Officers relive the tragedy, cope with the trauma

Fresno Bee/March 3, 2005
By Matt Leedy

Alone in the dark room, Eloy Escareno couldn't make out the shapes on the floor. His eyes were still adjusting when a fellow police officer flicked on a light and, for the first time, Escareno saw the pile of dead children ringed in a pool of blood.

Escareno felt the bodies for signs of life and started to cry.

What he saw inside Marcus Wesson's home nearly a year ago has made Escareno think about quitting his job.

In the months after the nine slayings, Escareno began to realize how deeply scarred he was by his father's murder in 2000. The personal tragedy, along with years spent investigating death, was taking its toll. He had seen too much.

Fresno's worst mass murder also changed several other officers called to the Wesson house on March 12. Memories, horrible and bizarre, remain. Officer Frank Nelson isn't as patient, and it has been hard for him to shake a conversation he had with Wesson, the 58-year-old suspected killer, before what seemed like a simple child custody dispute ended with the discovery of nine bodies.

Howard Tello, like other officers, blocked out thoughts of the murder scene. But they surface when he thinks of his own children.

Kurt Smith squelches memories, too, but "when I start thinking about the case, it conjures up horrible thoughts."

Officer Jimmy Ray Passmore, who like Escareno felt for pulses but found none, was troubled by media scrutiny and initial self-doubt.

Escareno, Nelson, Tello, Smith and Passmore were among the many officers at Wesson's home last year, and their testimony will be key in the district attorney's case to convict Wesson in the slayings of nine of his children.

Lawyers will make their opening statements today before the first witnesses in the anticipated two-month death penalty trial are called to the stand.

No routine dispute

It had been a slow day for the patrol officers cruising through central Fresno when a call went out for a child custody dispute.

On the afternoon of March 12 the scene at the flat-roofed converted office building on Hammond Avenue was like thousands of others that are part of a street cop's daily routine: Parents were asking police to settle an argument about who had the right to look after their children.

Nelson arrived at the Wesson home at 2:20 p.m. and met two young women - 28-year-old Sofina Solorio and 26-year-old Ruby Sanchez - who were there to retrieve their children. The women had brought friends and relatives to help.

Nelson was among the officers who testified at Wesson's pretrial hearing in April and described how the day's events unfolded.

Nelson talked with Wesson at the front doorway of his home for 30 to 40 minutes. Wesson, 57 at the time, was calm. He had a burly 5-foot 9-inch, 300-pound body and a gentle demeanor.

He said he would turn the children over, but first he wanted to talk with the mothers.

The young women, however, said they were through talking. Solorio just wanted to leave with her 7-year-old son, Johnathon. Sanchez demanded that Wesson bring out her 7-year-old daughter, Aviv.

During a commotion, which included Sanchez's being punched in the stomach, Wesson ducked into the house. He retreated to a southeast bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Sanchez and Solorio began screaming that Wesson was going to hurt the children. "And just everything kind of got out of hand at that point," Nelson testified at the preliminary hearing.

Nelson called for backup. It was 3:29 p.m.

No pulses; only bodies

Escareno was walking out of University Medical Center when he got the call.

Earlier in the day, he broke up a drug deal in a back alley and cut his arm while chasing a suspect over a fence. Escareno caught the man and found drug paraphernalia in his pocket.

His injured arm was wrapped and had been treated with antibiotics at the hospital when Escareno turned on his patrol car's lights and sirens and sped to the Hammond house.

People were yelling and screaming when he arrived. Ten other officers were positioned around the house.

He went near the front door of the home, near officers Passmore and Smith, who had arrived moments earlier.

The officers waited 80 minutes before Wesson re-emerged in the front doorway.

Passmore yelled: "Let us see your hands! Let us see your hands!"

Wesson raised his hands before pointing at Passmore and asking, "Why couldn't we talk earlier?"

"I wasn't here earlier," Passmore said before searching Wesson for weapons and finding only an empty knife sheath.

Wesson's wrists were shackled behind him with several handcuffs because of his girth, and a handful of officers began their search of the home.

Passmore immediately noticed coffins scattered throughout the house.

"This whole thing was weird," he said later. "We began searching the house and yelling for the kids to come out, that it's OK. We searched the first room and began our way down the hallway."

Escareno went into the southeast bedroom. He panned his flashlight across the room but could not tell what was inside. When the room light came on, Escareno got a glimpse of the bodies, dropped his shotgun and yelled for someone to call for an ambulance.

The former Army medic and hospital nurse began checking for pulses. Escareno estimated there were six to eight bodies but no signs of life.

He began to cry.

When Passmore heard Escareno yell, "Oh, my God," he rushed to the bedroom. Tello was there, too.

When Passmore saw Escareno crying, he grabbed him and handed him off to Tello "& because I didn't want him to break down."

Passmore began checking for pulses and counting bodies. "I came up with seven."

Tragic memory triggered

"After that incident, I changed. I've never been the same," Escareno said 10 months later.

The mass murders were not Escareno's first brush with tragedy; they amplified trauma he'd already endured.

More than three years earlier, Escareno's father was beaten to death. Alejandro Escareno, 69, was murdered as he walked down a sidewalk near his southwest Fresno home.

Two boys, who were 10 and 12 at the time, and two young men were convicted in the slaying. They are members of a family police identified as a criminal street gang.

