Jury recommends death for Justin Helzer

MARTINEZ – A jury recommended the death penalty Tuesday for Justin Helzer in the deaths of the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop and an elderly couple as part of a bizarre crime spree four years ago.

The jury also recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole for Helzer’s role in the deaths of two other people.

Many in the jury of 10 women and two men held hands in the jury box and cried as a clerk polled them about their decisions after the three-month trial. Juror {PI:EF}5 was sobbing so hard, she could barely answer when asked to confirm her verdict. One man in the standing-room only courtroom shouted, “Yes!” as the first death penalty verdict was read. Even the judge shed tears as she thanked the jury for their service. Judge Mary Ann O’Malley will formally sentence Helzer on Sept. 24.

Helzer, who initially pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, showed little emotion. He briefly nodded to his parents, who were seated in the gallery and quickly left the courtroom. Last month, Helzer interrupted opening statements of the penalty phase of his trial by blurting out, “I want this life to be over. … I want to die.”

Before the jury began deliberating his punishment on Thursday, prosecutors described Helzer, 32, as a cold-blooded and arrogant killer who deserved the death penalty.

Helzer’s lawyer, Daniel Cook, pleaded with jurors to “find compassion in your heart,” saying that Helzer was under the control of his older brother and was remorseful for his crimes.

Helzer, his brother, Glenn, and their roommate, Dawn Godman, killed five people during the crime spree in the summer of 2000. The killings of Selina Bishop, her mother, Jennifer Villarin, her mother’s boyfriend, James Gamble, and Ivan and Annette Stineman of Concord, were part of an extortion scheme to earn money for a self-awareness group the Helzers said would hasten Christ’s return to Earth.

The bodies of Bishop and the Stinemans were sawed up and stuffed into gym bags, their jaws removed to prevent identification, and the bags were dumped in the Mokelumne River.

Glenn Helzer killed Villarin and Gamble as they slept in Bishop’s Marin County apartment, prosecutors said. Justin Helzer was convicted of murder in their deaths, but did not participate in the shootings. The jury’s decision came exactly four years after their deaths.

“Justice was done,” Olga Land, Villarin’s sister, said outside court. “I can’t call it closure. It’s not like I can get them back.”

The family of the Stinemans refused to talk to reporters and hid their faces with a jacket on their way out of court.

“It’s been a long four years. My family’s been through a lot,” David Villarin, the victim’s sister, said outside the courtroom. “We’ll always remember them for what they were and not what happened.”

Gamble’s mother, Frances Nelson, who said it was tough to hear the gruesome details of the crimes, called the verdicts a “foregone conclusion.”

In June, the same jury found Helzer guilty of murder, kidnapping, robbery, extortion and drug possession.

In July, they decided he was sane when he committed the crimes. His lawyers had argued Helzer was so submissive to his brother, who masterminded the killings, that he suffered from a rare condition called “shared delusional disorder,” believing his brother was a prophet and that the slayings were divinely sanctioned.

Glenn Helzer already pleaded guilty and faces the death penalty. His sentencing phase will begin this fall. Godman also pleaded guilty and testified against Justin Helzer in exchange for a lengthy prison sentence.

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