MARTINEZ – Justin Helzer might have been a gentle soul who enjoyed little things like mountain hikes and playing with his nieces.
But it was one big thing — his relationship with his older brother — that Helzer’s family and friends said Monday ultimately led him to shut out all other considerations and help kill five people.
“There is nothing in particular that would make Justin stand out — not like Taylor,” testified Heather Helzer, the sister of Justin and Glenn Taylor Helzer. “So I’ve always considered Justin to be the normal brother and Taylor to be the special brother.”
She and others implored jurors not to send the 32-year-old to death row during the last phase of his capital murder trial Monday. The same jurors convicted him last month of five murders and now must decide whether he should be executed or spend his life in prison without parole.
As it had been throughout the monthslong trial, the courtroom’s most dominating presence wasn’t there.
Taylor Helzer, Justin’s brother, has pleaded guilty to the five killings that authorities say he masterminded. He remains in custody in County Jail but was evoked often.
“Moments with Taylor were moments of clarity and what seemed to be truth,” said Charney Hoffmann, the brothers’ cousin. “It was impossible not to be in Taylor’s presence without being deeply influenced by him.”
Justin always existed in Taylor’s shadow and worshipped him, Hoffmann said. But it was more than typical brotherly adulation.
“His family was raised to kind of esteem (Taylor) as some kind of prophet,” Hoffmann said.
The Helzer brothers grew up in the Mormon church, and Taylor Helzer was known for his knowledge of the scriptures. His family looked up to him for that, said Taylor Helzer’s ex-wife, Ann Helzer.
“He was definitely put on a pedestal,” she said.
In the late 1990s, Taylor Helzer strayed from the church and took Justin with him. Taylor’s philosophy changed to include drugs, alcohol and no longer differentiated between right and wrong, former girlfriend Lina Richardson explained last week.
The brothers planned to raise money for the self-awareness program Taylor wanted to start that would bring peace and love to the world. When the plan broadened to include extortion, the brothers targeted a retired Concord couple.
They killed Ivan and Annette Stineman in July 2000 and then several days later killed Taylor’s then girlfriend, Selina Bishop, who had unwittingly agreed to help deposit checks related to the scheme. The dismembered remains of the three were found in August 2000 in duffel bags in the Delta.
Taylor also became worried that Bishop’s mother, Jennifer Villarin, knew too much about him. He shot her and her friend James Gamble at Bishop’s Marin County home on Aug. 3, 2000.
Justin helped carry out the entire plan. Heather Helzer noticed the changes in him but said she could not persuade him to stop following Taylor down the wrong path.
“It’s hard to explain how disappointed I am when I think of Justin. I feel awful, and I still love him,” she said through tears.
“I think he’s lost his opportunity for a great life, but I think he could still do some good. I think it would be very good for him to live.”