The purchase of 12 coffins raised few suspicions

But now, 9 killings fit troubling picture

Detroit Free Press/March 17, 2004
By Brian Melley

Fresno, Calif. -- With nine family members shot to death and stacked in a pile behind him, Marcus Wesson walked out of his house covered in blood and did something others rarely saw: He gave up control.

Until then, Wesson had appeared to wield absolute authority over his household and his clan, acquaintances say.

The women would walk dutifully behind him in dark robes. They did not speak in his presence. They apparently worked to support him. The children were home-schooled because he did not trust public education. And the little girls -- immaculate and wearing dresses -- obediently carried the very coffins that may have been intended for them.

Wesson, 57, left them all for dead Friday, shooting everyone in his house -- a 25-year-old woman and eight children, authorities said. Then he surrendered to police.

Coroners were still working Tuesday to identify the dead, all of whom were thought to be his children. Wesson was being held in lieu of $9 million bail for arraignment today on nine counts of murder.

Police have not disclosed a motive but said that Wesson may have engaged in incest and polygamy and that the slayings could have been part of a cult ritual. All nine victims were shot in the same way, the coroner said.

Wesson's sons denied their father was a cult leader, saying that he was a good father and that the family had been raised as Seventh-day Adventists.

A man who was interviewed by police raised the possibility of another motive. Frank Muna, a lawyer who once sold Wesson a house, said police told him Wesson killed his children because he did not want them taken away, as the mothers of two of them had threatened to do.

"He really thinks what he did was right," Muna said.

Over the years, Wesson led his nomadic clan of women and offspring from a squatter's camp in the mountains to a dilapidated sailboat, and finally to inland California, where he hauled them around in an old school bus.

He was convicted in 1990 of welfare fraud -- he had failed to list the boat as an asset -- and neighbors often wondered how he fed his family because he never seemed to have a job.

Diana Wohnoutka, who lived downhill from Wesson and his children in the early 1980s, said Wesson was "definitely strange" and often spoke about God and his belief that he did not need to work for a living.

"That's how he always preached to us," she said.

Wesson is thought to have fathered children with six women, including two of his own daughters, police said. When Muna first encountered Wesson and sold him a house, Wesson had four women with him and appeared to be intimate with all of them, Muna said.

Shortly after the family settled at the house where the killings took place, Wesson raised eyebrows when he bought a dozen mahogany caskets from an antiques store in Fresno. Wesson said he planned to use the wood to repair a boat, said store owner Lois Dugovic.

Wesson left the caskets at the shop for nearly a year until the owners asked him to remove them. When he came to collect the boxes, his girls dutifully carried each casket onto his yellow school bus.

"Those girls loaded every one of them in there," Dugovic said. "It was the weirdest thing."

On Monday, three days after authorities removed the bodies from the house, police carried away the caskets as evidence.

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