Fresno -- Coroners performing autopsies on the nine victims of a family massacre pleaded Sunday for the surviving mothers and relatives to come forward to help identify the bodies that were found entangled and piled atop one another.
Without assistance from the next of kin, Fresno County Coroner Lori Cervantes said her deputies are struggling to determine the identities of the two slain women and seven young children who lived with the sole suspect in the slayings, Marcus Delon Wesson.
"One woman called our office this morning claiming to be a mother, but she refused to say who she was and hung up," Cervantes said.
Coroner's deputies completed autopsies on four victims Sunday, all of whom had been shot. The other five appear to have died in the same manner within hours of one another, Cervantes said. The toll includes six females ages: 24, 17, 8, 7 and two 1-year-olds; and three boys: 7, 4, and 1.
Investigators made no statements Sunday, leaving open the question of when the killings occurred. Neighbors said they heard gunshots during a two- hour standoff Friday that ended with Wesson emerging from the West Hammond Avenue home with his clothes bloodied.
While Wesson, 57, sits in Fresno County Jail on $9 million bail awaiting arraignment on nine murder counts, authorities are trying to sort out the possibly polygamous and incestuous web of relationships he maintained with his female housemates.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said Wesson apparently is the father of all the victims, and may have fathered two of the victims with his daughters. Police are looking for possible ties to a cult, after interviewing neighbors who described a secretive family who stacked 10 empty caskets in the home and rarely ventured outside. Many neighbors said they were surprised to learn that toddlers and babies lived at the home, because they said they had never seen them playing outside.
On the few occasions when the women were spotted outside the home, they were wearing long dark skirts and veils, neighbors said.
Police were alerted to the house Friday by two women who said Wesson had custody of their children through an informal arrangement, and they were having trouble reclaiming their kids.
Coroner's deputies are trying to find mothers of the children by scanning through birth certificates in the Fresno County Office of Vital Statistics.
"The police department has been doing the lion's share of talking to family members, but we're at the point where we need to talk to (the mothers) as well to solidify in our minds who these victims are," Cervantes said.
She estimated it will take a few more days to finish the remaining five autopsies. She will release the victims' names once their identities have been established.
Neighbors and others who came into contact with the Wesson clan said they always thought something was amiss.
Frank Muna, an attorney who sold his historic Fresno home on Cambridge Avenue to five women who lived with Wesson, said each time he visited, Wesson appeared to be romantic with a different woman.
"I started noticing they were all intimate with each other. Marcus would have his arm around the tall one one time, and be sitting close with (another one) another time," he said.
The family silence following the deaths does not surprise cult expert Janja Lalich, a sociology professor at California State University at Chico and author of "Women Under the Influence: A Study of Women's Lives in Totalist Groups."
Mothers may be keeping silent because they are afraid of Wesson's power, she said.
"Who knows what sort of fears he may have instilled in them over the years," she said, noting that the empty caskets may have been a scare tactic.
"He could still harm them -- he's still alive. They may also be afraid of being implicated in the crime."
Women who fall into the clutch of charismatic male leaders are often from upper-class, educated backgrounds -- counter to common assumptions, she said.
"In a lot of these situations, women are following social messages that they are supposed to fall in love with a man who will be their guide and master. But what keeps them in the cult is usually the peer pressure of the other women," she said.
Many cult watchers are drawing similarities between the Fresno case and the Marin group known as "The Family," where in 2001 a toddler died of starvation under the care of a patriarch and five women. Winifred Wright fathered 13 children with the women, one of whom was a Xerox Corp. heir.
"The tendency is to write these women off, but very rarely are they insane," Lalich said.
As Fresno police removed brown grocery bags of clothing and personal items from the murder scene on Sunday, mourners came by to add teddy bears and candles to a growing shrine outside the home.
Fresno grocery clerk Sheila Manley, 46, said Wesson was a familiar figure in town, with his hair matted into one large dreadlock. She was at the crime scene on Friday.
"When I saw them bring those babies out in those blankets, I started crying. It made me want to go get my grandkids and play with them. Whatever this man gets, he deserves," she said.
Visiting the Wesson home was a family event for 23-year-old Josh Burrus of Fresno, his wife, sister, mother, his 3-year-old girl and baby boy.
He remembered seeing Wesson playing cards at the since-shuttered Diamond Sports Bar and Casino in town when he worked there as a guard in 2002.
"I'm shocked, very angry and disturbed, actually," he said.
His mother, Linda Jaurique, was more blunt.
"What a coward -- he should have just killed himself. Don't kill innocent kids."