The Many Portraits of Marcus Wesson
Apr. 18, 2004
Cyndee Fontana, Barbara Anderson and Donald E. Coleman
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday April 19, 2004
Those who know the accused killer draw starkly conflicting views of him.
The man in the doorway seemed immune to the uproar surrounding him.
Inside Marcus Wesson‘s west-central Fresno home, one set of relatives argued and pushed each other. Outside, a larger group traded angry words. One threw a punch.
But Wesson, a nonconformist with graying, ropelike dreadlocks, was calm. Speaking softly, the 57-year-old told police the two sides simply needed more time to talk before his nieces, Sofina Solorio and Ruby Sanchez, could retrieve their two small children.
By sunset March 12, those children — and seven others — would lie dead in a back bedroom. And Marcus Wesson, a man alternately portrayed as a loving father and lecherous opportunist who killed his children, would stand accused of the worst mass murder in Fresno history.
So far, Wesson has said nothing publicly about the events of March 12. A letter written to The Bee from jail doesn’t mention the nine deaths, but Wesson says he fears for the safety of his family: “Please pray for them.”
In court, Wesson has pleaded not guilty to murder and sexual abuse charges that include forcible rape. His lawyers suggest the oldest of the dead, his daughter Sebhrenah, is most likely to blame for the deaths.
Today, the Marcus Delon Wesson most people remember didn’t seem destined for the front page. This was a boy fascinated by trains, a teenager who favored short hair and suits and a young soldier who spent nearly two years as an Army ambulance driver in Europe during the Vietnam conflict.
Court documents and testimony, public records and interviews portray the adult Wesson as a wanderer who used the system when he needed it and avoided it when he didn’t. They depict a master tinkerer comfortable on land, water or wheels, a man who, at age 27, married a 15-year-old, and a sporadically working father who spent years on welfare, yet seemed to have money to buy boats, a bus and other vehicles.
Even that picture contains inconsistencies. Wesson told some people he was a former corporate executive, others that he was an unemployed bank teller or junk dealer. He and his family once lived in an oversized Army tent deep in the Santa Cruz hills, yet he installed carpet for comfort. His children say they always had money, but others remember them foraging for aluminum cans near the beach. Today, some relatives say Wesson is a caring and devout father who speaks three languages, designated Fridays as a family night for movies and ice cream, shrewdly invested his daughters’ earnings and acted as the family lawyer.
“We had a good life,” says Kiani Wesson, 26, one of his daughters and the mother of two children killed March 12. “It was full of adventure, travel, going to the beach and having barbecues.
“We are proud of our father and the things we would do.”
Yet in Fresno County court, the 300-pound Wesson looms as a monster who twisted the Bible to suit his sexual appetite, fathered children with his daughters and nieces and sometimes fed his family pinto beans and fruit taken from trash cans while he dined on hamburgers, cookies and other junk food. Authorities, relatives and public records suggest he has fathered up to 18 children with seven women, including members of his family.
No one can reconcile such contradictory portraits of Marcus Wesson. Many won’t talk at all.
“The Marcus everyone is trying to portray today, I don’t know that person,” says Larry Morgan, an Alabama pastor and cousin who lived with Wesson and Wesson’s parents in the 1960s.
“I know a friendly young man.”
It’s unclear how Marcus Delon Wesson, born in Kansas in 1946, came to live in California. Wesson’s mother, Carrie Wesson, declined an interview with The Bee, saying she was caring for a sick husband in Washington state.
“I’ve given all the news that I plan to give,” she said, referring to a Los Angeles Times interview in which she described her oldest son as the product of hardworking parents who gave him a solid foundation in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Efforts by a Bee reporter to talk to one of Wesson’s sisters, who also lives in Washington state, were rebuffed by a man who answered the telephone. Wesson’s wife, Elizabeth, has spoken only fleetingly about her husband or his early years.
By the 1960s, though, Marcus Wesson apparently was living and attending schools in the San Bernardino area. Classmates remember that Wesson had close-cropped hair and wore slacks, a white shirt, jacket and often a tie to Fremont Junior High School from 1960 to 1961. Other kids wore jeans and T-shirts.
