Alleged mass killer Marcus Wesson once told an old friend that he'd been "fortunate'' and "blessed'' to have more than one wife at the same time.
Others have described him as a deeply religious and domineering patriarch. The children in his large extended family were kept under tight rein; the subservient women wore dark clothing and scarves.
As the 57-year-old Wesson made his first court appearance Wednesday on charges that he murdered nine of his children, it was still unclear how he exerted so much control over their lives.
But one expert said Wesson's nomadic, polygamous lifestyle had many hallmarks of a "charismatic psychopath'' -- similar to cult leader David Koresh or the alleged kidnapper of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart -- who manipulates followers through a mixture of isolation, sexual indoctrination and his own paranoid preaching.
"You could take any religious faith and if you pervert it or distort it enough, you can preach your own message that allows you to take control of other people,'' said J. Reid Meloy, a San Diego forensic psychologist who has written books about criminal behavior. He said that message often includes perceived threats from outsiders or the prospect of looming Armageddon, which can lead to suicide or murder.
Wesson was arrested Friday after two women called police to complain that he would not let them take their children from his Fresno home. Inside the house, police found the bodies of nine people, ranging from 25 down to 1 year old.
Police have said the victims were fathered by Wesson and six women, including two of his daughters.
Construction worker Alex Garcia said Wednesday that he knew Marcus and Elizabeth Wesson when they lived with several children on Harriet Avenue in San Jose in the 1970s. Garcia, now 39, said he always perceived Wesson as a loving father and a deeply religious man who wanted his family to live a simple life.
"He tried to keep them away from society because society can be evil,'' Garcia said, adding that Wesson talked about a Judgment Day that was coming, although he did not predict a date.
When they ran into each other last year, Garcia said he was surprised that Wesson introduced a younger woman as his wife. He was still married to Elizabeth, Wesson told Garcia, but added: "The Lord has blessed me. I'm fortunate to have more than one wife.''
Others who encountered Wesson over the years said he lived as the patriarch of a large family, moving from a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains to a boat in Santa Cruz Harbor, then living for a while as squatters in another remote mountain spot.
Meloy said it is typical for charismatic psychopaths to exert control over their family or followers by isolating them from the rest of society. Sometimes, he added, they indoctrinate females by having sexual relations with them when they are young.
Two of Wesson's adult children have insisted that their father was not a cult leader. They described him as a Seventh-day Adventist.
Wesson attended Seventh-day Adventist services or retreats occasionally over the years, according to officials at the Central California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. But they said Wesson was never formally a member of any congregation, although some of his children were.
None of the bizarre elements in Wesson's lifestyle are consistent with the church's teachings, said Fritz Guy, a theology professor at La Sierra University. He said Wesson's behavior would be considered "weird'' and offensive by any Adventist congregation.
Fresno police, meanwhile, announced they are investigating whether the victims were killed while officers waited outside his house, thinking they did not have legal authority to enter.
Authorities also said they are examining two boats anchored off a remote stretch of Marin County coast, near the town of Marshall, that Wesson apparently used as part-time residences in recent years.