FRESNO, Calif. - The son hadn't seen the father in nearly a year. On Saturday afternoon, he stood in the sunlight outside the house where the father allegedly killed nine family members and tried to recall the man who raised him.
"He was a good father. He wasn't abusive at all," said Dorian Wesson, 29, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. "He was born in Kansas, lived in San Jose and moved to Fresno to buy and sell houses. He belongs to the 7th Day Adventist and writes books, too."
He tried to fit that image to the man arrested Friday in the murder of seven of his children and two of his grandchildren. Their bodies were stacked in a back bedroom while 10 ornate caskets purchased by his father, Marcus Wesson, from a local antique store filled the living room.
"I don't want to believe it. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt," Dorian Wesson said. "But they're all dead." Police are calling the crime the worst mass murder in Fresno history. The night before, as the smallest bodies were carried out of the house, the police chief and the mayor fought back tears.
"This is not Fresno," Mayor Alan Autry insisted. "This is an aberration."
On Saturday, as the national media descended on the working class neighborhood, Fresno residents were still trying to absorb the shock and many were driving past the house to leave flowers and stuffed animals, and ask questions that still couldn't be answered.
"Was this a ritual killing," one resident asked? "A cult?"
As the Fresno County coroner performed autopsies on the nine victims - seven children ages 8 and younger, one teenager and one young adult - neighbors and business associates pieced together a portrait of Marcus Wesson, the 57-year-old murder suspect.
He was an odd man whose behavior had grown even more bizarre over the past year, they said. Besides a dozen or so biological children, he surrounded himself with four women who acted as wives and practiced an absolute fealty to him. They were like a "small commune," one said, the older women dressed in flowing black gowns and head scarves. They almost always stood behind him, eyes cast down and mute, as he led them from one housing renovation project to another across Fresno.
"He was real stern with them, and he expected them to do exactly what he said - and right now," said Frank Muna, a criminal defense attorney who sold a historic brick house in central Fresno to Wesson in 1999. "Over the past year or two, I noticed his thoughts became more rambling and incoherent. He was off the wall."
Wesson and the women often worked late into the night to renovate the house gutted by fire, Muna said, but the city eventually declared it uninhabitable and forced them to move. At the time, Wesson and the women were living in a small backyard tool shed with several children. His salt and paper hair had grown into a lion's mane, Muna recalled, tangled and filthy. He had put on considerable weight.
"He just seemed to break down physically and mentally," Muna said.
Police were called to the house about 2:30 p.m. PST Friday. They were responding to a child-custody dispute. As they arrived, two women told them they had given custody of their children to Wesson, and now they wanted them back. Wesson allegedly refused.
Wesson ran into the house and locked the door, police said. The SWAT team was called and a two-hour standoff followed. Neighbors said they heard repeated gunshots and questioned why the SWAT team didn't move in. Police said they were still investigating when, were and how the victims were killed. Because the bodies were intertwined, police said, some of the victims may have been killed earlier and placed together.
When Wesson finally walked outside and surrendered, his clothes were spotted with blood, police said.
Authorities still have not publicly identified the victims or the cause of death. At a news conference late Saturday in which they released few details, police described the victims as six females, ages 24, 17, 8, 7, 1 and 1; and three males, ages 7, 4 and 1. Police believe that the two dead grandchildren were also fathered by Wesson in an incestuous relationship with one of his deceased daughters. They say DNA testing will be used to confirm their belief.