Younger Helzer ruled sane; hearing on penalty is next
Convicted murderer Justin Helzer faces a death penalty hearing after a Contra Costa County jury on Thursday ruled him legally sane, rejecting a defense argument that the troubled man had “caught” a form of madness from a megalomaniacal older brother.
Helzer, 32, his brother Glenn Helzer and their former roommate Dawn Godman brutally killed five people in the summer of 2000. They wanted to raise money for — among other strange and ambitious schemes — a self-awareness group they believed would thwart Satan and hasten Christ’s return to Earth.
Justin Helzer’s attorneys argued he 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.
But after deliberating for nearly two days, the jury concluded that Justin Helzer knew his crimes were morally wrong. Judge Mary Ann O’Malley ordered jurors to return Wednesday for the death penalty hearing.
Relatives of the victims cried Thursday as the sanity verdict was read, then hugged each other outside the courtroom in Martinez. Prosecutor Harold Jewett declined to comment.
Defense attorney Daniel Cook said he was disappointed with the verdict but heartened that the jury had considered it at length. “Now, we have to try to figure out a way to convince these people to save his life,” said Cook, adding he believed his client was essentially a good man who had done terrible things.
Justin Helzer on June 16 was the last of the self-titled “Children of Thunder” to be convicted, but he may be the first to be sentenced to death. His brother entered a surprise guilty plea just before the brothers’ joint trial was to begin and also faces a death penalty hearing. Godman pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution under a plea bargain that will send her to prison for 38 years to life.
A trial that had featured a combative Playboy centerfold during its guilt phase focused on the bizarre during the sanity phase, describing how Justin Helzer subscribed to conspiracy theories and called his mother “Aspect” because he considered himself to be only an aspect of her.
A psychiatrist called by Justin Helzer’s attorney said he was in a symbiotic relationship with his brother, who was more charismatic and successful. Glenn Helzer is bipolar, the psychiatrist said, and when he suffered a psychotic break in 1998 and was hospitalized, “Justin couldn’t afford to lose the relationship.”
Jewett said Justin Helzer had not been diagnosed with a mental illness before he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity last year. He quoted the defendant as saying he had known society would frown on the killings although he believed he had a higher purpose — saving the world — in committing them.
The trio declared war on Satan on July 30, 2000, before kidnapping Annette Stineman, 78, and Ivan Stineman, 85 — a Concord couple who once employed Glenn Helzer as their stockbroker — to extort $100,000 from them.
The third victim, Selina Bishop, the 22-year-old daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop, was befriended by Glenn Helzer to do one simple act —
cash the Stinemans’ checks. The three victims were dismembered with a saw, then stuffed into gym bags and dumped into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Finally, Glenn Helzer fatally shot Bishop’s mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45, and her companion, 54-year-old James Gamble, at Bishop’s apartment in Marin County because Villarin had seen his face.