Where Hope Begins : One Family's Journey Out of Tragedy--And the Reporter Who Helped Them Make It

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-09-15
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
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WHERE HOPE BEGINS is the inspiring true story of a reporter who adopts a family of abuse victims, risking her job and possibly her life.



Elizabeth knew something was wrong that Friday afternoon. There was tension in the air. Yvette kept shooting her furtive glances while whispering into the cordless phone at Ruby's apartment. Elizabeth didn't know who her nephew's girlfriend was talking to, but it felt like she was the topic of conversation. She wanted to go home.

"I need to leave now," she said, walking toward Yvette on her way to the front door.

"Wait," Yvette called out. "Here, talk to her," she said, shoving the phone at Elizabeth.

"Hello?" she said in her soft, childlike voice.

"Aunt Lise, it's Mary."

"Oh," Elizabeth said cautiously. "What's wrong?"

Mary, the girlfriend of a different nephew, sounded anxious and jumpy, immediately confirming Elizabeth's suspicion that something was going on. Nonetheless, she wasn't prepared for Mary's answer.

"We're all at your house," Mary said. "The girls came back to get their kids."

Mary was referring to Elizabeth's nieces Ruby and Sofia, who had lived with the Wesson family but had left their two children behind several years ago, when Ruby ran away and Marcus kicked Sofia out of the house. A dozen nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends had gathered at Ruby's just an hour ago. What were they doing at Elizabeth's?

"They are talking to Marcus right now and -- "

"What?" Elizabeth interrupted.

Sofia and Ruby had said they were going to the store to buy food for a barbecue, but it was clear now that they'd left Yvette behind to keep watch over Elizabeth while they snuck off to try to take their seven-year-olds, Jonathan and Aviv, away from Marcus.

"It's okay," Mary said, trying to reassure her. "Now you can get away from Marcus, too. You'll be safe now."

But Elizabeth knew that no one would be safe, not with the whole group of them going toe-to-toe with Marcus.

"What have you done?" Elizabeth said, dropping the cordless phone to the floor and frantically searching through her purse for her keys. "Oh my God, no!"

In her own way, Elizabeth had spent most of her life trying to protect her children from her husband. Although she'd always accepted his claim that the beatings he regularly dealt out were necessary discipline, she tried to intervene when he went too far, begging him to stop before he killed them. Marcus wouldn't hand the children over to their mothers without a fight. She was the only one who could reason with him. God only knew what he would do without her there.

Elizabeth ran out of the apartment. Her ears were ringing, and she could hear her blood pulsing as her heart pounded. In the parking lot, she finally got ahold of her keys and yanked them out of her purse, scattering tubes of lipstick and loose receipts onto the asphalt. Her hands were so shaky and slippery with sweat, she could barely get the key into her car door.

How could Ruby and Sofia do this? Please, God, let me get home in time.

Marcus hadn't allowed Elizabeth to get her license until she was thirty-one and he was in jail for welfare fraud, so she'd gotten into the driver's seat later than most. She had never speeded before; in fact, she habitually drove so slowly that motorists glared at her as they passed by.

But this was different. This was about saving the babies.

Never even glancing at the speedometer, she flew home on surface streets, blowing through several red lights. Ruby's place was only a few miles away, but the trip seemed to take forever.

She made a sharp left turn onto Hammond Avenue, where she could already see about twenty people gathered in front of her house on the corner. She gasped when she saw two patrol cars parked across the street. It was even worse than she'd thought.

The tires of her Toyota Echo squealed as she made another sharp turn into the driveway, pulling in next to the yellow school bus Marcus had retrofitted to drive their enormous family around.

When she'd left the house, two hours earlier, everything had seemed so normal. Marcus, Kiani, Sebhrenah, and Rosie had been repairing the bus and packing it up for a trip to Seattle, while seventeen-year-old Lise was inside home-schooling the seven little ones.

