Jurors say Helzer deserves death

Emotional panel recommends three death sentences, two life terms in murders of five during 2000

Tri-Valley Herald/August 4, 2004
By Simon Read

Martinez -- An emotionally distraught jury decided Tuesday that convicted murderer Justin Helzer should be put to death for a killing spree that left five people dead in the summer of 2000.

Jurors wept and put their arms around one another as a court clerk read the verdict to a packed courtroom. Three recommendations for death were leveled against Helzer, 32, for the slaying of a retired Concord couple and the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop.

For his complicity in the murders of two other people, Helzer received two life sentences without the possibility of parole. It took the 10-women, two-men jury two days to decide Helzer's fate.

Dressed in a dark blue suit, Helzer sat motionless and stared out the courtroom window. Behind him, his mother, Carma, seemed to struggle for breath as the verdicts were read. Her daughter -- and Helzer's younger sister -- Heather, 30, placed an arm around her mother's shoulders.

In contrast to the Helzers, one man in the gallery let out an enthusiastic "Yes!" as the first death penalty verdict was read.

Of the 60 chairs in the seating gallery, 55 were occupied by family members, media and curious members of the public. Seven bailiffs stood guard over the proceedings and the standing-room-only crowd.

After the five verdicts were read, defense attorney Dan Cook asked that the jurors be polled regarding their verdicts. One juror, crying with her head on her knees, was so overcome with emotion she could barely answer.

Judge Mary Ann O'Malley told everyone to "take a deep breath," then -- her voice cracking with emotion -- she thanked the jurors for their time and service.

"I'm in awe of you -- I'm in awe of how you've gone through these months," the judge said. "It's been an absolute privilege to have you in my courtroom. You'll never have an experience like this again, I hope."

On June 16, the jury found Helzer guilty on multiple counts of first-degree murder in the 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.

Tuesday's decision was delivered four years to the day that Gamble and Villarin were shot to death in a Woodacre apartment while they slept.

Outside the courtroom, the victims' families hurried past waiting camera crews without a comment. Later, the Stinemans' oldest daughter, Nancy Hall, 56, of Concord, said the jury's verdict offered some measure of relief.

"This is a long road and I think justice was done for my parents and Selina," she said. "Today was a good day for some of us. We have to go through this."

Hall said that while she may never feel a complete sense of closure over her parents' deaths, she hopes to learn why the crimes happened.

"This is like a journey," Hall said. "I think as we go through this, we will understand more. We will get understanding, and maybe we'll be happy."

'So many tragedies'

Under state law, a death sentence is automatically appealed, defense attorney Cook said outside the courthouse, adding he was "obviously disappointed" in the jury's decision.

"There are so many tragedies in this case," he said. "Now, there is one more."

As of January, there were 637 inmates on California's death row, said Margot Bach, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections. As with the state's other condemned inmates, Helzer will be given the choice of death by lethal injection or death in the gas chamber.

"If he doesn't chose one, the default is lethal injection," Bach said.

It will take at least 10 years for Helzer's appeal to wind its way through the court system, Bach said.

"He'll be (on death row) for at least 10 years," Bach said. "The average time is well more than that."

Deputy District Attorney Harold Jewett on Tuesday said the jury's verdict sends a clear message.

"This verdict was a choice for life -- but not Justin's life, he made his own bed," Jewett said. "This jury sent a message on just how precious life is -- on the value we the people place on an individual life and the lives he took."

'Still work to do'

Jewett called the case "difficult on many levels," saying it was emotionally and tragically complex.

"The jury was dedicated . . . and did everything good and right." he said. "This was a true measure of justice today -- but there is still work to do."

After the verdict, Olga Land, Jennifer Villarin's younger sister and Selina Bishop's aunt, said she wanted to go home and hug her children.

"I put this all in God's hands a long time ago," said Land, 42, of Felton, near Santa Cruz. "It was his decision and it's in his hands now."

While she believed "justice was done," Land said she would never feel closure.

"We're never going to get them back," she said. "This is not some sort of trade. Nobody wins."

It was the defense's position that Helzer -- who pleaded innocent by reason of insanity -- was under the control of his domineering and charismatic brother, Glenn Helzer, 34, a man Justin Helzer believed was a prophet of God.

Cook argued that Justin Helzer was deluded and incapable of discerning right from wrong when he undertook his crime spree on the week of July 30 to Aug. 3, 2000.

'Nothing usual'

"There is nothing usual about this case," Cook said on Tuesday. "The thing is everyone agreed that Justin believed what he was doing was a good thing. That's why I'm so troubled by the (verdict)."

During the sanity phase of Helzer's trial, Cook called a number of mental health experts who said Helzer suffered from "shared delusional disorder," a condition he "caught" from his older brother.

The jury didn't buy it. On July 15, jurors found Helzer to be legally sane, making him eligible for the death penalty.

Court records said Glenn Helzer sought to extort $100,000 from the Stinemans to fund a number of proposed business ventures. The plan went dreadfully wrong and five people wound up dead.

The Stinemans -- who Glenn Helzer met through his job as a stockbroker at a Concord firm -- were abducted from their Concord home on Frayne Lane on July 30, 2000. Between then and Aug. 2, 2000, they were held captive in a home rented by the Helzers on Saddlewood Court in Concord.

There, the Stinemans were forced to sign over checks totaling $100,000 before they were killed and dismembered in the bathroom.

Wild plan: Utopian paradise

It was all part of a wild plan hatched by the Helzers and their roommate, 29-year-old Dawn Godman.

To avoid the death penalty, Godman pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the brothers. Under state law, she must serve at least 35 years and nine months in jail before she is eligible for parole.

The defendants' plan, dubbed "Children of Thunder," called for the creation of a Utopian paradise on earth and the hastening of Christ's return. To ensure the plot's success, anyone deemed a threat to its ultimate success was killed, the prosecution argued.

Selina Bishop, Glenn Helzer's girlfriend, was murdered on Aug. 2, 2000, to prevent her from testifying if the plot were exposed.

Like the Stinemans, her body was dismembered and decapitated. The body parts were thrown into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where they were discovered shortly thereafter.

Glenn Helzer was the trigger man in the shooting deaths of Villarin and Gamble on Aug. 3, 2000, while they house-sat Bishop's apartment, the defense said. Godman drove the getaway car.

Glenn Helzer killed Villarin because he feared she knew too much about him. Gamble was killed just because he happened to be there at the time. Helzer has since pleaded guilty to 18 felony counts against him. They include five counts of capital murder that make him eligible for the death penalty.

Jury selection in Glenn Helzer's trial is scheduled to get under way on Oct. 4.

Society 'doesn't understand'

On Tuesday, Gamble's mother, Frances Nelson, 76, of Yountville, said though she had lost one son, Carma Helzer was losing both of hers. After the verdict was read, Nelson hugged Helzer's mother and expressed her condolences.

Outside the family's Pacheco home, Helzer's sister, Heather, spoke briefly.

"I believe the fact that we even got to the penalty phase in the trial shows that our society doesn't understand mental illness," she said. "It doesn't understand a person's ability to control it or not control it."

Justin Helzer will be back in court on Sept. 24, when a date will be set for formal sentencing by Judge O'Malley.

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