Guilty verdict in murders of 5

Last of 3 members of cultlike group to be convicted

The San Francisco Chronicle/June 17, 2004
By Demian Bulwa

A Contra Costa County jury needed less than a day to decide Wednesday that Justin Alan Helzer, with his brother and their roommate, brutally murdered five people in the summer of 2000, setting the stage for an even deeper journey into the mind of a shy young man who killed with a hammer and his bare hands.

While jurors still must decide whether Helzer, 32, was sane when he killed, he is the last member of the cult like "Children of Thunder" to be convicted. The three went to war with Satan in a modest Concord home, savagely slaying and dismembering victims while extorting money for a self-help group they believed would hasten Christ's return to Earth.

The jury of 10 women and two men, who heard five weeks of often macabre testimony, said Helzer was guilty of 11 of 12 criminal counts, including extortion and kidnapping. They tossed out a relatively insignificant charge of possessing ecstasy for sale.

Judge Mary Ann O'Malley ordered the jury to return June 24, when the defense will try to prove that Helzer had not known right from wrong and killed under the direction of an older brother he considered a prophet of God. If jurors rule that Helzer was sane, they will return for a third phase to decide whether Helzer should die.

Helzer, wearing a green cardigan sweater over a white shirt and a brown tie, sat motionless with his hands in his lap and showed no reaction as courtroom clerk Tom Moyer spent 15 minutes reading the verdicts. Helzer shook both of his attorneys' hands and gave a quick nod to his mother, Carma Helzer, before he was led back to his cell in handcuffs.

Nancy Hall and Judy Nemec, daughters of victims Ivan and Annette Stineman, cried quietly as the verdicts were read and dabbed their eyes. They declined to talk afterward, saying they did not want to jeopardize the remainder of the case. Prosecutor Harold Jewett said only, "We still have a lot of work to do."

Defense attorney Daniel Cook, who called no witnesses, is expected to begin his case in earnest during the sanity phase and argue that Justin Helzer believed his brother, Glenn Taylor Helzer, spoke for God.

"That's what this case is really about," Cook said. "That's the only reason he got involved in these enterprises. Before this set of tragedies unfolded, Justin was a pretty decent guy as far as I can tell."

Jewett "can argue that this is all about power and greed," Cook said. "But that's nonsense. These people believed they were doing the work of God and that they were having God's mission laid out to them by a prophet."

Cook said he would delve into Justin Helzer's childhood and his relationship with his brother. He said the jury also would hear from defense investigator David Sullivan, who in 2001 surreptitiously enrolled in an intense Sacramento self-awareness program that Glenn Helzer insisted that all of his friends complete.

Justin Helzer was tried after his 33-year-old brother entered a surprise guilty plea just before their joint trial was to begin. A jury must still decide whether to sentence Glenn Helzer to death. Their former roommate, Dawn Godman, 30, pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution under a plea bargain that will send her to prison for 38 years to life.

Testimony in Justin Helzer's trial focused heavily on his brother, who forced those around him to live by his "12 Principles of Magic" scrawled on a psychedelic poster. They included "No such thing as right and wrong."

Godman testified that Glenn Helzer had a long list of ideas to make money that included a high-end prostitution ring and manipulating the stock prices of fast-food companies through vandalism. He planned to open an orphanage in Brazil, where he was once a Mormon missionary, and train kids to be assassins who would slaughter the leaders of the Mormon church in Utah. Glenn Helzer planned to be named the church's prophet.

The brothers moved with Godman into a house in Concord for the express purpose of planning and carrying out "Children of Thunder," buying weapons and bringing home dogs that they thought could eat their victims.

The trio on July 30, 2000, declared war on Satan before kidnapping Annette Stineman, 78, and Ivan Stineman, 85 -- a Concord couple who once employed Glenn Helzer as their stockbroker -- to extort $100,000 from them. Justin Helzer beat Ivan Stineman to death while his brother cut Annette Stineman's throat, Godman said.

The third victim, Selina Bishop, the 22-year-old daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop, was befriended by Glenn Helzer to do one simple act -- cash the Stinemans' checks. Justin Helzer bludgeoned her with a hammer, though she may have died after his brother hit her with the hammer and cut her throat, Godman said.

The three victims were eviscerated and dismembered with a saw, then stuffed into gym bags and dumped into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Finally, Glenn Helzer fatally shot Bishop's mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45, and Villarin's boyfriend, 54-year-old James Gamble, at their home in Marin County because Villarin had seen his face and he feared she might be able to identify him.

Judge O'Malley dismissed the jury by saying, "We have much more evidence to hear, and much more to learn."

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