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.
Up until then, Wesson appeared to wield absolute authority over his household and his large clan.
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.
Authorities said Wesson, 57, left them all for dead Friday, shooting everyone in his house — a 25-year-old woman and eight children — before surrendering to police.
Coroners were still working Tuesday to identify the dead, all of whom were believed to have been his children. Wesson, who was charged with nine counts of murder, was being held on $9 million bail. His arraignment was scheduled for Wednesday.
Police have not discussed a motive, but they 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, and Wesson often talked about God.
Wesson’s sons denied that their father was a cult leader, saying that he was a good father and that the family had been raised as Seventh-day Adventists.
Tooling around in old school bus
Neighbors and acquaintances had their suspicions about the man with the burgeoning family and the wild, gray-streaked dreadlocks and beard.
Over the years, he 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.
Frank Muna, a lawyer who once sold Wesson a house, said the women wore dark robes and scarves, walked behind Wesson and did not speak when he was present.
Diana Wohnoutka, who lived downhill from Wesson and his children in the early 1980s, said Wesson often spoke about God and his belief that he did not need to work for a living.
“He was definitely strange,” Wohnoutka said. “He believed he didn’t have to work. God would take care of him. That’s how he always preached to us.”
At one point, the children were made to sleep on doors that were set on top of sawhorses, she said. Wohnoutka also said Wesson often stopped to chat with her in-laws, leaving his young wife and at least a half-dozen children waiting obediently in the hot sun in their small car.
Wesson’s wife at the time, Elizabeth, who began having kids in her mid-teens, told Wohnoutka that she wanted to stop bearing children but that it was against their religion and that her husband forbade it. It is unclear where the woman lives now.
As for Wesson’s sons, he enrolled them in martial arts and demanded that they earn black belts before leaving his watch. The boys said “they had to go through his program,” according to martial arts instructor Florian Tan.
Children with multiple women
Wesson is believed 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, he had four women with him and appeared to be intimate with all of them, Muna said. Neighbors said they all slept in a tool shed behind the house.
Eventually, they fell behind on their payments, and Muna got the house back after suing them. While Wesson was always polite, even when the dispute went to litigation, his behavior grew more bizarre and his appearance became more disheveled, Muna said.
“A lot of what he was saying wasn’t relevant to what we were discussing,” Muna said. “He grew that one big, long, nasty dreadlock.”
By the time the family landed at the house where the killings took place, Wesson became known for nightly barbecues that sent a smell through the working-class neighborhood that made people gag.
He also raised eyebrows when he bought a dozen mahogany caskets from an antiques store in Fresno, saying he planned to use the wood to repair a boat, said the store’s owner, Lois Dugovic.
Wesson left the hand-carved 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 the caskets away as evidence.