Kenny Brownfield, who now resides in Florida, lived a few blocks from Wesson, and the two walked home together. Brownfield was in the Wesson home once or twice: “The only thing I can recall is just going over there and he had a bunch of electric trains and things like that.”
Another Wesson classmate, Charles H. Cox, recalls: “He never was a bully. He never would pick fights.”
Wesson was studious and sang in the junior high choir. Cox remembers they would watch freight trains pass through town and trade H-O model trains.
“Marcus was a great guy,” says Cox, now a 58-year-old general building contractor who lives near San Bernardino.
San Bernardino City Unified School District records show that Marcus Delon Wesson attended schools there from 1960 to 1965. Cox’s 1964 San Bernardino High School yearbook includes a picture of Wesson as a junior; district records show he did not have enough credits to graduate.
Like many young men at the time, Wesson enlisted in the Army and served from June 22, 1966, to June 3, 1968. Says Cox: “Most of us joined the military because if you didn’t, you were going to be drafted.”
Army records show that Wesson received medical corpsman training for 10 weeks in 1966 at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He was an ambulance orderly and driver with the 695th Medical Ambulance Company, stationed in Europe from Nov. 27, 1966, to Feb. 6, 1968.
Wesson returned to the United States on June 2, 1968, and spent four years in the inactive reserves.
Morgan, the Alabama cousin who first met Wesson about 1965, occasionally lived with the Wesson family in San Jose until he was drafted in 1970.
While Morgan took frequent trips to San Francisco and other places, Wesson was a homebody. Says Morgan: “He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink. He didn’t do drugs. He didn’t do nothing like that.”
But Marcus Wesson’s life was about to take the first in a series of unusual turns.
A former San Jose resident remembers meeting Wesson shortly after he left the military. She says he began staying with her neighbor, Rosemary Solorio, in a lower-middle-class area of east San Jose. One of Solorio’s daughters was Elizabeth Solorio.
Wesson moved into Rosemary Solorio’s three-bedroom house after she separated from an allegedly abusive husband, the neighbor says. She says the family grew to love Wesson, who didn’t seem to have a job.
“He was kind, friendly,” the former neighbor says. “I know he did lots of things with the kids. He spent a lot of time with them.”
Wesson was in his 20s; Rosemary Solorio was in her 30s and had several children. In 1971, according to the neighbor and other Wesson relatives, Solorio and Wesson had a son.
In 1974, Wesson married Elizabeth Solorio. She was 15, he was 27. On a marriage certificate, both listed their occupations as students; he reported completing 14 years of schooling. Four months later, the couple had their first child.
The neighbor, who had moved away by then, says Rosemary Solorio told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The neighbor remembers thinking that Wesson “was too old to be involved sexually with that child.”
By the end of the 1970s, Marcus and Elizabeth Wesson had four children: Dorian, Adrian, Kiani and Sebhrenah, all born in Santa Clara County. They would have six more in the 1980s: Almae, born in Santa Clara County; Donovan, Marcus Jr., Elizabeth and Serafino, born in Santa Cruz County; and Gypsy, born in Fresno County. Donovan died at 6 months from spinal meningitis.
The birthplaces reflect a nomadic lifestyle. In 1981, according to court documents, Wesson applied to transfer welfare benefits to Santa Cruz County and claimed a bus as his home.
Over the years, Santa Cruz County court documents show, he reported living in a tent, on a boat and even on “bare land.” Wesson also wrote in a court declaration that in 1981, he obtained a $60,000 loan, built a 1,700- square-foot home in Santa Cruz County and lived there for three years.
Mainly, however, he portrayed himself as homeless and unemployed. The family retained a link to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, however, attending 10-day spiritual retreats in Soquel during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Some remember the family living in a converted school bus and that Wesson worked as part of a large janitorial team that cleaned bathrooms. According to Santa Cruz acquaintances and officials, Wesson also had other vehicles, including a small boat and a van.
