March 12, 2004: Officers are called to a scene on West Hammond Avenue in Fresno, California, where a heated argument over custody is breaking out. Once there, officers speak to Ruby Ortiz and Sofina Solorio, along with some family members who are with them. They are worried to the point of panic, claiming their children are being held captive inside the run-down office building. They are adamant that the man inside — their uncle, Marcus Wesson — is going to hurt their children.
So the police knock on the door to speak to Wesson and try to resolve the issue. A titanic man with greying dreadlocks down to his waist answers. Unlike the clearly upset women outside, Wesson is calm and cooperative. He agrees to turn over the children, but wants to tell them goodbye first. He asks the officers to wait and returns inside, closing the door.
Neighbors will later say they heard gunshots. The police deny hearing any. Without a warrant or any indication that there is a safety issue (despite Ortiz and Solorio’s claims), the police don’t have the authority to enter the Wesson house.
So they wait.
After nearly an hour and a half, Wesson walks out the front door. His clothes are covered in blood.
As he surrenders to the arresting officers, other officers rush inside the house. Inside, despite the sunny afternoon, the building is dark and silent. Against one wall, several coffins are stacked up. Then they enter a back room. Inside, covered in blood, is a pile of bodies — some of which are children. Each had been shot through the eye.
Because they were in such a tangle, it would take many hours before the police could even determine how many victims there were, and it would be several days before they were all identified:
- Sebhrenah April Wesson, age 25;
- Elizabeth Breahi Kina Wesson, age 17;
- Illabelle Carrie Wesson, age 8;
- Aviv Dominique Wesson, age 7;
- Johnathon St Charles Wesson, age 7;
- Sedonia Solorio Wesson, age 2;
- Marshey St Christopher Wesson, age 2;
- Ethen St Laurent Wesson, age 4; and
- Jeva St Vladensvspry Wesson, age 1.
In trying to determine next of kin, the coroner had DNA testing done on all the victims. When the results came back, the true extent of Marcus Wesson’s depravity was finally revealed.
“Shepherd” in wolf’s clothing
Marcus Wesson, it seemed, always wanted to be a spiritual leader. He was born in 1946, the oldest of four children, into what could only be called a dysfunctional family. His father, Benjamin, was an abusive alcoholic who never held down a steady job and, once, left the family for several years to live with another man. On the other hand, his mother, Carrie, was a strict Seventh-Day Adventist who led the family in daily Bible studies and would whip the children with an electrical cord.
Despite all this, as a child, Marcus was remembered by relatives as kind and a good singer. His favorite game was “playing preacher.”
Marcus dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the military, where he was a medic or ambulance driver (sources differ). He left the military with an honorable discharge and settled in San Jose, California. There he met Rosemary Maytorena, a woman 13 years his senior, who had eight children from previous relationships. Marcus seemed eager to take on the big family, since he believed they needed a “shepherd” to guide them.
The two soon had a son together. At one point, one of Maytorena’s older daughters (also named Rosemary), struggling with drug addiction, dropped off her seven children, bringing the number of children in the household to 16.
But it was Maytorena’s 8-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, that Marcus was most fixated on. He claimed that God had told him that Elizabeth was his wife, and he held a home “marriage ceremony” to the child. He then took her out of school to begin personally “teaching” her. When Elizabeth was 12, he began sexually assaulting her.
Shockingly, Maytorena’s reaction to this was not to protect her daughter. Instead, she merely insisted that they wait until Elizabeth was of legal age — 15 — to get married. But at 14, Elizabeth became pregnant with Marcus’ baby, and the two were wed as soon as she was of legal age to marry. Marcus would go on to father 10 more children with her before she reached the age of 26.
The Wesson family cult
Many people, reading this, wonder why Maytorena didn’t protect her children from Marcus. Her obedience most likely was the result of profound fear, brainwashing, or both. After all, Marcus’ idea of “shepherding” the family was to rule over them with an iron fist. He even made his family refer to him as “master” and “lord.”
He was a brutal abuser, beating the women and children with electrical cords, baseball bats, and his fists for the slightest transgression. One son, Serafino, recounted being beaten for 30 days straight for the crime of stealing a spoonful of peanut butter. Sofina recalled Marcus beating their 1-month-old infant, Johnathon, until his legs bled because he wouldn’t stop crying.
Because he believed the world was full of sin, he isolated the family and forbade them to have contact with outsiders. All the children were “homeschooled.” Once, when Sofina tried to leave, he stabbed her in the chest.
He also moved them around a lot. Once they lived in a rusted-out tugboat with no electricity or running water, where Marcus made the entire family stay below deck so they wouldn’t be seen. When he would go to shore, he made the women row his raft like galley slaves. Then, for the better part of 12 years, they lived in an old army tent. They even lived in a school bus for a while, moving up and down the California coast, before finally purchasing the old office building on Hammond Avenue.
Daily life inside the Wesson household followed the playbook of every authoritarian cult: each day, three times a day, Marcus got to “play preacher” in real life, subjecting the family to hours-long “Bible studies” that were based on his own hodge-podge of religious beliefs — including that he was God and that Jesus Christ was a vampire.
Unsurprisingly, he was fascinated by, and felt a kinship with, fellow cult leader David Koresh. During the 1993 siege of the compound in Waco, Marcus was glued to the TV. He told his family, “This man is just like me. He is making children for the Lord.” And, like Koresh, Marcus had a deep hatred of law enforcement. He even mandated a suicide pact: if any government official ever tried to take the children away or split up the family, the mothers were to kill their children and then themselves. He held monthly family meetings to discuss the details of the plan.
