It started as a simple child-custody call. Police in Fresno, Calif., arrived Friday afternoon at the small one-story home on West Hammond Avenue when two women said they needed help getting their children back from the father, Marcus Wesson. At first Wesson, 57, seemed helpful. But then he bolted to a back room and barricaded himself in. The mothers said he might have a gun, and the cops called for hostage negotiators and a SWAT team. Two hours later, Wesson surrendered without a fight. As police entered the room where he had hidden, they found nine bodies in a heap. The corpses--ranging from a woman in her 20s to three 1-year-old toddlers--were tangled to the point that police couldn't even tell at first how many of them there were.

Police believe the victims were children of Wesson's, who was arrested on suspicion of homicide. Officials wouldn't say where or when the victims were killed--or even how, but Wesson's shirt was covered in blood when he surrendered. Wesson, a burly man with gray dreadlocks, moved in last fall. Police believe he had children by four women. As the investigation continued through the weekend, the motive remained unclear. Police Chief Jerry Dyer said Friday that "there may have been some kind of ritual involved," a hunch supported by the presence of 10 empty coffins. Whatever the motive, the house was so hellish that the cops on scene will be allowed paid leave to recover.