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Fresno slayings suspect’s hold over victims

Associated Press, USA
Mar. 17, 2004
edition.cnn.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday March 17, 2004

Witness: Girls loaded caskets onto family’s school bus

FRESNO, California (AP) — 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.

Coroners were still working Tuesday to identify the dead, all of whom were believed to be his children, while Wesson was formally charged with nine counts of murder. He remained jailed on $9 million bail pending an arraignment Wednesday.

But up until Friday, 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.

Wesson, 57, left them all for dead Friday, shooting everyone in his house — a 25-year-old woman and eight children, authorities said. Then he surrendered to police.

‘He thinks what he did was right’

Police have not disclosed a motive but 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 surviving sons denied their father was a cult leader, saying that he was a good father and that the family had been raised as Seventh-day Adventists.

A man who was interviewed by police about Wesson raised the possibility of another motive.

Frank Muna, a lawyer who once sold Wesson a house, said police told him Wesson killed his children because he did not want them taken away, as the mothers of two of them had threatened to do. “He really thinks what he did was right,” Muna said.

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.

According to Muna, the women wore dark robes and scarves, walked behind Wesson and did not speak when he was present.

Martial arts ‘program’

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 she wanted to stop bearing children but it was against their religion and 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 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.

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. 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 became more bizarre and his appearance 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.”

Hand-carved caskets

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 store 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 away the caskets as evidence.

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