Child brides and vampire names: Bizarre the norm in mass murder trial
By Harriet Ryan
FRESNO, California (Court TV) -- In an unexceptional, wood-paneled courtroom on the fifth-floor of the downtown Superior Court here, the story of the city's worst mass murder is unfolding in chilling detail.
The tale emerging from the trial of Marcus Wesson rivals an Anne Rice novel, with testimony of incest, child brides, vampire aliases, coffin beds and an apocalyptic obsession that led a one-time bank teller to turn his extended family into a reclusive cult.
Wesson, 58, stands accused of killing nine of his children, including seven he sired with his own daughters and nieces. He is also charged with molestation and rape. The murder victims, ranging in age from 1 to 25, were discovered in the family's home March 12, 2004, after a standoff with police over a custody issue. Each had been shot once through the eye and piled in a back bedroom ringed with antique coffins.
The prosecutor claims Wesson had preached that it was better for the family to die and "go to the Lord" together than be separated by child protective services.
The case horrified Fresno, where many citizens watched on live television as Wesson, a hulking man whose rope-like dreadlocks swing past his waist, emerged from his house wearing a blood-soaked shirt and a menacing stare.
During jury selection for Wesson's capital murder trial this spring, several prospective panelists were excused after they indicated they were terrified to be in the same small courtroom as the accused killer.
Exactly what occurred in the back bedroom as the Wesson residence was surrounded by police remains something of a mystery even now, halfway through what could be a three-month trial. Most eyewitnesses are dead, and one who could shed light on the shootings, Wesson's wife, Elizabeth, says she is too traumatized to remember anything significant.
Her husband maintains that his 25-year-old daughter, Sebhrenah, carried out the killings on her own initiative and then killed herself. Her 18-month-old son with Wesson, Marshey, died in the massacre.
There is some evidence to support Sebhrenah Wesson as the shooter. The .22-caliber handgun was found under her arm, and her DNA was on the weapon. Her sister and cousins have described her as a gun fanatic who liked to play "army."
But the prosecutor has told jurors that it does not matter who pulled the trigger. Wesson is charged under the theory of "aiding and abetting" murder, and jurors can convict him even if they find he induced his daughter or anyone else to kill.
Poverty, abuse, obedience
Since the trial opened March 3, prosecutor Lisa Gamoian has called a string of family members, including his wife, children and nieces, in an attempt to establish that Wesson controlled everything and everyone in their house.
Their disturbing testimony about the family's lifestyle has left some jurors looking disgusted, others in tears.
"According to the newspaper, my whole family, my way of life is not normal," Elizabeth Wesson acknowledged during a week-long turn on the stand earlier this month.
The witnesses, even some who still pledge allegiance to Wesson, have described him as a domestic dictator who espoused a home brew of evangelical Christianity, the occult and sexual mania.
Raised a Seventh-day Adventist, Wesson worked for a short time at a bank, according to his wife, but began telling people that God was speaking through him and that the end of time was near. He took up with a woman 13 years his senior in San Jose, fathered a child by her and then married her 15-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. He had 10 children by Elizabeth, and her sister gave him her seven children to rear.
Wesson home-schooled the children and said he couldn't work because he had to keep his divine knowledge "anonymous."
"The outside world had lost eternal life," one niece, Sofina Solorio, quoted Wesson as saying. "It was nothing but distractions," she told jurors.
For a time, the family lived in a tent in the mountains and on a houseboat on the northern California coast. They had little money. In a diary read in court this week, one daughter, Kiani, bemoaned that they had nothing to eat but rice.
"I hope we make it today. I can't go any longer," she wrote a year before the massacre.
Wesson was a strict disciplinarian, hitting even the youngest children with a stick if they misbehaved. Two jurors began crying when Solorio recalled how he beat her 1-month-old son, a child he fathered, until his legs bled because the infant wouldn't stop crying.
When she testified that he stabbed her in the chest when she talked about leaving the family, one woman on the panel let out a surprised yell. Solorio later displayed the scar on her chest for the jury.
A religion of polygamy, incest
The most stunning testimony has related to Wesson's sexual proclivities. According to the witnesses, he separated sisters from their brothers. "So we wouldn't have sexual feelings for them or other men," his niece, Ruby Ortiz, recalled. Females were forced to wear head scarves and long skirts.
