Defense claims murderer mentally ill
MARTINEZ – Was Justin Helzer just another victim of untreated mental illness in America, or was he as calculating and self-aware as a terrorist on a homicidal crusade?
Jurors heard both theories yesterday as the insanity phase of Helzer’s trial opened in Contra Costa Superior Court. If the jury decides Helzer was sane when he killed two Marin women and three others in 2000, he could face the death penalty.
The issues before the jury are whether Helzer has a mental disease or defect, whether he was unable to understand the nature and quality of his actions, and whether his mental defect prevented him from understanding the difference between right and wrong when he committed the crimes.
Charles Hoehn, one of Helzer’s court-appointed defense attorneys, said Helzer was in the throes of a “delusional belief system” that made him believe he was a “warrior of God.”
“From the heart, it is beyond belief that a young man with the desire to be good would take such a devious course,” Hoehn said. “Mental illness is not a choice. Mental illness is a tragedy in society.”
But prosecutor Hal Jewett, citing transcripts from Helzer’s interviews with psychological experts, said Helzer knew what was wrong and chose to do it anyway.
“He wouldn’t have these feelings if he didn’t understand the moral wrongfulness of his acts,” Jewett said.
Helzer, 32, of Concord was convicted this month of murder, kidnapping, extortion, robbery and other counts for the deaths of Selina Bishop, a 22-year-old waitress in Woodacre; her mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45, of Novato; Villarin’s companion, James Gamble, 54, of Laytonville; Ivan Stineman, 85, of Concord; and Stineman’s 78-year-old wife, Annette. The same jury that convicted him is hearing his insanity claim.
Two accomplices – Helzer’s older brother, Glenn Taylor Helzer, and their former housemate, Dawn Godman – already have pleaded guilty. Glenn Taylor Helzer, 34, who pleaded guilty with no deal from prosecutors, could face the death penalty. Godman, 30, was spared the death penalty when she agreed to testify against the brothers. She is facing 37 years to life in prison.
Authorities said the Helzers and Godman – driven by a shared belief that Glenn Taylor Helzer was a prophet – committed the crimes to advance a social movement they called “Impact America.” The movement was based on the Helzers’ budding philosophy of quasi-Mormon principles and New Age-style promises of self-empowerment.
To finance the movement, the trio planned to sell Ecstasy, recruit Third World prostitutes to service young tech millionaires in California, and extort the life savings of affluent retirees. The first extortion target was the Stinemans, whom Taylor Helzer, a former Morgan Stanley stockbroker, once served as a financial adviser.
Authorities said the defendants kidnapped the Stinemans in the summer of 2000, then extorted $100,000 from them and killed them. They also killed Bishop – who was one of Taylor Helzer’s girlfriends – along with Villarin and Gamble to prevent them from alerting authorities.
Villarin and Gamble were shot to death on Aug. 3, 2000, when they were housesitting Bishop’s apartment in Woodacre. Days later, police pulled the butchered remains of the Stinemans and Bishop from nine duffel bags dumped in the Mokelumne River in Sacramento County.
Defense attorneys have portrayed Justin Helzer and Godman as emotionally needy pawns craving the approval of the charismatic Glenn Taylor Helzer. In court yesterday, Hoehn said Justin Helzer believed he was “divinely sanctioned” to carry out the murders because it served the larger purpose of advancingGlenn Taylor Helzer’s utopian fantasies.
“When he hit Selina Bishop in the back of the head with a hammer, he thought he was morally right,” Hoehn said. “Justin Helzer was out of contact with reality when he thought Taylor Helzer was a divine prophet of God.”
Hoehn told jurors he planned to call at least two psychiatrists and one psychologist who will testify to Helzer’s mental illness. But Jewett noted that Helzer’s attorneys did not seek a psychological opinion about the defendant until nearly three years after the murders – when Godman pleaded guilty and agreed to testify.
“This case changed a little bit,” Jewett said.
The insanity phase of the trial is expected to last through the next two weeks. If Helzer is ruled sane, a third phase will determine whether he will be sent to death row.
The jury, which heard five weeks of testimony in the first phase, has been told the entire trial will last no later than the end of July.