Attorney probes history of mental illness in family of confessed murderer
MARTINEZ — Confessed murderer Glenn Taylor Helzer harbored an apocalyptic view of the world and hoped to lead elements of the Mormon church against the forces of Armageddon, a one-time friend testified Monday.
Helzer’s friends and family took the stand as the defense opened its case Monday and sought to spare Helzer’s life. The day’s testimony portrayed Helzer as an individual whose disillusionment with the Mormon church sent him down a dark path.
Ohio resident Jonathan Taylor — who met Helzer in the early 1990s while both were on missions to Brazil — said Helzer told him technology would be rendered useless and society would become fragmented once Christ returned.
Helzer believed the church would be led by warrior prophets in the days of the apocalypse, Taylor said, adding that the defendant thought he might be called upon “to become a warrior preacher.”
Helzer, 34, of Concord faces a possible death sentence in the summer 2000 killings of Ivan Stineman, 85, and his wife, Annette, 78, both of Concord; Selina Bishop, 22, of Woodacre; her mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45, of Novato; and Villarin’s companion, James Gamble, 54, of Laytonville.
Bishop was the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop.
The murders were part of a bizarre kidnap-extortion plan to fund various schemes Helzer claimed would hasten the second coming.
Helzer pleaded guilty to the crimes in March. In August, a jury recommended the death penalty for Helzer’s younger brother, Justin, 32, in connection with the same crimes.
On Monday, defense attorney Suzanne Chapot explored the history of mental illness in Helzer’s family. The defense is arguing that mental illness and drugs sent Helzer on his murderous spree.
Called to the stand was Helzer’s cousin, Charney Hoffmann, who said there were several cases of mental disease in the family. Hoffmann said two of his three brothers had been hospitalized for mental instability, while his sister suffered from clinical depression.
“A lot of people in our family have an apocalyptic view of life,” Hoffmann said. “There will be a great cosmic battle of good and evil where people will fend on their own.”
Hoffmann said he, Helzer and other members of the family once attended a survival camp to ready themselves for the “cataclysmic events at the end of the world.”
When asked to share his opinion of Helzer, the witness began to sob.
“He was like my mentor, in a way,” Hoffmann said. “A lot of people wanted to be like him — I certainly did. Now, I’m very glad I never was. … I’m glad I’m level-headed instead.”
Jill Tingey — another of Helzer’s cousins — said she was shocked when she learned Helzer had been arrested for murder.
“(Helzer) was very sweet and wonderful,” Tingey said. “He was always willing to help — he was awesome.”
News of Helzer’s involvement in the crimes left Tingey broken-hearted, she said.
“It was very difficult — very out of character and unimaginable,” she said. “That’s not who he is. It’s something he did.”
Members of the victims’ families visibly reacted to the comment and exchanged exasperated glances.
Testimony is scheduled to continue today.