MARTINEZ – An emotional jury convicted Justin Alan Helzer of five murders Wednesday, rejecting defense arguments that he knew about only three of them.
The jurors – 10 women and two men – deliberated less than seven hours before finding the 32-year-old Concord resident guilty of murder, extortion, kidnapping, robbery and burglary. Helzer was acquitted of selling drugs but was convicted on a lesser charge of drug possession.
Helzer was accused in an elaborate scheme to prepare the Earth for the Second Coming of Christ. Prosecutors said Helzer and two accomplices — his older brother, Glenn Taylor Helzer, and their roommate Dawn Godman — stole $100,000 from two of their murder victims to finance their plans.
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Among their victims was Selina Bishop, the 22-year-old daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop.
Helzer, dressed in a green sweater and dark slacks, showed little reaction as the 12 verdicts were read, staring down at a table. His mother, sitting in the audience behind him, also displayed little emotion and left the courthouse quickly.
Five sheriff’s deputies, three more than usual, stationed themselves around the courtroom.
Defense attorneys will begin arguing next week before the same jury that Helzer was not sane at the time of the crimes. If the jury does find Helzer knew right from wrong, they will next decide whether he will die as punishment.
The two adult daughters of victims Ivan and Annette Stineman of Concord cried quietly after the verdicts, as did jurors as they left the courtroom.
Taylor Helzer and Godman have pleaded guilty to the murders. He could receive a death penalty, while she will spend more than 37 years in prison.
Defense attorney Dan Cook did not contest Justin Helzer’s role in the deaths and dismemberment of the Stinemans in the summer of 2000.
But Cook had argued that Justin Helzer knew nothing of the Marin County shooting deaths of Bishop’s mother, Jennifer Villarin, and Villarin’s companion, James Gamble of Laytonville. Testimony showed that Taylor Helzer and Godman went to the town of Woodacre intending to kill Villarin, while Gamble was unexpectedly in the apartment as well.
Those final two murders, which occurred the same week as the other three, were carried out solely by Taylor Helzer and Godman, Cook said.
Wednesday’s verdicts mean jurors believed either that Justin knew beforehand that Villarin was going to die or that the murders were a foreseeable result of the trio’s scheme, which they called “Children of Thunder.”
Beginning with next week’s opening statements in the sanity phase, Helzer’s attorneys will have to prove a mental illness or disorder rendered him incapable of knowing right from wrong. Cook has said Justin and Godman thought Taylor Helzer, the architect of the murder plot, was a “prophet of God.”
“(Justin is) not anything like his brother,” Cook said outside the courthouse. “He’s not a leader, he’s a follower. Always has been, probably always will be.”
Cook said he also plans to argue that sessions with a secretive self-help group may have altered Helzer’s personality.
Prosecutor Harold Jewett declined to comment on the verdicts, saying only, “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
The verdicts followed the testimony of more than 100 prosecution witnesses over the course of six weeks. Jurors heard witnesses speak about plans ranging from outlandish to gruesome and saw gory photographs of all five bodies.
Among the plots discussed by the trio was one to send a group of assassins to take over the Mormon Church and another to blackmail stockbrokers with underage girls.
Godman also testified that Taylor Helzer fed a tattooed piece of Bishop’s skin to a dog in the back yard of their Concord home after dismembering Bishop.
The defense offered no witnesses or evidence of its own, and Cook concluded his closing remarks Tuesday after an hour.