The girls raised by Wesson, now young women in their 20s, testified that when they reached the age of 8, Wesson began what he called "loving" molesting them in their beds.
"He did it so we would be better women," testified one niece, Rosa Solorio, 23.
According to the witnesses, Wesson said his conduct was consistent with the Bible and that "Jesus was a womanizer." The family studied the Bible three times a day, with Wesson interpreting passages for the group. Among his favorites were those dealing with polygamy.
"God's people are becoming extinct," Sofina Solorio recalled him saying. "We need to preserve God's children. We need to have more children for the Lord."
He married himself to several of his nieces and daughters in home ceremonies. Ortiz recalled how they stood alone in her bedroom with her hand on the Bible and his hand pressing hers and recited marriage vows. He gave each of his young wives a necklace and gold band.
Wesson fathered children with three of his nieces and two of his daughters. Outsiders were told the girls had gone to a sperm bank to be artificially inseminated.
In his opening statement, defense lawyer Ralph Torres conceded that Wesson "was a flawed man" who engaged in "deviant behavior."
"But he is a deeply religious man, a zealot, who believes in the Lord, Jesus Christ," Torres said.
Vampires and immortality
The Wessons moved into the residence where the slayings occurred about six months earlier. The building, built for commercial use, was frequently cold, the witnesses testified. To keep warm, the children slept on antique coffins Wesson collected.
Some witnesses have testified that the Wessons planned to use the coffins to make furniture, but the wooden boxes were part of his obsession with the dead and undead. He was fascinated with vampires, in whom he saw similarities to Jesus Christ.
"They both live forever. They are both immortal," Rosa Solorio explained to jurors.
He gave his children vampire names, including his 1-year-old son by his daughter, Kiani. He called the boy "Jeva," a combination of Jesus and Vampire. He referred to himself as "Je Vam Marc Sus Pire."
The world Wesson created came suddenly to an end. Two renegade nieces heard that he was planning to take the family to Washington State, where his parents lived. The women, Sofina Solorio and Ruby Ortiz, had left their children fathered by Wesson in his care and returned to get them March 12, 2004, in the company of a dozen relatives.
Witnesses testified that Wesson greeted the mothers' demands calmly, while the women of his household reacted angrily.
"Judas! Judas!" and "Bow down to your master!" his daughters told Solorio and Ortiz, according to testimony.
An hour and a half after police were summoned to the residence, the children were dead and Wesson arrested.
At first Wesson was very cooperative with police as they tried to establish who had custody of the two children. But later, he slipped back inside the house and into a back bedroom. During the siege, some neighbors claimed they heard shots, but the officers said they did not.
The renegade nieces claim the deaths resulted from a preexisting suicide pact Wesson made with the "wives" in case authorities ever tried to break up the family.
The loyal followers
Relatives who remain loyal to Wesson and who have been called to the stand by prosecutors have disputed the existence of a pact. One, his daughter, Kiani, claimed that a passage from her diary, "We lived for Christ, now we must die for Christ," was only "a figure of speech."
Those who still pledge allegiance to Wesson include Rosa Solorio, who proudly displayed the gold band from Wesson that she still wears on her ring finger and said she remained willing to die for him.
His only legal wife, Elizabeth, sobbed throughout her week-long testimony, which she is giving in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Grilled by Gamoian about why she didn't do more to protect her daughters from sexual abuse, she insisted she did not know of the abuse.
"How can I protect them if they didn't tell me? They never told me anything," she said.
When the prosecutor pressed her about what she saw in the bedroom, Elizabeth Wesson said she saw her husband leaning over their 17-year-old daughter, but refused to describe anything else in the room.
"I just see her eyes. I just see her eyes," Elizabeth Wesson repeated dozens of times.
When Gamoian kept questioning her, she spat, "Why are you such a bitch?"
Throughout much of the trial, Wesson has sat quietly between his lawyers writing continuously on a legal pad. At court breaks, he taps his fingers on the defense table as if playing a keyboard or waves them in the air like a conductor. But when the prosecutor and his wife feuded, he appeared fully engaged in the legal process.
"Objection!" he shouted at one point. "The prosecutor is angry "
Judge R. L. Putnam quickly cut him off. In the trial realm, unlike in his family world, Wesson does not get to decide which behavior is permitted.
The trial is expected to continue through May.