Helzer witnesses talk of his religion, youth

Contra Costa Times/December 7, 2004
By Bruce Gerstman

Glenn Taylor Helzer returned from his Mormon mission in Brazil in the early 1990s a changed man, interpreting Scripture with a belief system that differed from traditional church doctrine, defense witnesses said Monday in the penalty trial of the confessed quintuple killer.

"He started to say that the church was going in the wrong direction," said Dane Williams, a friend from the Mormon ward in Martinez. "The whole church was incorrect."

Williams was one of nearly a dozen witnesses Monday, the first day the defense presented its case to a jury that will recommend life in prison or the death penalty for Helzer for killing five people in the summer of 2000.

The witnesses -- Helzer's cousins and friends, and his grandfather from Salt Lake City -- discussed the family's Mormon beliefs. Defense attorney Suzanne Chapot also led them to discuss a family history of mental illness and extreme religious views.

Under questioning by prosecutor Harold Jewett, the witnesses described Helzer as sane when they knew him. Most said they had not seen the 34-year-old Helzer for many years, some more than a decade.

Each described Helzer as a boy and teenager as kind, respectful and full of excitement.

"He was like my mentor. A lot of people wanted to be like him," said a cousin, Charney Hoffmann.

Hoffmann cried on the stand as family members of the murder victims passed tissues to other sobbing members of Helzer's family. Helzer looked down at his desk for most of the day without making eye contact with witnesses, as has been the case for the past four weeks.

Hoffmann said he saw his cousin's religious views change.

"He believed that the paradigm of good and evil was given to us by the devil," Hoffmann said. "One had to reject this paradigm in order to be saved."

Hoffmann said two of his brothers had been hospitalized for mental illness, his sister is clinically depressed, and his aunts -- sisters of Helzer's mother -- had been hospitalized for mental illness over the years.

An aunt, Marcia Burrell-Helzer, testified that she went camping with Helzer and that he enjoyed engaging with her children, gently scooping up lizards and insects to teach them about the outdoors.

"He taught my son to have respect for nature," she said.

Burrell-Helzer said Helzer changed when he began smoking cigarettes and drinking and he left his wife and child. Although he was living in his own world, she said, he appeared to be coherent.

Helzer, a former stockbroker, confessed that he, his brother, Justin Helzer and their roommate, Dawn Godman, conspired to fund a self-awareness program to bring "joy, peace and love" to the world by extorting money from Helzer's former clients, killing them and running a prostitution service. They killed Selina Bishop, her mother, Jennifer Villarin, James Gamble and Concord residents Ivan and Annette Stineman.

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