FRESNO – Mass murder suspect Marcus Wesson, the intimidating patriarch of a large and allegedly incestuous clan, lived an erratic, nomadic lifestyle on the fringes of society for more than 15 years.
While some family members defended Wesson as a loving father, others who encountered him over the years described him Sunday as controlling and stern. One neighbor said she heard Wesson lay down a chilling ultimatum on the afternoon that nine members of his extended family were found dead in his home.
“I’d rather kill them before I give them back to you,” Linda Morales said she heard Wesson shout Friday, shortly before two women called police to say he was refusing to let them take their children from the house.
Wesson and his family had moved several times in recent years, from a small boat anchored at the Santa Cruz harbor, to a squatter’s haven in the mountains outside Watsonville, before settling at the site of what Fresno police are calling the worst massacre in their city’s history.
The scene inside that house, where bodies lay intertwined in a pile, was so ghastly that some of the first arriving officers have been placed on leave and given counseling, authorities said. Wesson, 57, is being held on suspicion of murder in the Fresno County Jail, with bail set at $9 million.
After announcing Saturday that Wesson had fathered two of the youngest victims by impregnating his own daughters, police had no more to say Sunday about what led to the killings.
But some acquaintances said Wesson’s mental condition and physical appearance had begun to deteriorate in recent years.
“We would be talking about the roof,” said Frank Muna, who sold a home to members of Wesson’s family, “and he would go off on a tangent about a social issue, like the system was bent against him.”
Muna also recalled complaints from neighbors that Wesson lived a polygamist lifestyle with four adult women, who dressed in black from head to toe and were always quiet in front of the older man.
“It was very clear that they were subservient to him,” said Muna, who also came to believe that Wesson had a physically intimate relationship with the women. Wesson told Muna that two of the women were his nieces.
“They would walk behind him and look down,” Muna added. “Whatever he said, they would do. It was clear he was the one in control.”
Family members have denied allegations that Wesson committed incest. Police have said they are looking into the possibility of his having sexual relations with other family members in addition to his two daughters. Eliza Whitney, a longtime acquaintance and neighbor of Wesson’s mother-in-law, said he had also impregnated two of his nieces and had a prior relationship with his wife’s mother.
Wesson met his wife, Elizabeth, when his family lived near hers in East San Jose during the 1960s, according to Elizabeth’s sister, Rosemary Solorio. In a brief interview, she described her sister’s husband as religious, loving and a good provider for his family. Relatives say Wesson is a Seventh-day Adventist. In a press release issued Sunday, the Adventist church said it had no record of Wesson being a member.
Others who knew him over the years said Wesson appeared to be struggling to support his extended family.
In the early 1990s, Wesson apparently lived at the Santa Cruz harbor with a handful of young children in a battered, 26-foot sailboat that had no toilet or bathing facilities. Veteran harbor worker Tim Morely said he never saw the children’s mother, but he distinctly remembers the kids scavenging cans and bottles for recycling.
Though Wesson was known as something of a “character,” Morely said, he was “pretty mellow and easygoing. He’s not somebody I ever thought would do anything violent in any way.”
Wesson was often behind in paying his slip rental fee, however. And the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that he was briefly jailed on a conviction for welfare fraud in 1990.
In the mid-1990s, sometime after Wesson and his family left the harbor, residents in a remote area of the Santa Cruz Mountains recall that Wesson, his wife and 14 children began living in a deeply secluded patch of woods.
Neighbors believe the family was squatting illegally on the property, living in a vehicle or a trailer of some kind, according to Jennifer Wuthers, whose house is about a mile down an unpaved road from the site.
It’s not unusual for drifters and even fugitives to camp out in the area, Wuthers said, and no one felt the need to notify authorities. But she said the family was memorable because Elizabeth Wesson seemed extremely quiet and was apparently schooling the children at home.
A few years later, Wesson surfaced in Fresno, where he first approached Muna as an “adviser” to four women who ultimately purchased a historic but dilapidated house that Muna owned.
Though he initially found Wesson to be intelligent and well-spoken, Muna said, he became frustrated because the group fell behind on a promise to restore the house and neighbors complained that they were living on the property in a tool shed that lacked plumbing.
It was about a year ago that Wesson and several members of his family moved to another house in Fresno, on Hammond Street. Neighbors say there were several children. The boys were allowed to play outdoors, but the girls were kept inside.
Two weeks ago, one of the women who lived with Wesson came to neighbor Linda Morales’ home and pleaded to use her phone. Morales said Wesson came over a short time later and yelled at the woman, telling her to come home with him. The woman stayed until dawn before returning home.
Then on Friday, neighbors say, a number of adults drove up to the house where Wesson lived. There was shouting, followed shortly after by gunshots.
A coroner’s official told Fresno television station KFSM that all the victims appeared to have been shot, and that authorities are still investigating the possibility that one victim may have also fired shots.
Mercury News Staff Writers Rodney Foo and Edwin Garcia contributed to this report.