Their roughly one-thousand-square-foot house had formerly been occupied by a law firm, so it was zoned for commercial use in the middle of an otherwise residential, working-class neighborhood, and their driveway was actually a small parking lot in front of the building. The city had left repeated notices on the door about the Wessons' zoning violations, so Marcus had decided it was time to relocate the clan once again.

Elizabeth looked more closely at the group clustered in the front yard and realized there weren't any children.

Where are my babies?

The car was still rolling when she shoved the gearshift into park. Her hands shook as she turned off the ignition, the keys rattling against the steering column. She didn't take time to remove them before she pushed the door open and jumped out.

As she ran to the house, she could see the imposing bulk of Marcus's three-hundred-pound body blocking the doorway. Two of her children, Kiani and Serafino, were standing just behind him with Rosie, her sister Rosemary's daughter. Marcus had trained his sons, daughters, and nieces to be soldiers, warning them that this day would come.

Elizabeth ran over to Marcus to ask what was going on, but he spoke before she could get a word out.

"I need the keys, Bee," he told her calmly, using the pet name he'd given her when she was eight and he was twenty-one. His use of the endearment now struck her as odd, given the circumstances.

"Where are the keys?" he pressed. "I need the keys right now."

Elizabeth knew it was a bad sign when Marcus was calm in a stressful situation. But after having done his bidding for nearly four decades, she felt she was in no position to stand up to him. She ran back to the car to retrieve the keys and, clutching them against her chest, obediently delivered them.

Afterward, she wondered why he would need her car keys and why the house was so quiet inside, but she didn't dare ask. She didn't think anything bad had happened -- at least not yet.

Rosie, Kiani, and Serafino stood tall behind Marcus, their shoulders back, on alert and at attention, their expressions stern.

A uniformed police officer stood silently off to the side of the house, a few feet away. There were two more officers across the street.

Elizabeth knew her whole family was in danger. The police presence only made the situation more volatile. Marcus had always said one day they would go to war with the government or Child Protective Services (CPS), but this was as close as they'd ever come.

Marcus remained calm while he made his case for keeping custody of his children. He'd been fooling the police and the social workers for years with that calm exterior of his, but Elizabeth knew what he was truly capable of. She knew the situation could blow up like a powder keg with just the slightest spark of provocation.

Elizabeth burned with anger. She wanted to yell at someone. She knew she couldn't scream at Marcus, so she decided to confront Ruby and Sofia. She wanted answers, and she knew she wasn't going to get them from her husband.

SOFIA AND RUBY had known that Marcus would put up resistance, but they were determined to keep their children from suffering any more of the abuse and incest that had been going on for years. So they brought along a posse of family and friends to surround Marcus while they grabbed Jonathan and Aviv.

But things didn't go as they'd hoped.

For the first fifteen minutes, the family members argued and called one another names inside and outside the one-story house as Sofia and Ruby demanded that Marcus give up the two children he'd fathered with them.

"I'm not leaving without my baby," Ruby declared.

When Marcus accused the mothers of trying to kidnap the children, Kiani jumped to her father's defense.

"You have no rights to these children. You are surrogate mothers," she said. Marcus had told his daughters and nieces that they should bear his children for the Lord because Elizabeth could no longer do so.

Marcus told Ruby and Sofia that they could come back and visit the children if they agreed to leave the house peacefully, but they knew the family was moving out of town, so they didn't believe him. If Marcus took the family away, the two women might never see their son and daughter again.

Around 2:15 p.m., about forty-five minutes after their arrival, Sofia was in the living room talking to Marcus when he whispered something to Rosie, Kiani, and Sebhrenah. Sofia grabbed her son's hand but started to panic when Rosie took him from her and walked him into the back bedroom, where the older girls had gathered the other children.

Sofia recalled the suicide pact that Marcus had made with them when they were growing up. If the police or CPS tried to bust up their family, the children had been given a plan "to go to the Lord." The plan changed over time, but essentially the older ones were to shoot their younger brothers and sisters, then turn the gun on themselves. Sofia had almost carried out the plan herself years before, when the family was living on a boat in Tomales Bay. She had loaded twelve bullets into a gun, but Marcus had stopped her just in time.

