What came first was not horrific but merely disturbing: Police were called in on a custody dispute, and after a standoff, a man barricaded in a bedroom surrendered. It's what happened after Marcus Wesson, 57, stepped out of his run-down dwelling on March 12 that had hardened cops fighting tears. Police found nine bodies piled like dirty laundry in a bedroom of Wesson's Fresno, Calif., home; the oldest victim was 24, and seven of them were under 9. "There was no 911, nobody tried to escape," says Latasha Carter, a neighbor. "They just seemed to line up and get killed."

Police quickly identified Wesson as the man behind an unfathomable evil—the shooting deaths of nine people believed to be his children. Determining exactly what happened in his home—and what led to the worst mass murder in Fresno history—should take considerably longer, given the tangled circumstances of Wesson's large family. Unemployed and unkempt, he lived with six daughters and three sons he apparently fathered with several women—two of whom also lived with him—and apparently exerted a cultlike control over his brood. Two of the victims may have been the product of incestuous relationships he had with two of his daughters. It also appears the children rarely if ever left their home. The women, usually outfitted in long black dresses, "came and went at all hours of the night," says Brian Caskey, who lived across the street. "But we never saw any children."

The biggest mystery, though, is what snapped in the troubled mind of Marcus Wesson, long considered strange but not violent. Even his purchase of 12 antique mahogany coffins struck most neighbors as simply peculiar. "We thought, 'Eww, bizarro,' " says attorney Frank Muna, who in 1999 sold the Wesson clan a home. "He was incoherent at times, despondent, but he wasn't violent. I never thought for one second he would hurt anybody."

During the past two decades Wesson bounced from one cramped dwelling to another, living on a boat, in a squatter's camp and in a toolshed and picking up debts and children along the way. Born in Kansas and once a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Wesson "kept a real tight rein on his children," says Santa Cruz harbormaster Larry White, who says Wesson rented a boat slip in the mid '80s and lived on a 26-ft. sloop with his wife, Elizabeth, and as many as six children. In 1999 Wesson arranged to purchase Frank Muna's fire-gutted historic home in Fresno, agreeing to make payments towards its price of $57,500 and promising to restore it. But Wesson made few repairs and lived with his family in a 500-sq.-ft. toolshed behind the house. He barked commands at the four women he lived with "as if he was speaking to a dog," says Muna, who remembers visiting and seeing the women "immediately get behind Wesson and not look at you. They just looked down, almost bowing their heads."

Wesson eventually lost the property and moved illegally into empty office space in a working-class part of central Fresno. Neighbors often saw him repairing an old bus late at night alongside two or three women. Three weeks before the murders, Wesson had a screaming match with Elizabeth, who fled to her neighbor Linda Morales's apartment. "I was scared he was going to break down my door," says Morales. Then, on Feb. 27, Fresno officials threatened to boot the Wessons unless they got a permit to live on the commercial property by March 12—the day of the murders.

Around 2 p.m. on that day, two women called police, claiming Wesson had refused to return their children. "Elizabeth said that [Wesson] told her, 'I'd rather kill the kids than give them back to you,' " says Morales. When police arrived, Wesson calmly spoke with them at his door for 45 minutes. "He said he would relinquish the children but not under the present circumstances," says Fresno Police Sgt. Gregg Sanders.

But when an adult in the house said Wesson might have a gun, he ran into a bedroom and locked the door. Police evacuated the adults from the building and called in a SWAT team. Two hours later Wesson emerged with bloodstains on his clothing. Elizabeth and two other women "were fainting on my lawn and saying, 'My baby's in there, my baby, my baby,' " says Morales. Neighbors recall hearing gunshots, though it is not clear if it was before or after police arrived. As of now, investigators are not sure when the nine victims were killed.

While authorities sort through DNA evidence, Wesson's neighbors grapple with having had such a monster in their midst. On the street outside the crime scene mourners place flowers and stuffed animals and cluster in quiet vigils. Angelina Ivey brought her two young daughters to the makeshift memorial. "We wanted to apologize to the kids," she says, "because no one helped them."

Alex Tresniowski. Ron Arias and Frank Swertlow in Fresno, Vickie Bane in Santa Cruz and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Ron Arias,
  • Frank Swertlow,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Lyndon Stambler.