The family often spent time at the Santa Cruz beach and harbor, where Steve Sobrado first met Wesson in 1988. Sobrado, now 42, then was a student at Stanford University working as a harbor lifeguard on the weekends.
Wesson, who first began renting a permanent slip at the harbor in September 1984, walked up to Sobrado one day and the two began to talk. Wesson may have seemed intimidating, Sobrado says, but he was charming.
“He told me that he gave up his life in corporate America to raise his family and home-school them and bring them up in a Christian life,” Sobrado says from his current home in Atlanta.
Wesson told Sobrado he once was a top bank executive but quit so he could devote himself to his family. The children, then ranging from infants to teenagers, were polite, quiet and smart, Sobrado says.
Sobrado sometimes slept on Wesson’s boat, but “every morning, I would have to bail water out.”
Wesson often invited Sobrado to dinner. Once, the children were eating hamburgers from McDonald’s and Wesson offered one to Sobrado.
“But he said he had to warn me because he got the hamburgers from a Dumpster,” Sobrado says. “He told me that every 30 minutes McDonald’s throws out hamburgers that they don’t serve.”
Wesson also told Sobrado he had a trailer in the mountains and another boat anchored at Moss Landing in Monterey County. But it was a sailboat he bought in Marin County that would lead to a long-running legal battle described in Santa Cruz County court records:
In the fall of 1986, Wesson arranged to buy a 26-foot sloop in Marin County. He told Kenneth Norman Nelson, the seller, that he liked to sail and wanted to modify the boat to accommodate his wife and nine children.
Paying with traveler’s checks and money orders, Wesson finalized the $14,000 purchase in 1987 and the title was transferred to him. Soon after, the Santa Cruz County tax assessor was asking about the boat’s value and the welfare department wanted to explore its ownership.
Several times, Wesson called the county — using the name of the actor Richard Widmark — to report that the boat belonged to someone else. He told his welfare caseworker he needed the boat to qualify as a “liveaboard” so he could gain access to the harbor bathroom and shower for his family.
At the same time, he was resisting efforts to terminate his privileges at the harbor. Wesson wrote in an appeal letter: “I may not appear at the board meeting. I feel that the decision will be fair if they do not know who I am.”
Steve Scheiblauer, formerly the harbor master in Santa Cruz, called it preposterous that the entire Wesson clan could sleep on the boat. Ultimately, harbor officials passed a law limiting the number of people who could live on a boat to the number of beds provided by the manufacturer.
Wesson “just seemed like a counter-culture guy in a counter-culture community,” Scheiblauer says. “He was a guy who was really trying to work all the angles.”
Wesson’s own words seem to support that. In one court letter, addressed to “servants of the law,” Wesson wrote: “A man is within the jurisdiction of equity, ethics and legality when he takes advantage of loopholes in the law for the betterment of his family.”
In 1989, Wesson was criminally charged with perjury and welfare fraud related to the boat, viewed as excess property. County authorities said he was overpaid by more than $20,000 in benefits and food stamps.
He repeatedly insisted that he properly used the money to shelter, feed and support his family.
Wesson was appointed a public defender, Jim McMillin, and soon became disenchanted with his defense. Wesson, then with shoulder-length dreadlocks, described himself as a legal layman but filed a series of motions in his own case. At least one was dismissed by the trial judge as “gibberish.”
One recurring theme of Wesson’s was that the welfare department and harbor officials were conspiring against him. In one document, Wesson wrote that the welfare department launched the scheme because “in their opinion, suspect has simply been on welfare too long and is able-bodied and is using his educational background to stay on welfare.”
He was convicted of welfare fraud and perjury in 1990 and sentenced to five years probation, 180 days in jail and several fines. He was ordered to find a job and sell his boat to pay overdue bills at the harbor.
Elizabeth Wesson says her husband spent three months in jail in 1989 for contempt of court, but she denies that he served time for welfare fraud or perjury.
Wesson appealed his conviction, but that was rejected by an appellate court in 1992. Even after that, he was picked up on a warrant for failing to follow the terms of his probation.