Sofia and Ruby hadn't planned to call the police today because they knew Marcus still kept that gun in the house; they didn't want to risk anyone getting hurt. But as soon as it became clear they needed outside intervention, Sofia desperately called out for someone in their group to get the police.

Mary called 911 and reported the incident as a domestic dispute. When the police didn't show up, she called again and again, trying to convey to the dispatch operator that this was no ordinary custody dispute; this was a matter of life and death.

IN FACT, THE police didn't seem to be taking it seriously. After about five of Mary's calls, the California Highway Patrol dispatcher transferred her to the Fresno Police Department, but not before warning the police dispatcher that Mary might be overreacting. "We have transferred these out-of-control people on 761 West Hammond I don't know how many times," the CHP dispatcher said to the police counterpart. "Mm-hmm," the police dispatcher said. "And every time we transfer them, their story gets more embellished." The police dispatcher laughed. "Now they have guns," the CHP dispatcher said. "Okay." "It's a civil thing, supposedly, and now, I'm not sure if it's true or not, but I think it's embellished. But I'll let you try...Talk to her." The police dispatcher sighed and said, "Okay," before the CHP transferred Mary over. "I believe one of the guys in the house has a gun," Mary said. "Why do you believe that?" It was clear that the police dispatcher did not believe Mary knew what she was talking about, despite her increasingly urgent pleas for help. At the end of the conversation, the dispatcher said, "Nobody's hurt or anything like that, right?" "Not yet," Mary said, her voice shaky.

THE FIRST OFFICERS on the scene arrived around 2:30. Marcus stood in the doorway to block them from entering, explaining that he was the children's biological father. The officers sensed trouble and called for backup.

At first, Ruby and Sofia thought they had the upper hand. They presented the officers with birth certificates for Jonathan and Aviv, and the officers told Marcus he had to give the children back to their mothers or they would call CPS.

"A mom's a mom, and that's the way it stands," said Officer Frank Nelson.

But apparently this only fueled Marcus's need to prove he still controlled the situation. He tried to convince the officers that the women had abandoned their children, leaving them in his care. "They never had the children in their lives," he said.

The police weren't buying it.

"A handshake," Nelson retorted, dismissing the informal agreement. "That doesn't cut it."

Marcus must have known that the mothers were winning the dispute. As Ruby and Sofia continued to press their claim with the officers, he managed to slip away from his post, darting into the back bedroom around 3:30. No one saw him go, and by the time they noticed, it was too late.

ELIZABETH, WHO HAD been arguing with Sofia and Ruby, glanced over at the doorway and noticed that no one was there. No Marcus, no girls, no police.

Where did everyone go?

She walked slowly toward the front door, fully expecting an officer to stop her. Surprisingly, no one did, so she walked right into her home. At first, nothing looked out of place, but something definitely felt wrong. The house seemed eerie at the best of times, but the family was used to Marcus's unique taste in design: the rooms were crammed with heavy, ornate antiques, battlefield relics, and even coffins, on top of which some of the children slept. The home felt like a mausoleum now more than ever.

Before Elizabeth made her way to the rear of the house, she stopped in the kitchen for some water. Her mouth was unbearably dry, and she couldn't swallow. She gulped down a cupful with the faucet still running. Her hands were shaking so much, water spilled over the sides of the cup and into the sink. When she turned off the tap, she was startled by the silence.

I've never heard it so quiet in here. Oh, God, where are the babies?

Elizabeth began praying out loud. "O Lord, please help us!"

The seven little ones were often quiet, but not this quiet. As she headed for the door, she vowed that, if they were still safe, she would try to get them away from Marcus once and for all.

Someone had dragged one of the antique tables in front of the bedroom door. This wasn't a good sign. Elizabeth was still praying aloud when she pulled the table away from the door, just enough to let her squeeze by. She offered up a final prayer to God, cracked open the door, and warily peeked inside.

