FRESNO, Calif. – A man who sired a vast clan through incest and polygamy went on trial Thursday on charges of murdering nine of his children in what prosecutors portrayed as the crimes of a man bent on controlling his family and the defense blamed on a daughter possessed.
Both sides said there was little normal about the family Marcus Wesson led on a nomadic journey through California, living at sea, in the mountains and, finally, in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley where the strange tale turned violent nearly a year ago.
Police responding to a domestic call March 12 found two of Wesson’s nieces hysterical outside his home as they tried unsuccessfully to retrieve children he had fathered and they had left in his care.
One of the women, 28-year-old Sofina Solorio, saw her 9-year-old son briefly before she was shoved aside and Wesson retreated into the home, Deputy District Attorney Lisa Gamoian said during opening statements in Fresno County Superior Court.
“That’s the last time she saw her son alive,” Gamoian said.
For about an hour, Wesson kept police at bay, telling officers he wanted everyone to talk things out. At one point, an officer at the door became distracted when family members outside, who feared for the safety of the children, got in a fight.
Wesson took the chance to retreat for a final time. One of his daughters barricaded the entrance to a back bedroom, officer Frank Nelson testified.
When Wesson finally surrendered, police found the bodies of eight children, ranging in age from 1 to 17, stacked in a pile, along with the body of his 25-year-old daughter, Sebhrenah.
All were shot once through the eye with a .22-caliber handgun, Gamoian said.
Wesson faces the death penalty if convicted of murder. He has pleaded innocent to the charges and to allegations he sexually molested several young female relatives.
Defense lawyer Ralph Torres argued that Wesson didn’t kill anyone and that he was trying to quell a dispute that turned violent when Sebhrenah shot the eight children and then took her own life.
Torres said Wesson hoped for police intervention. His voice was a caught on a recorder saying, “This is a kidnapping, the police should be here already,” Torres said.
Wesson, 58, has thinned considerably from the 300 pounds he weighed at his arrest but still wears his hair in long dreadlocks. Dressed in a black, short-sleeved shirt and wearing glasses, he stared straight ahead as lawyers discussed his life.
Wesson was described as a devoutly religious man who exerted fierce control over his kin, Torres said.
“He was a flawed man and that expressed itself in deviant behavior,” Torres said. “He practiced polygamy and at some point it amounted to sex and incest.”
While family members said Wesson discussed the possibility of suicide if the police ever came, the defense argued there was never a formal pact. Torres quoted from interviews with several children who grew up in the Wesson household saying they had discussed “dying for the Lord,” but were never taught to fire a gun.
Witnesses, however, said Sebhrenah was fascinated by guns and she seemed possessed on the day of the killings, talking in a man’s voice, Torres said.
Gamoian told the jury of seven women and five men that investigators found no identifiable prints on the gun used in the shooting and no gunshot residue on Wesson or the victims. Tests found Sebhrenah’s DNA on the weapon found beneath her body.
Outlining Wesson’s secretive life, she described how his family grew from a relationship started with a woman 30 years ago. At the age of 27, Wesson impregnated and married the woman’s 14-year-old daughter, Gamoian said.
Over the years, Wesson fathered several children, first with his wife, then with his own daughters and nieces, prosecutors allege.
Wesson’s wife, Elizabeth, and an adult daughter were in court Thursday before the opening statements, but the judge asked them to return next week when they are expected to testify.
Gamoian said Wesson controlled his family with strict discipline and sexual abuse.
He segregated boys from the girls, demanded Bible study three times a day and punished his kids by beating them with baseball bats. The women and girls under Wesson’s care had to wear skirts or dresses and had to cover their hair, she said.
Wesson’s calm demeanor in front of police was merely a ruse so that everything appeared under control, she said.
Wesson’s lawyer argued unsuccessfully for a change of venue, saying he could not get a fair trial in his hometown after news accounts compared him to notorious killers such as Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer and cult leader David Koresh.