In one court letter, he pronounced himself “old, unemployed, homeless, unskilled and [with] no work history.”
McMillin remembers Wesson was “eccentric, but fairly intelligent,” a man who seemed to have a full-time job simply managing his family. McMillin visited both the sailboat and the Wesson camp in the Santa Cruz hills, saying it wasn’t like they were “living ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ “
Yet Wesson apparently had the seed of a new problem inland in Fresno. Some relatives — children at the time — say they began living with the Wessons in a rundown house and duplex on the southern edge of the Tower District.
Today, Elizabeth Wesson disputes that the family lived there. She says they visited her mother at that house, sometimes staying for weeks during the holidays and summer.
But it was at that Fresno home, detectives testified in Wesson’s current court proceedings, that Wesson began sexually abusing six young girls — all family members — and preaching a message of murder and suicide.
Strict and controlling, Wesson would bend the King James version of the Bible into justification for his plan to have more babies with his nieces and daughters.
“If the time came, are you ready?” he also would ask. As they understood it, detectives say, Wesson was asking whether they were ready to kill themselves and others if the government tried to split up the family.
Kiani Wesson remembers a far less sinister childhood, one in which the family spent weekends at the beach in Monterey or Santa Cruz and took trips to Fresno or Washington state. The family often traveled to the beat of tapes Wesson mixed in all-night recording sessions that packaged rock with Depeche Mode and Spanish-language music.
He taught the children to fish, swim and sail and even made a skateboard, she says. When in Fresno, the family often spent Saturdays at Woodward Park, where the boys would ride bicycles or skateboard and the girls would play and splash in the water.
Serafino Wesson, 19, says: “My dad taught us how to build things, how to use our hands instead of buying things. We had hobby boats, a galleon, sailboats on the bus that was in storage.
“There were pictures we painted. We learned a lot about working with wood and foam.”
At home, the children produced plays, concerts, beauty and “ugly” contests. The boys, says Kiani, “dressed up in raggedy clothes and made themselves look bad. We’d always be laughing.”
Rosa Solorio, Wesson’s niece and the mother of two children killed March 12, says the girls and boys competed to see who could stay awake the longest. The loser was the team with the first player to fall asleep. Sometimes, Wesson would toss handfuls of change into the living room — setting off a scramble among the children.
Elizabeth Wesson, 44, describes her husband as “good at building things, creating things … He was a very imaginative, loving husband and father. To him, the most valuable, precious things in the world were children.”
They didn’t attend school. Kiani says they learned reading and math from flash cards; the older children helped the younger ones. Wesson, using books provided by a teacher, assigned homework and checked it every week.
In December, the family celebrated the 12 days of Christmas with distinct menus and themes: gingerbread man day, spaghetti day, lobster day, trade jobs day and even “Dad cooks” day.
“Those were the best times of our lives,” Kiani says. “It was fun.”
Yet court documents and testimony tell a story far less idyllic. The version relayed by several relatives, including some mothers of children killed March 12, includes incest, frequent spankings with a duct-taped switch and rigid separation of children along gender lines.
Wesson, according to court testimony, said he was Christ and referred to law-enforcement authorities as “Satan.” He seemed fascinated with David Koresh, a charismatic man with multiple wives who commanded nearly 80 Branch Davidians killed in 1993 when their Waco, Texas, compound exploded in fire.
Several nieces, daughters of one of Elizabeth Wesson’s sisters, told detectives they were sent to live with the Wessons as young girls. They were pulled out of public schools; one said she cannot read or write.
They claim Wesson launched a pattern of sexual abuse a few years after they joined the family, later “married” some girls in private wedding ceremonies and persuaded them to bear his children. He constantly asked permission to touch them.
By the mid-1990s, some of Wesson’s daughters and nieces were having children — his children, according to court testimony. When questioned, family members would say the pregnancies occurred through artificial insemination.
Kiani Wesson and Rosa Solorio deflect questions about incest but insist that women in the household were happy. Says Kiani: “Whatever happened in the home was by agreement and talk. It was totally by choice. We had a democratic family.”