She couldn't see much of the dimly lit room, but what she could see stopped her cold: Marcus was kneeling on the forest green carpet, his head down as if he were praying, with one arm wrapped around their daughter Lise, his hand resting on the small of her back.

Lise stood facing Elizabeth, staring straight ahead, her eyes swollen with tears that were running down her face. The seventeen-year-old didn't call out or ask for help; it was as if she was passively accepting her fate, whatever that may be.

Marcus suddenly realized that his wife was in the doorway.

"Bee?" he said, as if she'd caught him doing something wrong. "Bee, come here."

To this day, Elizabeth doesn't know why, but she turned and ran as fast as she could. She was screaming and crying as she ran past the kitchen, out the front door, past the group of women, and past the school bus, down the long driveway, where she finally collapsed.

Witnessing Elizabeth's terror, all the family members outside thought the worst and started yelling.

But it turned out there was more to come. Marcus barricaded himself inside the bedroom, apparently backing a dresser or a coffin against the door.

"Nooooo," one of the women wailed as they realized he was in there with the kids.

"I told you, I told you!" another one said.

"Oh my God," Ruby and Sofia cried to police from behind a length of yellow crime scene tape. "You need to get him out of the room right now. He will kill them. He has a gun!"

If the officers had understood that this was no exaggeration, surely they would have known they had the necessary probable cause to break down the door. But they had already called the city attorney, who told them they didn't have enough information -- or the right -- to go inside.

"You guys don't care," Sofia said, sobbing.

THE POLICE CALLED for backup once Marcus had retreated inside. Seeing that the family dispute had escalated into a hostage situation, police officials agreed this was now a job for the SWAT team. The call went out at 3:46.

Officers spread out around the house, with at least one posted at the window of the back bedroom, trying to see what was going on inside. But Marcus had drawn the blinds, so all the officer could see was a pair of thick dark fingers pulling down one of the slats to peek out. The police yelled through the open front door for Marcus to come out but got no response.

Outside, the women felt powerless. With each passing minute, Ruby and Sofia knew the situation was growing more dire. They hoped and prayed that they were wrong about what was going on in that back bedroom.

The standoff lasted a little more than an hour while the SWAT team suited up and headed to the house. After they arrived, the officers rushed in, guns drawn.

About two minutes later, Marcus emerged from the back bedroom, his dark T-shirt wet with fresh blood, and allowed officers to escort him out without a struggle.

Although the entire family was still screaming in the front yard, Marcus remained uncannily calm as the officers handcuffed him. Saying nothing about what had just happened, he asked the police not to hurt him with the cuffs. Apparently, the chain connecting his two massive wrists was too short. The officers obliged and used two sets as they arrested him on suspicion of homicide.

MEANWHILE, ANOTHER SET of officers went inside to rescue the children from the back bedroom.

"Kids, kids, we're here to help you," one of them yelled as they made their way down the dark hallway. "You can come out now."

Officer Eloy Escareno shone his flashlight into the bedroom. With the blinds still drawn, it took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.

He looked down and saw what he thought was a pile of blankets. When a fellow officer reached in and turned on the light, Escareno got a full view of the horror he would never forget: a pile of bloody children, their bodies entangled with clothing. They spilled from the corner of the room toward the middle, sandwiched between a coffin and a dresser. Escareno dropped his shotgun and got down to check the bodies for signs of life. But it was too late. Although the bodies were still warm to the touch, none of them was breathing or had a pulse.

The former army medic broke down and cried.

OUTSIDE, ELIZABETH AND the rest of the Wesson family stood behind the yellow tape, fearing the worst but holding their breath for good news, not knowing who was alive and who was dead.

At 4:57 p.m., the paramedics arrived, and they entered the house two minutes later. When they came out, they confirmed Officer Escareno's findings. All of the children inside were dead.

