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Wednesday, September 9,2009

Double jeopardy

Author shares how she put career, ethics on line to help subjects

by Bill Castanier

Television journalist Alysia Sofios has led a double life for the last five years. That will end with the publication of her book, “Where Hope Begins,” due out Sept. 15.


It began with a phone call to the KMPH Fox 26 newsroom in Fresno, Calif., which Sofios handled with her usual aplomb. What began with a report of a domestic disturbance ended with Fresno’s largest mass murder and a deranged zealot named Marcus Wesson charged with the killing of nine of his 17 family members. The other family members were either not at the home at the time or had moved out. It was soon revealed that most of the family members were involved in incestuous relationships with Wesson.

It was the kind of story Sofios, and her network, lived for: lurid, sensational and dripping with ratings points.


Sofios was the prototypical Fox reporter: young, blonde, aggressive and ambitious. It was the former Michigan State University journalism student’s second Fox posting since beginning at Lansing’s WSYM in 2003 before moving to the much larger Fresno market.

Through a string of coincidences, Sofios won the trust of several of Wesson’s family members. And that’s where her secret begins.

While talking with Wesson’s wife, Elizabeth, she discovered that the woman, along with one of Wesson’s nieces and a daughter — all of whom lost children in the killings — had no place to live. Since they had not agreed to testify against Wesson, they weren’t provided lodging, and the prosecutor had sealed off their home.


Contrary to everything she had been told in journalism school, Sofios invited the three to live with her a little over a month after the killings. Some five years later, two of them still live with her, along with a young granddaughter. All are doing well.


To this day, Sofios, 33, doesn’t know why she did it. “I’d always been able to separate myself from a news story,” she said. “In the newsroom I was known for my toughness. They could send me to anything. This was different.”

Sofios kept the living arrangement to herself, and, armed with inside knowledge, covered the family during the trial.

In her book and during a recent interview at Lansing’s Gone Wired Caf', Sofios confirmed that only a few close friends and her family know of the relationship. She recounts a conversation in the book with her assignment editor, which she said included a lot of “winking” about the living arrangement, but at no time did either of them confirm that three members of the family were sharing her apartment.

The trial itself was onerous, bringing 40 years of incest, vagabond living conditions, mind control and deranged religious beliefs out into the open. Public opinion brutalized the survivors, especially the wife, for allowing the relationship to continue for so long.


Sofios said part of why she decided to write the book was that the living victims were frozen in time after the trial. “They had come so far, and I wanted to tell their side of the story,” she said.


The book, which is co-authored with true crime writer Caitlin Rother, mostly recounts the relationship that developed between the victims and the author. Sofios details how difficult it was for the brainwashed women to live in a normal world. She shares the experiences of taking her guests to their first movie and swimming for the first time, where they go into the pool almost fully dressed, having been physically and emotionally beaten into a false modesty by Wesson. “If this book were fiction, it would be hard to believe,” Sofios said.


The three houseguests were totally dependent on Sofios, until she was seriously injured in a car accident and the women became her caretakers for six months of painful recovery.


With close access to the survivors and diaries each of the women kept for years, Sofios and Rother have also recreated conversations that took place in the Wesson household, detailing the daily beatings, incestuous relationships and maniacal control.

Sofios also later corresponded with the convicted mass murderer, and although he has given her permission to visit, she is not likely she will take him up on it. “I hate him more and more each day for what he did,” she said.


Sofios said her journalism classes at MSU stressed that reporters “remain free of associations,” and not get involved in the lives of their subjects. Sofios knows she crossed the line big time, but she also knows that, given a choice, she would do it over.


She also knows that publishing this book will make her a target for scrutiny, especially from other journalists. “What I did was bigger than my job and bigger than my career, and I don’t think it hurt anyone,” she said.


During the journalism ethics course she took as a senior, Sofios remembers a visit to the class from Bonnie Bucqueroux, who discussed the concept of victims of the media. Although the session lasted only a few hours, she remembers the part about empathy and understanding.

Sofios said she knows she will never be able to work as a hard news journalist again after the book is out, and she’s OK with that. “I have learned to never judge anyone again,” she said.


If she had to write the headline for her own story, Sofios said it would go something like this: “ “Former MSU journalism student lived with the family of a mass murderer during his trial and crosses an ethical line.”



‘Where Hope Begins’


By Alysia Sofios 336 pages, Simon & Schuster



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