Says Solorio: “There was never any rape, nothing forcible.”
Elizabeth and Kiani Wesson also say that Ruby Sanchez and Sofina Solorio, the young women who tried to retrieve their children March 12, agreed to be surrogate mothers for the Wessons.
Well before that day, cracks appeared in the family structure. Several young women moved out of the house, either running away or being asked to leave, according to conflicting accounts.
The mothers who ultimately moved out left their children behind; one said Wesson insisted that the children remain until at least age 7 or 8. By then, according to court testimony, he would have time to shape them in his image.
Despite that family stress, Wesson continued to manage and add to an unorthodox collection of property. Apparently in the mid- to late 1990s, Wesson bought two boats in the Marin County town of Marshall.
One was a decaying, 63-foot tugboat where the family occasionally lived. Marshall residents say Wesson intended to fix up the boat and journey around the world with his children.
Wesson maintained a large Army tent in the rugged Santa Cruz hills. In 1997, Wesson contacted Alex Wheeler, now 38, about the campsite. Wheeler’s father, A.J. Wheeler, a computer programmer for IBM, had died and Alex Wheeler inherited the property.
Wesson said he had a rent-to-own deal with Wheeler’s father for a quarter-acre. But he couldn’t produce any paperwork. Wesson and Alex Wheeler never met face to face.
Wheeler, who works in a bicycle accessories shop in Watsonville, says the Wesson spread in 1998 included a large canvas tent, a motor home, trailer, appliances and scrap metal.
Pipes and stoves, stainless-steel sinks and bins and tanks littered the grounds. There was no running water, but Wesson had built a freestanding, makeshift bathroom, including a shower and toilet, in front of a motor home.
Five years ago, Wheeler began asking Wesson to clear the property. The conversations were “really friendly … he’s well-spoken and articulate,” Wheeler says.
But Wesson never seemed to give a straight answer. Once, Wesson volunteered that he was an “indigent derelict.”
“I didn’t know what to think,” Wheeler says. “I actually was not really sure what an ‘indigent derelict’ was. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound very good.”
By the millennium, the children of Marcus and Elizabeth Wesson were teenagers or young adults. Most were working, often starting at McDonald’s before becoming waitresses at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Fresno.
And Wesson was managing the money.
“He was our financial adviser,” Kiani says. “He could take $20 and make it seem like we had $200.
“We knew about money. While other people our age had no assets, no home, nothing, we gave our money to Marcus to invest.
“That’s how we got our land, our bus. He even got us jobs. Everything we had was because of Marcus.”
In 2000, that included a home near Fresno City College. The historic two-story Tudor, built in 1935, was sold by lawyer Frank Muna to Kiani Wesson, Sebhrenah Wesson, Sofina Solorio and Ruby Sanchez.
Muna recalled that the buyers left a note at the house, badly damaged by fire in 1999, offering to buy it. He met with several young women and Wesson, who talked about the repairs he thought were needed.
Originally, according to Muna, Wesson said he wasn’t related to the women. Later, he said he was an uncle of two of the buyers.
Though Wesson wasn’t listed on the title, he contacted contractor Larry Prock apparently after seeing his advertisement in the Thrifty Nickel.
Prock says he represented the owners in a hearing at City Hall, helping convince officials that the house shouldn’t be demolished. He later cleared out the house, but wasn’t hired for a remodeling job he estimated at $80,000.
Still, Prock spent hours on the telephone with Wesson — whom he never met in person — answering questions.
Wesson was “real cordial, real polite,” Prock says, talking sometimes about his family, boat and views on home-schooling.
“One time he was talking to me on the phone he was on a boat,” Prock says. “He said, ‘I live on a boat most of the time.’ “
At the Cambridge Avenue house, there were problems documented in an inches-thick code enforcement file. The city complained about the lack of progress in refurbishing the home and that someone was living in an old shed behind the main house.
The women, such as Kiani and Sebhrenah Wesson, handled the code enforcement complaints. City officials who encountered Wesson at the house described him as a workman.