His father's murder struck an emotional blow that Eloy Escareno did not feel completely until after March 12. The death of his father was brought into sharper focus by the slaying of nine people he'd never met: Jeva, who was 1 year old; Sedona, 1 1/2; Marshey, 1 1/2; Ethan, 4; Johnathon, 7 (who was Sofina Solorio's son); Aviv, 7 (Ruby Sanchez's daughter); Illabelle, 8; Elizabeth, 17; and 25-year-old Sebhrenah.

"I think I feel it now," Escareno said of his father's death. "I think after March 12, it just, I guess it brought it to light, to my attention."

It all might be too much: the years he spent as a night detective investigating homicides and suspicious deaths, the trauma he felt inside Wesson's back bedroom and his own personal tragedy.

"I think it's safe to say I've seen more death than anyone should see in a lifetime," said Escareno, 33, who has been on the force for nine years. "It is why, for lack of a better word, I want to have a normal job.

"Although I love my job, there's a part of me that decided I want to go back to school and work on another career. I think life has better things to see than what we see every day."

Escareno said he has thought about becoming an accountant, but he's still with the force.

The recent death of a loved one and witnessing a traumatic event can make police officers more vulnerable to emotional turmoil, California State University, Fresno, professor John Dussich wrote in a paper, "Vulnerability, Trauma and Coping in the Line of Duty."

He calls it compassion fatigue.

"A lot of police officers do have this cumulative effect. You work in these areas, and over time, it changes you," said Dussich, who teaches criminology and victimology and spent 29 years as a military police officer.

"One event could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, and sometimes you realize that to survive, you need to find a new line of work."

'How did I lose count?'

Passmore was drained when he returned to his home, which is surrounded by open fields west of Sanger. The next morning, he picked up his newspaper and read that there were nine victims, not seven as he had counted.

That's when Passmore, 55, said self-doubt began to fill his thoughts.

"You start wondering, 'How did I lose count? Where were the other two bodies?'"

It was not until much later that Passmore was told the two victims whom he missed were likely the first killed and were at the bottom of the pile of bodies.

Passmore's anxiety also was fueled by the crush of media attention and scrutiny that followed the murders.

There were reports that neighbors heard gunshots coming from the home while police waited outside. Passmore and other officers said they never heard shots.

Radio broadcasters and newspaper and television reporters all seemed to be second-guessing the officers' actions, Passmore said, and it upset him.

"They weren't there, but you have all these people coming in and giving opinions about what was going on in there. And you have no way of countering their opinion," Passmore said. "I listen to talk shows and I listen to my TV. And you just sit around and you listen to other people's opinions, and you take it personal."

He took two weeks off work. "And you just sit around and just beat up on yourself."

It wasn't until he returned to work that he said he started to feel better. "I was off the roller coaster ride."

Reliving the moment

On June 8, Passmore injured his back during a training exercise and has not returned to work.

His anxiety about the March 12 call has dissipated, but the memory of Wesson's stepping into the front doorway and singling out Passmore has not faded.

"It's the most splitting image I have of that whole call, when he came to the doorway and said, 'I want to talk to you.'"

Nelson, 46, has not forgotten his conversation with Wesson either.

"I can, as clear as day, see myself standing there talking to Mr. Wesson," Nelson said of the 30- to 40-minute exchange just before Wesson disappeared into the house and the standoff began.

He believes he has lost some patience since March 12, and others, including his wife of 24 years, have noticed. "I've found myself being a little shorter with people," he said.

Smith, 49, keeps the Wesson case tucked in the back of his mind. He calls it a survival technique. He's tried to put off thinking about March 12 until it's his turn to testify.

"When I have to start thinking about this case, it conjures up horrible thoughts," he said. "It's a very difficult thing, to experience that kind of trauma and that kind of a horrific event."

After Tello walked out of the Wesson home, he feared there might be something wrong with him. He saw Escareno break down and noticed Passmore had tears in his eyes, "but I didn't have that same stress. Those sadness-type feelings."

The 48-year-old felt the sting during the drive home that night "because I started thinking about my own family."

Tello has five children, ranging in age from 12 to 21. For weeks, just thinking about the murders nauseated him.

But since then, "I've been able to take it and put it back here," Tello said, pointing to the back of his head.

Burying traumatic events and painful memories is a common coping technique, according to Dussich.

"It's the body's mechanism for protecting itself," he said."There's a dichotomy. You have to understand the reality of what you're dealing with, but you can't open up to it so much that it destroys you."

Finding solace, support

After the slayings, the officers were surrounded by people willing to listen and eager to ensure they'd be OK. Inside the department, there were police chaplains, counselors and colleagues - all offering help.

The officers also leaned on their families and friends, and some found solace at church.

The first Sunday after the murders, longtime friends Nelson and Smith joined fellow parishioners at Northwest Church. During the morning service, the officers were told to stand, and the congregation prayed for them.

The officers also called each other at home. They talked about who might need help and how they could comfort them.

Soon they will be asked to tell their stories again. Each is listed as a potential witness in the trial, and they're all looking forward to putting the case behind them.

But it won't be that simple in the Wesson trial, according to Dussich.

Talking about traumatic events can be helpful, but not when a person is pushed too hard to relive painful experiences. And that's exactly what can happen on the witness stand.

"In a witness situation, they will be grilled. And every time they retell the story, there is a revictimization," he said. "They are victims of the event as well."

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