Murder-suicide pact enforced by defendant is suggested. But defense blames a daughter.
FRESNO — In the days after the worst mass murder in this city’s history, police portrayed suspect Marcus Wesson as a cold-blooded killer who, one by one, shot his nine children to death rather than risk losing them to authorities.
But as his murder trial opened Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court, prosecutor Lisa Gamoian left open the distinct possibility that the 58-year-old Wesson never fired a single shot in the March 12, 2004, deaths. Even so, he was every bit a killer, she said, a father who used incest, fear and perversions of Christian teachings to persuade his children — two of whom were also his grandchildren — to carry out a murder-suicide pact.
The prosecutor cited evidence indicating that it was Wesson’s 26-year-old daughter, Sebhrenah, who probably shot the children, ages 1 to 17, in the head before turning the .22-caliber handgun on herself. She was found on top of a pile of bodies in the back bedroom of their rented house with the gun beneath her right arm.
Wesson listened intently as Gamoian described him in her opening as a murderer who wielded mind control like a weapon.
” ‘It’s better to die than have the government or some agency break up the family,’ ” Gamoian quoted Wesson as telling his older children. ” ‘Are you ready to die? If [Child Protective Services] ever comes in, we are to kill the kids and kill ourselves so we can be with the Lord.’ “
Defense attorney Ralph Torres agreed that Wesson, who is charged with nine counts of murder and seven counts of rape, had distorted the Bible to justify his perversions, which included polygamy and sexual intercourse with his own children when they turned 13.
But for all his distrust of the government and talk about “going to the Lord,” Torres told jurors, Wesson never devised a murder-suicide plan that they were told to carry out.
Torres quoted from interviews with Wesson’s seven surviving adult children. All said their father talked in the abstract about killing themselves if a government agency threatened to break up the family. But there was never a plan to commit mass murder or suicide, they said. He never taught them how to use a gun or poison themselves. It was just talk, part of his ramblings over the years, they said.
Torres said an audio recording of the events leading up to the shootings — taped by a family member — will show that Wesson welcomed the intervention of police that day. He calmly tried to reason with two of his former common-law wives who had come that afternoon to take their children away from him, the attorney said.
It was Sebhrenah, not Wesson, who became violent and refused to give up the children, Torres told jurors. “The evidence will show you that Sebhrenah shot them and then shot herself,” the lawyer said. Marcus Wesson “didn’t know about it.”
The defendant’s nomadic, unconventional life — 16 children by four women — made for a family tree that was difficult to follow in both opening statements.
Wesson grew up in Kansas and San Jose in a sheltered world shaped by two hard-working parents and Seventh-day Adventism. The family worshiped on Saturdays, didn’t attend dances, dressed modestly and kept to a vegetarian diet. The Wessons did allow one indulgence — black gospel music.
Wesson was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War and returned to San Jose in his mid-20s. He moved in with the Solario family, who lived next door to his parents. Gamoian told jurors that Wesson began to insinuate himself into the life of Rose Solario, who was raising seven children on her own. They had a child together, and then Wesson began to fall in love with Solario’s 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, the prosecutor added.
“He got Elizabeth pregnant, and Rose gave her daughter permission to marry him,” Gamoian said.
So began a hand-to-mouth existence that took Wesson and his young wife from Santa Cruz to Fresno and back again, living in trailers and on house boats. They had five boys and four girls, and Wesson insisted on teaching each one at home. His curriculum included hours of lectures on the Old Testament and the sins and perils of the outside world.
If the children wavered, Gamoian said, Wesson beat them with a stick wrapped in duct tape or with a baseball bat. His sons were expected to leave the house at 18, and they did. The girls, however, were encouraged to “stay for life.”
His daughters and nieces were barely 8 years old, Gamoian said, when Wesson began his lessons “in loving.” At first, he fondled them over their clothes. As they grew older, the sessions progressed to oral copulation and sexual intercourse, she said.
“He even watched as the girls would engage in sexual acts with each other,” Gamoian said.
Torres didn’t try to poke holes in the prosecution’s portrait of Wesson as a man who had turned his family into a cult, demanding that the women dress in long gowns and scarves and turn over to him the money they earned working at jobs.
But Wesson also treated his children to Friday night ice cream and movie socials and allowed them to take in some of the outside world, Torres said.
He said forensic evidence proved that Wesson did not fire the gun: No gunpowder residue was found on his hand. Sebhrenah’s hands were also free of residue, but her DNA was on the weapon, he said. The official autopsy showed that more than an hour elapsed between the deaths of seven of the children and Sebhrenah’s suicide, Torres said.