Family massacre trial may revolve on question of brainwashing

Marcus Wesson faces the death penalty in the murders of nine of his children.

Court TV/May 9, 2005
By Harriet Ryan

Marcus Wesson raised 17 children and seven nieces and nephews to believe that he was God's messenger on earth. In thrice-daily Scripture studies, he taught that Armageddon was close at hand and the family should prepare for the end times.

As the extended family roamed from a houseboat north of San Francisco to an encampment in the Santa Cruz mountains to an office building in Fresno, the unemployed patriarch ordered his girls to wear long skirts and head shawls. He put them on a vegetarian diet to purify their bodies. He homeschooled them and warned against contact with the outside world. He forbade them from having boyfriends and pocketed their meager wages for himself.

In private conversations, he told the girls that the Bible sanctioned incest, and he eventually fathered children with two daughters and three nieces.

The upbringing was undoubtedly bizarre and abusive, but did it rise to the level of brainwashing? The question is becoming the central issue in Wesson's trial, now under way in Fresno County Superior Court. He is accused of slaughtering nine of his children last year during a police standoff over a custody dispute.

The 58-year-old claims he is innocent and says his 25-year-old daughter carried out the massacre before taking her own life. Without reliable eyewitnesses, the prosecution has left open the possibility that Sebhrenah Wesson, a gun-obsessed young woman who referred to her father as "master" and bore him a son, committed the murders.

Sebhrenah Wesson could have been the shooter, but prosecutors believe she was under her father's control.

But the district attorney is pursuing nine counts of first-degree murder and a possible death sentence against Wesson, arguing that even if the defendant did not pull the trigger, he controlled the mind of the one who did.

That rationale is based in the legal theory of aiding and abetting. It holds that a person is just as guilty of murder if he "by act or advice" intentionally "aids, promotes, encourages or instigates the commission of the crime."

Prosecutors maintain that Wesson created a family cult in which his wife and children followed his demands slavishly. His children, the prosecutor has suggested, did not know right or wrong; they only knew his will.

In what appears to be a legal strategy to emphasize his dominion over the women in his family, prosecutors are pressing more than a dozen sexual abuse counts in addition to the capital murder charges. The inclusion of those counts allows the jury to hear testimony about the decades-long molestation of seven different girls.

"They are using the sexual counts to show a pattern of lifetime control over these kids such that he could get his own daughter to be willing to kill her own child as well as her nieces and nephews and sister," said Fresno criminal defense lawyer David Mugridge. He represented Wesson for a short time after his arrest and now attends the trial regularly as an observer.

Wesson's defense has said Sebhrenah acted on her own initiative. Aided by the accounts of relatives who remain loyal to him, his lawyers have painted her as a weapons enthusiast with a strong will and perhaps a more intense devotion to end-of-the-world beliefs than her father.

"I can't wait to go to heaven. I can't wait to die," her sister, Gypsy, quoted her during testimony last month, according to news reports.

Complicating the job of jurors is a part of the aiding and abetting statute, which says neither mere presence at a murder scene nor failure to stop a murder amount to a crime. Eyewitnesses who have testified they saw Wesson in the back bedroom where his children were found in a bloody pile on March 12, 2004, are not enough for a conviction under the law. The prosecution must show that Wesson either pulled the trigger himself or did something that prompted his daughter to act.

Tales of a suicide pact

Since the trial began March 3, prosecutor Lisa Gamoian has been laying the groundwork for a brainwashing claim. She plans to call experts in mind control near the close of the case. In particular, the prosecutor has focused on an alleged suicide pact Wesson made with the daughters and nieces who bore him children.

Two nieces, who broke with the family after giving birth to his children, testified that Wesson believed it was better for his offspring to die and go to heaven than to be separated from him. If child protective services or another agency tried to take the minor children, the daughters and nieces were to kill them and then commit suicide. He was to remain unharmed to explain their decision to the public.

One niece, Sofina Solorio, recounted monthly meetings in which Wesson reviewed the specifics of the suicide plot, including which gun angle was most effective.

"We decided the fastest way was to put the gun in our mouth and point it up. We were supposed to take our child's life and then ours," she testified, according to NBC affiliate KSEE.

The murders occurred after Solorio and her sister, Ruby Ortiz, appeared at the family home in Fresno to take custody of Solorio's 7-year-old son, Jonathan, and Ortiz's 7-year-old daughter, Aviv. The police arrived after Wesson and his remaining daughters, led by Sebhrenah, protested the children's removal.

