Witness: Helzer knew he was wrong

Psychologist testifies in sanity trial about idea to kill McDonald's customers

Tri-Valley Herald/July 9, 2004
By Simon Read

Martinez -- To fund their war against Satan, the Helzer brothers pondered manipulating the stock market in a far-fetched scheme that involved killing customers in a fast-food restaurant, then buying the company's devalued stocks, a psychologist testified Thursday.

The testimony from psychologist Larry Wornian -- who said Justin Helzer, 32, was fully aware that killing five people in the summer of 2000 was "grossly immoral" -- came one day after the defense rested in the sanity phase of Helzer's capital murder trial. Wornian was a witness for the prosecution, and served to counter testimony offered by mental health experts called by the defense.

Questioned by Deputy District Attorney Hal Jewett, Wornian spent the morning session recounting his examination of Helzer last December. Often citing Helzer's own words, Wornian painted the picture of a young man unlucky in love who struggled through life.

Wornian said Helzer looked upon himself as being "wimpy and unmasculine," unhappy that he was still -- in his mid-20s -- living at home with his parents and hitting them up for cash.

Helzer's feelings of inadequacy, however, were cast aside when he and his older brother, Glenn, 34, declared war on the devil.

Wornian testified that Helzer told him, "(Glenn) and I became spiritual warriors. We had to make a dent in what Satan was doing."

Justin Helzer, enthused by his new cause, was imbued with a great sense of power, Wornian said.

"All of a sudden, he found himself transformed in to a bold spiritual warrior on a mission ordained by God. It's heady stuff," Wornian said. "(It was) a profoundly miscast quest for certainty in his life. ... It stands in sharp contrast to feeling wimpy."

In an extortion plot that went awry, Helzer was convicted June 16 on multiple counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Ivan Stineman, 85, and his wife Annette, 77, both of Concord; Selina Bishop, 22, of Woodacre; her mother Jennifer Villarin, 45, of Novato, and Villarin's companion, James Gamble of Laytonville.

Wornian said Helzer told him he didn't want to kill, but it was all part of God's grand scheme. Wornian quoted Helzer as saying he "cried his eyes out" when he smashed Selina Bishop's head in with a hammer.

During his time with Wornian, Helzer said he knew people would look unfavorably on his actions, Wornian said.

To finance their crusade against evil, the Helzers broached several ideas, all of which proved unfeasible, Wornian said. They lacked the money to start an escort service and did not possess the know-how to manufacture drugs.

Wornian said Helzer told him the brothers pondered the idea of hiring low-wage migrant workers to go into a McDonald's restaurant and kill everyone inside, leaving a threatening note at the scene. The company's stock would crash, allowing the Helzers to purchase it. When the stock price eventually climbed again, the brothers would have the financial resources they sought.

Wornian said it was his opinion that Justin Helzer was not delusional at the time of the killings.

"Is our good president delusional because he feels God is guiding him through a complex world situation?" Wornian asked the jury.

The defense, seeking to spare Helzer from a death sentence, has argued he was delusional at the time of the killings, believing his brother was a prophet of God and unable to discern what was morally right from what was morally wrong.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Charles Hoehn, Wornian said given Justin Helzer's deeply immersed religious background, there was no reason for him to believe his brother wasn't a prophet of God.

Testimony continues at 9 a.m. Monday in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez.

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