Killers' lawyers blame seminars

Motivational courses harmed pair, they say

San Francisco Chronicle/December 14, 2004
By Demian Bulwa

Two men who killed five people in a bizarre extortion plot completed intense motivational "trainings" similar to those that garnered charges of brainwashing in the 1970s, and, their attorneys claim, the seminars contributed to their troubled state of mind.

Glenn and Justin Helzer's participation in Impact Trainings and similar programs run by Impact graduates, in Utah and Sacramento, profoundly affected the brothers and should be considered by jurors in Glenn Helzer's punishment, the attorneys argued.

They have also argued that drug use, mental illness and Glenn Helzer's belief that he was a prophet played a role in the grisly crimes he masterminded in 2000 and that his personal problems may have worsened his response to the trainings.

The brothers and their roommate Dawn Godman, calling themselves the "Children of Thunder," said they believed Glenn Helzer spoke for God when they killed. He wanted money from two victims to start his own group, "Transform America," which he said would spread love and defeat Satan.

Defense witnesses in the brothers' trials described marathon seminars run by Impact Trainings, which is based in Salt Lake City but once had a Sacramento office, and by Impact graduates who started similar programs.

The testimony has provided a rare glimpse into "experiential" group trainings that experts say are similar to those that gained widespread appeal 30 years ago with the rise of such Bay Area companies as est and Lifespring and remain widely available today in one form or another.

In the seminars related to Impact Trainings, participants were emotionally torn down by "facilitators" who humiliated them to help each recover his or her "inner child," witnesses said. Those abused as children were told it was their fault, for example, and overweight women were made to dress as cows or belly dancers.

The sessions were described as so emotional that some trainees threw up, and so regimented that rugs had perfect lines left by vacuum cleaners and trainees needed escorts to use the bathroom.

Many graduates, however, believed they experienced breakthroughs in resolving problems, and they enrolled in future courses that cost several hundred dollars and promised further enlightenment, according to testimony.

"It's hard to imagine people pay for this," said Ms. A., a UC Berkeley student who attended her first training at age 11 and whose mother started a firm using some of the techniques. Ms. A., who said she's in therapy now partly due to the trainings, testified at Justin Helzer's trial.

Critics say the facilitators aren't trained to lead people through trauma and give superficial results while manipulating people into spending more money and recruiting friends. Supporters say the programs are designed to help people and have a record of success -- and don't use or condone abusive tactics.

J. Gordon Melton, an adjunct lecturer in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion, said he had mixed emotions about the groups.

"I've met a lot of people quite positively influenced by those kinds of things, going for a weekend or two -- and they didn't take on the kind of cultic structuring of one's life," he said. But he added, "I don't want to go anywhere and have people shouting at me and demeaning me, even if they don't mean it personally. I've found other ways to do self-exploration."

Impact Trainings said in a written statement that it has, since 1985, served more than 120,000 people and their families.

"The training is designed to assist in building self-confidence and to remove negative and destructive behaviors from participants' lives," the statement reads. "The program is well respected and highly successful."

Glenn Helzer's attorney, Suzanne Chapot, said her client used what he learned to "justify his incredibly bizarre ideas." Witnesses testified that Glenn Helzer was deeply committed to the trainings, insisting that everyone around him complete the trainings in an effort to bend them to his ideas and plans.

Defense attorney Daniel Cook said during Justin Helzer's trial that the trainings stripped away some of his client's ability to reject his brother's plans.

Prosecutor Harold Jewett said the brothers not only embraced the lessons, but later also worked as "staffers" for Impact Trainings and others. Staffers, witnesses said, assist the facilitators and operate such things as lights and music.

The Helzers and Godman, 30, who testified for the prosecution and was sentenced to 38 years to life, killed Ivan and Annette Stineman, a retired Concord couple, after trying to extort $100,000 from them. They killed Selina Bishop, the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop, after using her as a go- between for the money. All three were dismembered and dumped into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Glenn Helzer then shot Jennifer Villarin, Selina Bishop's mother, and her friend, James Gamble, in the Marin County town of Woodacre because Villarin had seen his face.

Impact Trainings is run by Hans Berger, reportedly a Lifespring graduate. Its Web site says the program offers "a loving journey where you have the opportunity to break down distrust and walls that you created as a result of your life's experiences."

The program's first phase, called "Quest," costs $495 and spans 40 hours over four days -- though witnesses said it is actually much longer. Second and third phases are $795 each.

Neil Fisher of Salt Lake City, a former Impact Trainings employee who founded Introspect -- which Glenn Helzer attended before it shut down -- said Impact Trainings helped him work through his own problems.

"The intent was to get an emotional release so they would feel free to express themselves," Fisher testified last week. Fisher said he initially used the methods of Impact Trainings but later changed to a "softer" approach with less "heavy confrontation."

Ms. A., the UC student who testified at Justin Helzer's trial, worked at a training session by a company called Personal Power that Helzer attended in 1997. She said the trainings "by nature are confrontational" and agreed with an attorney's characterization of them as a systematic use of humiliation. She said victims of child abuse might be told, "You seduced your father to rape you."

Officials with Personal Power did not return calls for comment.

Among the exercises trainees participated in was "lifeboat," in which people decided who in the room should be rescued from a sinking ship, Ms. A. said.

"You are instructed to stand in front of the person and say their name, which is their alternate name at this time, which is usually like 'Daddy's Doormat' or 'Daddy's Little Reject' or 'Mama's Play Toy' or 'Dirty Slut' or, you know, just something that speaks to how they are as a person," she said.

David Sullivan, a defense investigator for Justin Helzer, testified that he attended an Impact Trainings course incognito in Utah in 2001. He said the themes of the lessons included, "There are no victims" and "There is no right and wrong." He described a "feedback arc" in which four participants would shout insults at a person who had stood up and talked about their life.

After intense sessions, he said, trainees were told to lie down under dimmed lights and listen to music and a soothing voice -- which he suggested was a method of asserting control and manipulating thoughts.

"By the end of the training, I was the only person that hadn't been programmed, and it was obvious," Sullivan said, "Everyone else was kind of in this love-bomb state. By the end, everyone hugs everyone everywhere."

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