Police, however, instructed them not to move the bodies. That was the coroner's job.

As word spread around the yard, the hopeful silence was overtaken by weeping and hysteria. Ruby fainted, and paramedics had to put her on a stretcher. Elizabeth was so upset she couldn't breathe and had to be hooked up to an oxygen tank.

"My babies," she kept saying. "They're gone."

ADRIAN WESSON HAD known this day was coming, ever since Marcus had abandoned him and his brother Dorian in the Santa Cruz Mountains six and a half years earlier.

The two oldest boys knew from the secret coffee dates they had periodically with Elizabeth that their father had been spiraling further out of control since they left. But they'd been taught to ignore his increasingly delusional and abusive behavior.

Over the years, whenever Adrian saw the Fresno area code, 559, on his cell phone's caller ID, he wondered if someone was going to tell him that Marcus had finally snapped. That afternoon, he got the call he'd been dreading.

"Adrian!" Serafino exclaimed between sobs. "Adrian!"

"Fino? What happened?" Adrian asked, panicked by the terror in his brother's voice.

"Get down here!" Serafino cried. "Just get down here."

At that moment, Adrian knew in his bones what had happened, but he asked anyway. "What did he do?" he yelled. "Did he kill them?"

Adrian thought he had prepared himself for this call, but he was sadly mistaken. Nothing could have prepared him for the real thing.

"Did he kill them, Fino?" he asked again. Somehow, he needed to hear his brother say it out loud before he'd accept it as truth. "He killed them, didn't he?"

But Serafino wouldn't -- or couldn't -- answer.

Instead, he told Adrian to get on the road. The 150-mile journey from his home in Santa Cruz would take him almost three hours, maybe longer given the rush-hour traffic. They would be three of the longest hours of his life.

As soon as Adrian hung up, he started gasping for air. It felt as if someone had punched him in the stomach. And just when he thought he could start walking to his car, someone punched him again. He inhaled deeply, pursed his quivering lips, and slowly exhaled until he felt like he could drive safely.

There was one call he needed to make before picking up Dorian and rushing to Fresno. He had a feeling that his father had killed at least one of his brothers or sisters, but he wanted specifics. He dialed the number for the prepaid cell phone Elizabeth usually carried.

She didn't have to say hello for him to recognize the sound of her crying.

"Mom?" Adrian asked. "Is that you?"

Elizabeth was wailing, but she managed to muster some type of affirmation.

"Did that motherfucker finally do it, Mom?" Adrian screamed.

Adrian was usually the picture of politeness -- he didn't swear, rarely raised his voice, and had spoken out against Marcus only once before. But that day, he thought nothing of committing all three offenses simultaneously.

Adrian could hear the frenzied voices of police officers in the background, telling everyone to step away from the house.

"Mom?" he yelled.

"What?" Elizabeth finally answered, trying to be heard over the chaos.

"Did that motherfucker kill everyone?" Adrian asked again.

"Don't talk like that," she said defensively. "You need to calm down and get here."

His mother sounded too distracted to say anything more, so he hung up and drove to Dorian's.

He pulled up and ran toward the front door looking pale and sweaty, his eyes spilling over with tears.

"I think he finally did it," he said. "We need to get to Fresno."

Dorian dropped his head. He followed Adrian to the car and got in without a word.

• • •

ADRIAN WEAVED IN and out among the cars creeping south along the narrow coastal freeway. The brothers usually listened to loud house and trance music during road trips, but that day, the radio was off.

Dorian dealt with the stress by sitting silently, while Adrian spewed out rhetorical questions.

"How can he think he'll get away with this?" he asked. "Who does he think he is? Why now?"

After he'd vented for a while, Adrian's thoughts turned to a chilling conversation he'd had with his sister Sebhrenah two months earlier. He'd been silent on the topic of their father for years, but he couldn't bite his tongue any longer. He had to make Sebhrenah see that she could go further in life if she broke away from Marcus's manipulative clutches.

