Grim crime scene re-explored in depth in 'False Prophet"

San Jose Mercury News/March 16, 2008

Eight years later, many of us in Bay Area newsrooms have vivid memories of the hot August day in 2000 when duffel bags containing the dismembered bodies of three missing people popped up in the Sacramento Delta.

In the days prior, homicide investigators in Marin County were desperately searching for the 22-year-old woman whose mother and a friend had been gunned down in her Woodacre apartment. Across the Bay in Concord, police were looking for an elderly couple who had suspiciously disappeared a month before their 55th wedding anniversary.

The gruesome discovery in the Delta confirmed the two cases were connected, but why the killings had occurred was still beyond any spectator's imagination.

In the new nonfiction book "The False Prophet," former Contra Costa Times reporter Claire Booth retells the true story of how five unlikely innocents became victims of an extortion plot orchestrated by a wayward missionary who believed he was the new prophet of the Latter-day Saints, despite how far he had fallen from the church's morals and values.

After covering the case on the Times' Contra Costa County courts beat, Booth spent two years scouring documents and conducting in-depth interviews to show how former Concord resident Glenn Taylor Helzer twisted Scripture to convince his brother Justin Helzer and friend Dawn Godman that bloodshed was necessary if he was to reach the highest echelons of the Mormon Church and, ultimately, stop an apocalypse by bringing forth the second coming of Christ.

The Helzer brothers are currently on death row, while Godman has to serve at least 35 years in prison before she will be eligible for parole.

"As I was covering it, I was thinking this has got to be a book some day," Booth said. "There was just too much information; it could never fit in just one news article.

"Everything about the case was unusual, from the types of people targeted to the people responsible," Booth said. "It was so unusual to have grown up the way (Taylor Helzer) did, in a devout Mormon family, and turn so far from the church. Using all of his teachings and gifts for swaying and inspiring people, he went the wrong way."

A large portion of Booth's time researching the book was spent with the local attorneys and investigators on the case, as well as the friends and family members of the Helzer gang's murder victims, to weave in their personal stories. Selina Bishop, daughter of famous blues musician Elvin Bishop, was just starting her adult life when she fell for Taylor Helzer, not knowing she was a pawn to launder money. Her mother, Jenny Villarin, was killed because she had met Taylor, despite his best efforts to remain unidentifiable after Bishop disappeared. Villarin died alongside Mendocino County resident James Gamble, who happened to be visiting his old friend Jenny at the wrong time. Ivan and Annette Stineman were killed for their retirement accounts, having the misfortune of being Taylor Helzer's clients when he was an investment banker.

"The story needed to be written, it needed to be brought together in one place," Booth said. "The trial did that to a large extent by publicly airing his plans, the tolls on the victims and how justice was served.

"The interesting part of my job was sitting down with people afterward and having them walk through what happened from their perspective, then taking those perspectives and putting it into a narrative."

Today, Booth is living in the Sacramento area and planning her next project. Since the release of "The False Prophet" last month, Booth said the feedback has been positive.

"I hope people read it as a cautionary tale," Booth said. "You can't throw away all the world's moral codes to get want you want. They are there for a reason, and it's to help guide human behavior."

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