FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – Police officer Eloy Escareno walked into the back bedroom in the rundown home and was horrified by what he saw: Nine bodies, most of them children, entwined in a bloody pile. Each had a gunshot wound through the eye.

Escareno rushed to the bodies and began grabbing small wrists, feeling for a pulse. Finding none, he began to cry.

On Friday, more than a year after Escareno’s shocking discovery, a jury convicted the father of the nine victims of first-degree murder. Marcus Wesson, 58, could get the death penalty.

Wesson, the domineering patriarch of a large clan he bred through incest, was also found guilty on all 14 counts of raping and molesting seven of his underage daughters and nieces. DNA showed that Wesson had fathered their slain children.

Many of Wesson’s surviving family members still support him, and stifled sobs as a clerk read the verdicts. Wesson remained quiet and still.

The jury will return on Wednesday for the penalty phase.

The defense had argued that Sebhrenah Wesson, 25 – the oldest to die – killed herself as well as her siblings and the 1-year-old son she had with her father. Prosecutors said Marcus Wesson was the triggerman, but they also argued that even if Sebhrenah did the shooting, her father should still be found guilty if he encouraged her to kill.

The jurors accepted the prosecution’s second theory: They found Wesson guilty even though they decided the government did not prove he pulled the trigger. Several witnesses had testified that Wesson repeatedly coached the children to be ready to kill each other and themselves if authorities ever threatened to break up the clan.

It was the worst murder case ever seen in this agricultural town in the heart of California’s Central Valley.

Officers were summoned to Wesson’s rundown home on March 12, 2004, after two Wesson nieces who had escaped from the home went back to try to get their children.

Wesson talked with officers at the front door, then stepped backward and disappeared into the back bedroom as the nieces screamed, begging officers to intervene and save their children. About an hour and 20 minutes later, he emerged, blood on his clothing, and turned himself in.

Finally entering the bedroom, officers pulled out the bodies of Sebhrenah Wesson and the eight others, ranging in age from 1 to 17. The nieces’ children were among the dead.

No fingerprints or gunshot residue indicated who fired the murder weapon. But Wesson’s surviving children testified that he wielded a high degree of control over his large clan: He preached to the family daily, weaving a dogma of polygamy and incest from his interpretations of the Bible and Seventh Day Adventist beliefs.

He was particularly severe with the young women, who testified they were home-schooled and had almost no contact with anyone outside the family.

Wesson beat them for speaking with men, and molested them from age 7 or 8. He also took any money they earned and dictated what they could eat.


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