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Fresno in Disbelief Over Mass Murder

A man is suspected of killing seven children and two grandchildren he may have fathered. An acquaintance says he had grown incoherent.

March 14, 2004|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — The son hadn't seen his father in nearly a year. On Saturday afternoon, he stood in the sunlight outside the house where his father allegedly killed nine family members and tried to recall the man who raised him.

"He was a good father. He wasn't abusive at all," said Dorian Wesson, 29, who lives in Santa Cruz. "He was born in Kansas, lived in San Jose and moved to Fresno to buy and sell houses. He belongs to the Seventh-day Adventist [Church] and writes books too."

He tried to fit that image to the man arrested Friday in the deaths of seven of his children and two of his grandchildren. Their bodies were stacked in a back bedroom while 10 ornate caskets purchased by his father from a local antique store filled the living room.

"I don't want to believe it. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt," he said of his father, Marcus Wesson, 57. "But they're all dead."

Police are calling the crime the worst mass murder in Fresno history. The night before, as the smallest bodies were carried out of the house across from Roeding Park, the police chief and mayor fought back tears.

"This is not Fresno," said Mayor Alan Autry. "This is an aberration."

On Saturday, as the national media descended on the working-class neighborhood, Fresno residents were still trying to absorb the shock, and many were driving past the house to leave flowers and stuffed animals and ask questions that still couldn't be answered.

"Was this a ritual killing," one resident asked? "A cult?"

As the Fresno County coroner performed autopsies on the nine victims -- seven children ages 8 and younger, a teenager and a young adult -- neighbors and business associates pieced together a portrait of Marcus Wesson.

He was an odd man whose behavior had grown even more bizarre over the last year, they said. In addition to a dozen or so biological children, he surrounded himself with four women who acted as wives and practiced absolute fealty to him.

They were like a "small commune," one said, the older women dressed in flowing black outfits and head scarves. They almost always stood behind him, eyes cast down and mute, as he led them from one housing renovation project to another across Fresno.

"He was real stern with them, and he expected them to do exactly what he said -- and right now," said Frank Muna, a criminal defense attorney who sold a historic brick house in central Fresno to Wesson in 1999.

"Over the past year or two, I noticed his thoughts became more rambling and incoherent. He was off the wall."

Wesson and the women often worked late into the night to renovate the house, which had been gutted by fire, but the city eventually declared it uninhabitable and forced them to move, Muna said.

At the time, Wesson and the women were living in a small backyard tool shed with several children. His salt-and-pepper hair had grown into a lion's mane, tangled and filthy, Muna recalled.

Wesson had put on considerable weight. "He just seemed to break down physically and mentally," Muna said.

Police were called to the house on West Hammond Avenue across from railroad tracks about 2:30 p.m. Friday. They were responding to a child custody dispute. As they arrived, two women told them that they had given custody of their children to Wesson, and now wanted them back. Wesson refused, they said.

Wesson ran into the house and locked the door, police said. The SWAT team was called and a two-hour standoff followed. Neighbors said they heard repeated gunshots and questioned why the SWAT team didn't move in.

When Wesson finally walked outside and surrendered, his clothes were spotted with blood, police said.

Police said they were still investigating when, where and how the victims were killed. Because the bodies were intertwined, police said, some of the victims may have been killed earlier and placed together.

Authorities still have not publicly identified the victims or the causes of death. At a news conference late Saturday in which they released few details, police described the victims as six females, ages 24, 17, 8, 7, and two who were 1; and three males, ages 7, 4 and 1. Police believe that the two dead grandchildren also were fathered by Wesson in an incestuous relationship with one of his deceased daughters. They said DNA testing would be used to confirm the relationships.

Tony Collazo, who lives next door, said Wesson was easy with a wave and hello, but it never got any deeper than that. Most evenings, Wesson would stand over the barbecue cooking meats that often smelled foul. "It was pretty bad," Collazo said.

The neighbors didn't recall many glimpses of the younger children. Mostly, they said, Wesson and the women worked late into the night fixing an old Gillig school bus. It was his pride and joy, they said. He had painted it yellow and embroidered it in fresh chrome. Behind the back seats, he had built a spa.

On Saturday, strips of chrome and tools -- a heavy-duty band saw, a pop-rivet gun and a three-eighths-inch drill -- lay scattered in the driveway.

Inside the bus were the colorful overnight bags of children.

Inside the house -- a small law office he had converted into living quarters -- sat the 10 coffins. They were hand-carved in Malaysia, Muna said, and Wesson bought them two or three years ago for more than $10,000. What he intended to do with them, Muna wasn't sure.

"They turned out to be the wrong size to use to bury someone in the United States," he said. "It's strange The guy is strange. He's just a very odd, odd man."

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