"Sebhrenah, what Dad is doing with you guys is wrong," he told her. "He's controlling you and not letting you amount to anything. You need to get out of the house."

He would always remember her robotic response: "Adrian, I don't want to be like everyone else out there," she said. "I am doing this by choice. It is what I really want to do and you need to accept it."

She sounded as if she were repeating a speech Marcus had dictated to her; Adrian was frustrated that he couldn't get through to her. This was the first real conversation he'd ever had with Sebhrenah, who, at twenty-five, was two and a half years his junior. Marcus had forbidden him and his brothers to talk to their sisters and female cousins, fearing they would develop sexual feelings for one another. After Adrian hung up the phone with her that day, he couldn't shake the feeling that Sebhrenah was on her way to a very bleak place.

Adrian had left the traffic far behind by now. He looked down at his speedometer and realized he was going a hundred miles an hour, but he didn't slow down. He desperately wanted some idea of what he was going to find once they arrived in Fresno, so he called Serafino for an update.

It was hard to hear anything over the commotion at the house, so he hung up and dialed every number in his cell phone until he could find someone to give him some answers. He was finally able to reach Marcus Jr.'s friend Michael, who was standing in the front yard, but even he was able to give Adrian only one- or twosentence news bites before he'd hang up again.

"Your dad is barricaded inside and we don't know who's in there with him," Michael said.

The mini-briefings did little to comfort Adrian and Dorian, especially when the news seemed to be getting worse.

Finally, after dozens of these calls, Adrian heard what he'd been dreading all along.

"Your dad just came and surrendered to police, Adrian," Michael said somberly. "I think it's over."

"Okay, who else is coming out of the house?" Adrian asked. "Where is everyone else? Are the kids following behind Dad?"

"It's just him, Adrian. It's just your dad."

"Are you sure they're not coming out?"

"I don't see them."

"The kids aren't coming out, are they?" Adrian cried. Turning toward Dorian, he repeated, "The kids aren't coming out."

Adrian felt his mind slowly close down and his hands and feet grow numb. It took every ounce of emotional strength he possessed not to pass out. He had to talk himself into staying conscious so he wouldn't lose control of his speeding car.

DEPUTY CORONERS JOSEPH Tiger and Kelly Wiefel got called to the Wesson house around 6:00 -- an hour after they'd finished working a ten-hour shift.

Earlier, police had blocked off half the neighborhood, but as soon as they opened the roads, the area became a swarm of people surrounded by the mess of TV satellite trucks that had arrived earlier.

Police chaplains were comforting family members, reporters were interviewing neighbors and new relatives as they arrived, and paramedics were treating those overcome by the trauma.

In the midst of all the hoopla, the Wessons' dog, a black Chihuahua mix named Betty, ran out the front door and raced down the street. Rosie loved that dog like a child, but her escape was the least of the family's problems that day.

ADRIAN AND DORIAN pulled up to their family's home around 7:30 p.m., two hours after the police had hauled Marcus away.

Adrian lifted the yellow tape so he could run toward his family; no one tried to stop him. He reached the group of women and wrapped his arms around them. Then, he took inventory of the faces.

Elizabeth, Rosie, Rosemary. Wait a minute, where's Kiani? Where's Sebhrenah? Where's Lise?

Adrian prayed they were standing somewhere else. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Kiani in the back of a police car.

Thank God, she's alive.

He ran toward the car to greet her. This time, an officer grabbed his shoulder to restrain him.

"Who are you?" the cop asked.

"I'm Adrian Wesson. That's my sister back there."

Kiani stared out the window at her brother, her eyes red and glassy. She looked so lost.

Adrian searched around for the other girls but had a sinking feeling he wasn't going to find them. He stopped searching when he heard Ruby and Sofia's side of the family behind him, saying that, by process of elimination, there must be nine victims.

That meant Sebhrenah and Lise were dead, too.

How could Dad do this?