In May 2001, Muna sued the women for failing to pay him the full price for the damaged home.
He says he noticed a relationship between Wesson and the women. Wesson seemed closer to two of the women, Muna says, though he could not identify them by name. Once, he saw one woman sitting next to Wesson with her hand in his back pocket. Another time, he saw one give Wesson a goodbye kiss on the lips.
Muna also saw two coffins on the property. One contained bedding, he says, and might have been used as a crib.
Enrique Reade, who worked for a Fresno funeral home, says Wesson told him he had bought the caskets to make furniture. He apparently bought seven to 10 caskets from an antique store for between $400 and $500 apiece.
One day, Reade was holding a yard sale on the front lawn of his Tower District home when Wesson drove up in a yellow Volkswagen Beetle and offered the caskets. Reade declined.
Three young women were with Wesson, Reade remembers. One appeared to be pregnant.
He doesn’t remember why, but Reade gave Wesson some biscuit mix and canned mashed potatoes that he keeps for people in need. Reade operates a Fresno food bank.
Reade says his impression of Wesson was that “he was a person who had control.”
Wesson also continued to write. In December 2002, he submitted a manuscript about his life to the New York publishing company Vantage Press.
The company rejected “In the Night, of the Light, for the Dark,” saying it didn’t make sense.
Meanwhile, code enforcement battles involving the Cambridge Avenue house continued at City Hall. Documents show the owners sometimes rebuffed scheduled inspections by saying they were working in the Bay Area and couldn’t arrange to be at the house.
Inspectors saw a large school bus and enclosed utility trailer parked in the driveway. In July 2003, the city began issuing citations for illegal storage of the vehicles.
Most of the legal and city battles evaporated when the house was sold a few weeks later. But the Wesson family, which now included several more children, didn’t move far.
In September, Rosa Solorio purchased a home near Roeding Park. The Wessons moved in, though residents in the Marin County community of Marshall continued to see the family around the oceanfront town and on a boat anchored there.
Neighbors there say authorities kicked Wesson and his family off their boat earlier this year after several noise complaints.
The family tangled, too, with city authorities at their new Fresno home at 761 W. Hammond Ave.
Authorities say the family violated city code by living in the building zoned for commercial rather than residential use. Code enforcement officials also said the converted school bus shouldn’t be parked in a residential area.
Inspectors issued a citation and ordered the family to leave or obtain a special permit to stay.
The deadline was March 12, the day Sofina Solorio and Ruby Sanchez went to the house to reclaim their children. Instead, those children and seven others died — each with a single gunshot to the face.
Today, no one really connects the city’s deadline with the deaths of Sebhrenah April Wesson, 25; Elizabeth Breani Kina Wesson, 17; Illabelle Carrie Wesson, 8; Aviv Dominique Wesson, 7; Jonathan St. Charles Wesson, 7; Ethan St. Laurent Wesson, 4; Sedona Vadra Wesson, 11/2; Marshey St. Christopher Wesson, 11/2; and Jeva St. Vladensvspry Wesson, 1.
Sofina Solorio, the mother of Jonathan, and Ruby Sanchez, the mother of Aviv, have avoided the media. Solorio has declined interview requests.
The slayings have exposed a deep division in the Wesson and Solorio families.
Angrily, relatives supporting Wesson have blamed the two young mothers for inciting events of that day. They dismiss allegations of a murder-suicide pact.
Wesson himself has said nothing to explain what happened in that back bedroom on March 12. Of the 10 people behind the closed door that late afternoon, only he emerged alive.
Though streaked with blood, Wesson was calm and cooperative, police say.
That sounds more in character with the Marcus Delon Wesson remembered by some friends and acquaintances.
“I could never imagine Marcus killing anything,” says Cox, Wesson’s boyhood friend in San Bernardino.
“He just wasn’t that kind of guy. Not that people don’t change, or snap.
“I would just like to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Staff writers Kerri Ginis, Matt Leedy and Pablo Lopez contributed to this report.
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