Suspect was well known in Santa Cruz

Man with striking personality spent a lot of time aboard his sailboat in the harbor

Even before he was accused of murdering nine people in Fresno, Marcus Wesson was a well-known character in Santa Cruz County, from way up in the hills to down at the waterfront.

Wesson and his large family spent nearly a decade in the area, squatting in the Santa Cruz Mountains and keeping a sailboat at the city’s marina. On Monday, neighbors and authorities recalled Wesson as a colorful figure, eccentric and disconnected, but with no propensity for violence on the scale of which he’s accused in Fresno.

Wesson was arrested Friday in Fresno and booked on suspicion of murder, after police were called to a residence on the city’s west side, where several women were arguing with Wesson about custody of some children in what authorities said was an incestuous living arrangement.

Inside the house, police found the bodies of nine people, ranging in age from 1 to 24. Police said they believed Wesson was the father of all nine, that he was the grandfather of at least two, and that four women had come forward and said their children had been living in the house.

Monday night, Wesson, 57, was in a Fresno County jail cell, held on $9 million bail. It was a long way from his days in Santa Cruz County, where he lived for nearly 20 years and made a vivid impression.

At the Santa Cruz Harbor, authorities remember the 23-foot sailboat Wesson kept but apparently never took to sea. He had a lot of children with him even then, officials said, and would bring them down to the waterfront to pick up cans and bottles on the beach and bathe in the public rest rooms.

He made such an impression that officials, noticing the disparity between his ownership of a sailboat and position on the public dole, had him prosecuted for welfare fraud.

“He was kind of a gypsy,” said Ted Warburton, the former deputy harbor master in Santa Cruz and now harbor master in Brisbane. “He wouldn’t show up for months at a time, then he would show up. The kids would be on the beach picking up cans, and he had them very well behaved. No slacking. He was a very soft-spoken man.

“At one point, I asked him, ‘Why don’t you ever take this boat out?’ It’s meant to get under way, get sailing,” Warburton said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I need to take it out. I just like to have it. I just like coming down here. For the tranquility.’ “

Warburton found this attitude “very unusual. It’s like having an airplane and saying, “I like to sit in it.’ “

Harbor officials said Wesson would take the children into the public rest rooms, stop up the sinks and bathe the youngsters.

“We told Marcus, ‘You can’t be doing that,’ ” said Santa Cruz harbor district official Tim Morley. “And he’d say, ‘It’s OK. We’ll be done soon.’

“Probably the best thing that characterizes Marcus is that you’d be talking with him but you never knew if you were getting through. It always seemed as if he was one step ahead of you or two steps behind.”

Wesson fell behind in his dock rental fee and, after a while, part-time harbor official Park Cusio, who also worked as an investigator for the county welfare department, became suspicious about how Wesson could afford to have a boat and, at the same time, draw welfare.

In 1989, Wesson was charged with felony welfare fraud and perjury, pleaded guilty and spent six months in county jail, District Attorney Bob Lee said.

When they weren’t living at the harbor, Wesson and his family were in a remote area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, on Ormsby Trail northeast of Watsonville. According to Ron and Diana Wohnoutka, who live in the area, Wesson installed a prefabricated house in the early 1980s on property he owned, but eventually lost his house and land when he couldn’t make the mortgage payments.

The family returned to the mountains in the 1990s and squatted on other people’s property, living in a tent, a trailer or a school bus, the Wohnoutkas said.

“They had so many kids they used to have the little guys sleep on doors propped between two sawhorses,” Ron Wohnoutka said.

The couple said Wesson was a Seventh-day Adventist and would go to church meetings every night.

“He shunned money because he said there was a better way — give your heart to God and he’ll provide,” Ron Wohnoutka said.

He described Wesson as a severe disciplinarian who would “leave the kids and (Wesson’s wife) Elizabeth sitting in the car in the hot sun without any water while he went inside to chitchat with neighbors and have something to eat.”

At some point after leaving jail, Wesson visited Warburton, the then- Santa Cruz harbor district official.

“He said he had screwed up and had made some mistakes,” Warburton recalled Monday, “and now he had to get his life together. He asked if I’d seen any of his children or one of the mothers.

“I didn’t see him for years, and then two months ago he came into my office in Brisbane. I was on my day off, but he just wanted to stop by. It was very benign.”

By then, Wesson and his family had already moved to Fresno. Now, he is to be arraigned Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court on nine counts of murder.

Police were called to Wesson’s house Friday, but at first he refused to talk to them. When he finally emerged, police went inside and found nine bodies tangled in a heap. Among them were six females, ages 24, 17, 8, 7 and two 1-year-olds; and three boys: 7, 4, and 1. Authorities were still working Monday to establish their identities.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said he had 12 investigators working on the case and eight technicians developing DNA comparisons in an effort to determine the parentage of the children. Over the weekend, Dyer said Wesson apparently was the father of all the victims and may have sired two of them with his daughters.

Dyer said Monday that Wesson was cooperating with police and was calm and articulate. The chief declined to say what Wesson was telling police.

When reporters shouted at Wesson on Saturday, as he was being transferred from police headquarters to jail, he said simply, “I love you.”

Alan Gathright reported from Santa Cruz, Demian Bulwa from Fresno and Michael Taylor from San Francisco.

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