After that, the night was one long wait. He watched the police load his mother and sisters into two police cars, which he and Dorian followed to the police station. The boys sat outside numbly for more than five hours, hoping the police would finish questioning the women and release them.

Around 1:00 a.m., the brothers gave up and found a motel.

THE POLICE WERE finally able to get a search warrant allowing a small team of investigators to take a preliminary walk through the house at 8:30 p.m.

Forty-five minutes later, several police detectives, two CSI technicians, and four members of the coroner's office entered the three-bedroom house and walked single file past the three cannons and the half dozen or more Indonesian mahogany coffins that were stacked in the living room and on to the back bedroom. They wondered what the hell these people were doing with so many coffins -- twelve in all.

The air was warm that night -- 77 degrees inside the house. But it seemed even hotter with all those people crammed into the back bedroom. And the smell was sickening. It was going to be a long, grueling night.

Tiger and Wiefel were used to processing crime scenes and examining dead bodies. But they'd never seen anything like this. A pile of dead children. Babies.

The brunt of it didn't really hit them until they started to pull the bodies off the pile, one at a time, bagging them and moving them into the living room, where they could be examined further.

Sebhrenah was found facedown on top of the pile with a .22-caliber revolver under her right arm; presumably she'd been the last one to die. She was wearing a black and yellow flowered dress, zippered brown boots, and on her right hand two rings, one of which was a wedding band. A hunting knife lay on the floor nearby.

At the time, investigators didn't know the names of any of the victims. They all had black hair, and their faces looked so much alike. So, for the time being, they were identified simply as Jane Doe One or Baby Jane Doe Two, in the order they were pulled off the pile, which was assumed to be the reverse order in which they died.

As the investigators worked their way down, Lise was right under Sebhrenah, and under her, they discovered the bodies of three babies in diapers -- tiny thirteen-month-old Jeva, still wearing a bib labeled "Princess"; eighteen-month-old Sedona; and nineteen-month-old Marshey.

As they picked up little Sedona, they noticed that her white Onesie had turned a deep red, saturated with not just her blood but that of her brothers and sisters as well.

Four-year-old Ethan was next, the only one who was shot twice -- once in the right eye and once in the right side of his abdomen.

Then came eight-year-old Illabelle. On the very bottom of the pile -- apparently the first ones to be shot -- were Aviv and Jonathan, the daughter and son of the women who had initiated the confrontation with Marcus. That made a total of nine victims.

EXCEPT FOR SEBHRENAH'S son, Marshey, who was shot in the left eye, all the other victims were shot in the right eye or just below it.

The investigators put the bigger bodies into white bags and wheeled them out to the van, but the babies were too small for the standard-size bags. Instead, the investigators draped them in white sheets and walked them out, cradled in their arms, an image that played repeatedly across the TV news that night.

Suspecting a cult angle or a bizarre ceremonial ritual, investigators initially wondered if the victims had been drugged, like the thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult who had committed suicide by eating applesauce laced with phenobarbital and vodka. But when the toxicology tests came back, the Wesson family members were found to be drug- and alcohol-free. Nothing had dulled their senses during their final terrifying moments.

Rigor mortis had already started to set in by the time investigators began the examinations. After taking Sebhrenah's liver temperature, they determined the approximate time of her death was 5:00 p.m. -- two and a half hours after the police responded to the initial 911 call. The pathologist would later determine that the seven younger children were killed between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m., some possibly while Marcus was standing at the front door talking to police.

Marcus was the only one alive who knew what really happened in the back bedroom that afternoon, but his offspring -- and everyone else -- would speculate about this tragedy for years. Although neighbors and some family members would claim they heard one to three shots fired between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., Fresno police insisted they never heard a single gunshot.

Elizabeth lost two of her own daughters, Sebhrenah and Lise, in the massacre, but she carried the heaviest burden of grief and guilt of all the Wesson women. Even though she had given birth to only two of the children, she felt as if she had been a mother to all nine. And she had been unable to stop the massacre.

Copyright © 2009 by Alysia Sofios

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