All nine victims were shot dead

Specifics on how children and adults were related to suspect, each other still not known

Oakland Tribune/March 16, 2004
By Juliana Barbassa

Fresno -- All nine family members killed in the city's worst mass homicide were shot to death, authorities confirmed Monday.

Investigators were still working to determine the relationships among the victims in the pile of bodies police found when they responded to a child custody call in a city home Friday. The coroner's office was expected to release the names of the victims by Friday: a young woman and eight children ranging in age from 1 to 17.

Marcus Wesson, thought to be the father of the victims, has cooperated with police since he walked out of the home covered in blood. He has been booked into the county jail on suspicion of nine counts of murder. Bail was set at $9 million. His arraignment was scheduled for Wednesday.

Coroner Loralee Cervantes told the Fresno Bee Sunday that police also conducted tests to determine if gunshot residue was on the hands of one victim, indicating one victim may have participated in the shootings. Police Lt. Herman Silva said Monday that checking for residue was "standard practice."

Police say the case apparently involves a bizarre mix of polygamy and incest. Wesson, 57, is thought to have fathered children with at least four women, including two of his own daughters, according to authorities.

Wesson walked calmly out of his home Friday night after police arrived. Even veteran police officers were in tears as they sorted through the pile of bodies and clothing they found in a back room.

Police needed hours to sort through the bodies, but eventually determined there were nine victims, a 24-year-old woman and eight children -- three girls, ages 17, 8 and 7, two boys, ages 7 and 4, and three 1-year-old toddlers, two girls and a boy.

Authorities say they were probably all Wesson's children, including two grandchildren by his own daughters. The victims, who had six mothers, showed no signs of physical or sexual abuse, Cervantes said Monday.

"It's just very complicated," Deputy Fresno County Coroner Amy Hance said. "Who do you make notification to if eventually some of the victims are other victims' relatives?"

Six coroners, triple the typical weekend staff, worked in shifts Sunday to identify the victims and said they were having trouble locating next-of-kin.

"One woman called our office this morning claiming to be a mother, but she refused to say who she was and hung up," Cervantes said.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer said investigators will likely need DNA testing to determine the biological parents of all the victims.

"We're in the very early stages of a very complex investigation," he said.

But Dyer and others described unusual aspects to Wesson's life and family. Authorities were investigating the possibility of the suspect's involvement with other women in a polygamous relationship.

Wesson and his family led a nomadic life -- moving several times in recent years, from a small boat anchored at the Santa Cruz harbor to the mountains outside Watsonville before settling in Fresno.

In the early 1990s, Wesson lived with a handful of children in a battered sailboat that had no toilet or bathing facilities.

During that time, he was jailed briefly after being convicted of welfare fraud, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported. Wesson failed to list his boat as an asset on welfare forms. He also was frequently delinquent with his slip fees, the newspaper said.

Frank Muna, a lawyer who once sold the murder suspect a house, said Wesson had once lived with five women and appeared to have romantic relationships with each. The women seemed to be under Wesson's control, wearing dark robes and scarves, walking behind him and not speaking when he was present, Muna said.

He said Monday that police interviewing him said Wesson killed his children because he didn't want them taken away from him.

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

Silva, the police spokesman, refused to confirm Muna's account, saying only, "We're looking at every possible motive and not dismissing anything."

The children were home-schooled because Wesson didn't trust public education, his sons said, and Wesson, who did not work, was supported by the women.

His sons, Dorian, 29, who lives in Santa Cruz, and Serafino, 19, who lived at the Fresno house, were unclear about the details of their father's lifestyle, the Fresno Bee reported. They couldn't say whether he was married or how many children he's fathered. They said the family belonged to the Seventh-day Adventist church, but denied any cult participation. A church spokeswoman said Monday there's no record of Wesson's membership.

Serafino Wesson said he saw no signs of trouble when he left the house early Friday. But that afternoon, two women who said they had left their children in Marcus Wesson's care, were unsuccessful when they tried to pick them up. Police arrived a short time later and a two-hour standoff with Wesson followed. After Wesson holed himself up in a back room, police evacuated more than one adult from the living room, Silva said. They're now confident the children were already dead when they arrived.

"There was no indication any shots were fired after (police) arrived," Dyer said Monday.

When Serafino Wesson passed by the house about 2:30 p.m. on his way to the movies, he saw police.

"I started to run in but the cops pulled me out," he told the New York Times. "What would've happened if I stayed? I wish I'd stayed."

Antique store owner Lois Dugovic, who sold Wesson several hand-carved mahogany coffins about five years ago, said he seemed to hold unusual sway over his daughters, who sometimes came with him on his monthly visits to the store.

Police found 10 wooden coffins in Wesson's house.

The grisly tale of polygamy, incest and murder stunned not only police and residents, but also Wesson's son, Dorian.

"He was a good father. He wasn't abusive at all," Dorian Wesson told the Los Angeles Times.

"I don't want to believe it," said Dorian Wesson, adding that he hadn't seen his father in about a year. "I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But they're all dead."

It is the largest mass killing in Fresno, a city of 440,000 people about 190 miles southeast of San Francisco.

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