"She was telling me to bow down to my master and pointing at [the defendant's] feet," Ortiz testified, according to news reports.

After an 80-minute standoff, Wesson emerged, his shirt soaked in blood, and police discovered the victims, ranging in age from 1 to 25. Aviv and Jonathan were among them. Sebhrenah's body was on top of the pile with a .22-caliber pistol under her arm.

The dead had suffered bullet wounds to their right eyes, except for Sebhrenah's son with Wesson, who was shot in the left eye.

On the witness stand, several family members recounted an incident years before when they had come within minutes of carrying out the suicide pact. Wesson was away from home and the women noticed a white vehicle driving by several times.

Convicted it was a government vehicle, they prepared to kill themselves, even writing suicide notes, Solorio testified.

"We said, 'Let's get ready. Let's do it, kill our children and kill ourselves,'" she told jurors, according to the Fresno Bee.

But when they contacted Wesson, he told them not to carry out the plan.

A 'surrogate mother'

For their part, Wesson's lawyers have emphasized other times when the family dealt peaceably with the police. Family members testified that Wesson summoned officers to the family home when his car was burglarized and did not seem worried about their presence.

In statements to police immediately after the murders, Wesson's wife and children seemed convinced he was to blame, telling officers that Sebhrenah was no killer and describing their father's commitment to keeping the family together at all costs.

But on the witness stand, many of those family members changed their accounts to help Wesson's case.

One niece, Rosa Solorio, one of five young daughters and nieces Wesson "married" in home ceremonies, denied the suicide pact existed and called the incident with the white vehicle "a joke."

A daughter, Kiani Wesson, admitted she wrote in her diary, "We have lived for Christ, now we must die for Christ," but denied such statements were anything more than esoteric discussions.

"We would have talks about, you know, are we happy, do we want to get married. Just regular family talks," she testified.

If, in substance, the testimony of the loyal family members about the shootings and the suicide pact has not proved helpful for the prosecution, the continuing devotion to Wesson they have displayed on the stand might.

Prosecutor Gamoian has requested that they be deemed hostile witnesses, and her questioning of them seems designed to prove not only that Wesson brainwashed them, but that he continues to do so from jail, and even with the sexual abuse made public.

When the prosecutor pressed Rosa Solorio, who still wears a gold band Wesson gave her, about her sexual relations with her uncle, she explained matter-of-factly, "He did it so we would be better women."

His daughter, Kiani, insisted there was nothing wrong with the "loving" — the family term for molestation — her father initiated with her when she was 8. She also refused to concede that bearing her father two children was wrong even though at the time she told her mother she conceived the children through artificial insemination.

"Why didn't you tell your mother that you were having sex with her husband, your father, to produce two babies?" Gamoian asked testily.

The 26-year-old insisted it wasn't out of guilt.

"I was a surrogate mother," she explained.

Questioning the victims

The contentious questioning of the witnesses, many of whom are sexual abuse victims, is often jarring. Gamoian has tried to shake witnesses by asking if they cared at all that their children were dead or ever considered that sex with Wesson violated the evangelical Christian beliefs they allegedly held dear.

"You broke the Sixth Commandment," Gamoian shouted at Kiani Wesson. The young woman shrugged and said she felt it was only important to "love Jesus and believe he died for you."

Former prosecutor Marshall Hodgkins, now a criminal defense attorney in Fresno, said that, although the aggressive questioning might make Gamoian appear unsympathetic, she has little choice.

"The jury understands what's going on here. They see how these people are, and in the end how they are is what's going to win the case for her," he said, comparing the Wesson loyalists to battered spouses who don't want to testify against their abusers.

When the defense opens its case in about a month, Wesson's lawyers are expected to focus on the freedoms that did exist in the household, including the right to leave. Male children went off on their own when they became adults, and Wesson told his daughters and nieces that they could also go as long as they left their minor children with him.

The defense, however, must contend with the gory deaths of nine people, including babies and the deviant sexual behavior in the Wesson house.

"There's nasty, horrible sexual stuff, and it's possible the jury will hate this guy so much that they won't care about aiding and abetting; they'll just want to see him convicted of everything possible," attorney Mugridge said.

The trial is expected to stretch into June.

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