It is hard to express how completely Marcus controlled every aspect of his family’s lives. The women and girls were especially subjugated. They had to dress in long skirts and headscarves, walk behind him, and remain silent in public. They were forbidden to talk with men, under punishment of beating. Even their own brothers and cousins were segregated away from them, lest they “develop sexual feelings” for other men. Their lives were filled with unending labor: they were responsible for taking care of the children, as well as all the cleaning and cooking — even when there was no running water or electricity. They were also expected to wait on Marcus hand and foot — washing his massive dreadlocks and even scratching his armpits.
In addition, anyone old enough to work outside the home was expected to do so — and to hand over their wages to Marcus.
As for Marcus, he refused to work, and instead drew welfare benefits. In such poverty, food was scarce; the children said they often had only rice to eat and would dig in dumpsters for food. Marcus, meanwhile, dined on fast food enough that, by the time he was arrested, he weighed nearly 300 pounds and was so wide, they needed three sets of handcuffs.
But that is not even the worst of Marcus’ crimes. As soon as the girls in his family — including his nieces and daughters — reached the age of about 8, Marcus began what he called “loving.” He would begin by fondling them in their beds at night, then move up to outright sexual assault, in order to “teach [them] to be better women.” Then he would “marry” each of them in his own ceremony, where the girl would lay her hand upon the Bible, and Marcus would lay his hand over hers, while they recited marriage vows. Then Marcus would give the girl a gold wedding band and necklace.
Marcus went on to father seven more children by his nieces and daughters. In his twisted beliefs, polygamy was mandatory, and incest “produces the seed of perfection of one’s self.”
“He’s going to hurt the kids!”
For most of the members of Marcus’ family, this way of life was all they had ever known. But two of his nieces, Ruby Ortiz and Sofina Solorio, wanted out (their sister, Rosa Solorio, remained loyal to Marcus). Marcus eventually agreed that they could go, but only if they left their children, Johnathon and Aviv, behind. Desperate to escape, the two agreed.
But as they adjusted to the world outside of Marcus’ tight control, they started to understand that what he did to them — what he was still doing to the rest of the family — was abusive. So on March 12, 2004, they gathered several relatives for support and went back to the Wesson home to rescue their children, now both 7 years old.
That’s when the shouting match broke out. Marcus remained calm, but refused to let Ruby or Sofina come inside the house to get their children. The women of the household shouted at them, calling them “Judas,” “whores,” and “bitches,” and commanding them to “bow down to your master!”
As for Ruby and Sofina, they knew they had to get their children out of the house immediately — they were fully aware of the suicide pact the family had made. Yet when the police arrived, they ignored the women’s pleas that he was going to hurt the children, as well as one of Marcus’ sons telling them his father owned a gun. Their warnings weren’t considered enough evidence of a threat to the children’s safety for them to force entry to the house. And when shots rang out, the police said they did not hear them — although many neighbors, including those still inside their homes, did.
The case was considered the worst mass murder in Fresno history, and the officers who encountered the bloody pile of children’s bodies were so traumatized, they had to seek counseling.
When Marcus Wesson appeared to stand trial a year later, he was a different man entirely. The man who once ruled over his family like a tyrant was in shackles. Once he was a large, intimidating man; now, without a harem of women to cater to his every whim, he had dropped nearly half his weight. His dreadlocks, once past his waist, were cut short.
He was charged with nine counts of first-degree murder and 14 counts of molestation and rape. As members of his family testified — many of whom were still loyal to him — the jury came to learn of the horrors Marcus had inflicted on his family.
Marcus’ defense was to claim that he didn’t kill anyone — that Sebhrenah had actually pulled the trigger, murdering the children and then herself. The evidence was inconclusive — there were no prints on the gun, but her DNA was. Her body was on top of all the others, and the murder weapon, a .22 Ruger MK II, was found underneath her. However, it’s not known if she lay where she fell or was placed there — and the same could be said about the gun. The gunshot wound in her head was inconclusive as well: while consistent with a self-inflicted wound, a shot at close range couldn’t be ruled out, either.
Ruby and Sofina’s testimony showed that Marcus had complete control over the family, and that he had commanded them to commit this act if the police ever tried to interfere. Having Sebhrenah kill the children, then herself, would fit with his pattern of having a woman do the hard work while he walks away. On the other hand, family annihilators usually kill their families, then attempt to blame the crime on the mother.
In the end, it didn’t matter to the jury who actually pulled the trigger. Marcus Wesson was found guilty on all counts, and on June 27, 2005, he was sentenced to 102 years for the rape and molestation charges. For the murder of his children and grandchildren, he received the death penalty. He was sent to San Quentin prison, the nation’s largest death row. There he would be in the company of such infamous murderers as Rodney Alcala, Charles Ng, Richard Davis, and Scott Peterson.
In March of this year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a moratorium on the death penalty, sparing Marcus Wesson’s life. Thankfully, however, he will never be eligible for parole.
Elizabeth and the surviving children, now grown, have come to see how brainwashed they had been, and how delusional, psychotic, and narcissistic Marcus was. In 2010 they broke their media silence and spoke to reporters at ABC news. They have all tried to heal and move on with their lives as best as they can. They no longer have any contact with Marcus.