ordinary day is about to end. Four gunshots ring out from the house down the street, Leyva says, and she interrupts her e-mail conversation to look out the door.

Down the street, Morales hears a chorus of women cry out: "Not my babies! Not my babies!" She runs outside and says she hears three, maybe more, gunshots.

A neighbor wrapped in a towel emerges from his home and looks at Morales.

"You heard gunshots, too?" she asks.

"Yeah," he replies and then scampers back inside to get dressed.

Alec, still in her front yard, hears a loud boom-boom. She doesn't know what the sound is. She never has heard gunfire in her life. She wonders whether police are knocking down a fence at Wesson's house, but she doesn't see anything because the bus blocks any view.

Amid the confusion and noise, a woman's voice rises above the din: "It wasn't supposed to happen this way!"

3:30 p.m.

Whether it is gunfire or emotion, things are starting to boil at the Wesson house. There's a commotion in the front room; people are screaming. Officers decide they must intervene and move into the living room.

Wesson is gone, now locked in a back bedroom. Someone tells officers that Wesson has access to a gun. Officers escort people from the room, back out and call for crisis negotiators and the SWAT team. Police won't say how many people left the house.

A woman starts pounding the hood of a police car. She leaves a dent. Others are yelling about Wesson; the words are angry.

In the Caskey home, Mike is talking to his grandmother on the telephone. A man is barricaded in that house, she tells him. She also tells her grandsons to stay at the opposite end of the house.

Mike returns a phone message from his father. He tells him police cars are converging on the Wesson house. Armed with a rifle, one officer is standing on the neighboring roof. Another stands behind the bus.

"There was an officer behind about every tree out there with his gun drawn," Mike says. Police say taking cover is a textbook reaction when officers hear that someone may have a gun.

Mike is moving back and forth between the side of the house that overlooks the Wesson house and the side that doesn't. He even peeks outside, sees his neighbors and warns them to move out of the open.

The crowd is lined up against yellow police tape that extends toward the Caskey home. Mike calls his mother, opening the conversation with one of his father's favorite phrases: "Life happens here ... "

She tells him to call his grandparents in Clovis. In minutes, Mike's grandfather Kenneth Byers is on his way to pick up the two Caskey boys.

Wesson family members take refuge in Alec's yard. She allows a woman she believes to be Marcus Wesson's wife, Elizabeth, to use her bathroom. Alec gets a glass of cool water for the woman, who sobs uncontrollably and slumps to the ground when she tries to rise from a chair in the yard.

Alec's niece Connie Howard, who lives across the street, tries to be helpful, too. An officer perched on a roof overlooking the Wesson house asks Howard to call his wife and explain he is going to be late coming home. Howard reaches the wife, and then gives the phone to the officer so the two can talk.

A young man stands by Alec. She believes him to be a son of Marcus Wesson's. He is in anguish. He cusses. She hears him declare his father would never do something like this.

"My dad is a beautiful dad," he blurts out.

Someone calls him on a cell phone. He walks away, talking quietly. Later he gets into an argument with a man in the front yard. Alec is close enough to overhear.

"We took care of that last night," the man tells the son. "I told you, it was taken care of last night."

The son replies angrily with expletives.

4 p.m.

SWAT team members are rolling onto the street. Summoned by the "Code 11" that flashes across a pager, the officers report as quickly as they can. Dyer, too, is notified.

There's a saying among SWAT teams: "Time is on our side." Dyer says the last resort "is entering a residence and perhaps forcing a confrontation with the suspect or escalating the situation by causing the suspect to do something he or she would not normally do."

Outside the Wesson home, the crowd is bigger. More police arrive, as do representatives of Child Protective Services. The Police Department's legal adviser acknowledges the SWAT call and heads out.

An officer comes to the Caskey door.

"He said they were probably going to have to start evacuating the area," Mike says. "He was letting me know so I could call for whoever I needed for that."

Mike tells the officer that his grandfather is on the way. Within a few minutes, he and his brother leave the house.

Morales tends people in her yard. Some use the bathroom. One woman faints and is assisted to the bathroom by another woman. Morales passes out water; she ends the day with seven fewer glasses than she started with.

Negotiators try to talk to Wesson. Says Dyer: "I don't know what the communication was between the negotiators and Wesson. ... I do know that there was an attempt made to negotiate with him when he was in the bedroom.

"Several attempts."

4:30 p.m.

The police presence continues to grow. Before this day, officers had only had two calls to this Wesson home -- one reporting a missing license plate, the other involving the theft of a wallet, small purse, silver dollars and other items taken from a car. Elizabeth Wesson made both reports.

Now, yellow police tape encircles nearly the entire block. The SWAT team is preparing to deploy. That never happens.

Wesson surrenders. Officers moving in to make the arrest see something chilling: blood on his clothing.

Officers go back inside the house; now they don't need a warrant or permission from the resident. Says Dyer: "The officers had an obligation to check on the welfare of the residents once he was removed."

Officers enter the house calling "kids, kids." No one answers.

Officers see three caskets against the living room wall and one on the floor. Twelve hand-carved caskets are in the house. In the dimly lit back bedroom, they find a stack of bodies and blood pooling on the floor.

The scene is gruesome. Officers look under blankets and bedroom pillows and into drawers in hopes of finding survivors. There are only the bodies in the bedroom.

Police summon paramedics. They arrive within minutes, but the news is grim. All are dead. Dyer gets the news while sitting at his desk in his second-floor office at police headquarters downtown.

At the home, some officers are red-eyed. Outside, there is anger on the faces of others.

One officer strikes up a conversation with Wesson, who talks about owning 2 acres in Santa Cruz. He says he's "doing OK, officer, all things considered."

Blood stains his pants. As the portly Wesson is taken into custody, he tells one officer: "Careful, don't hurt me. Use three handcuffs."

Next door, Alec lights another Montclair cigarette. She has been puffing away all afternoon to cope with the mounting tension. At 5 o'clock, Alec is supposed to take insulin for her diabetes. But she forgets.

"I was like in a daze," she says. "They had said there were seven bodies in there, and I was smoking, smoking, smoking."

Then police say there are eight bodies, and finally nine.

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