Details of bizarre plot to kill in God's name

Accused woman says she was under spell of a prophet

San Francisco Chronicle/June 24, 2004
By Demian Bulwa

When Glenn Taylor Helzer told Dawn Godman he wanted her to kill in God's name, she considered it a blessing.

Guardian angels circled, Godman recalled in court recently, as she sat with Helzer in a car outside the Mormon Temple in Oakland and listened to his plan to hasten Christ's return to Earth. She said he made her feel like a child in its parent's arms.

Such was the portrait of Glenn Taylor Helzer that emerged during his brother Justin Helzer's murder trial, which ended June 16 with his conviction on 11 counts, including murder, extortion and kidnapping, and will in all likelihood be presented as jurors, beginning today, consider Justin Helzer's state of mind when he killed.

Handsome, eloquent and affectionate, Glenn Helzer had a knack for manipulating the vulnerable. He believed he was a prophet and was charismatic enough to make Godman and his younger brother, Justin Helzer, believe it, too -- and join him in killing five people.

Although it was Justin Helzer on trial, Glenn Helzer weighed heavily in the proceedings. Justin Helzer, 32, had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Jurors, therefore, must consider whether he knew right from wrong as the "Children of Thunder" fatally bludgeoned and shot five people in 2000. Should they find Helzer was sane, they will then decide whether he should be put to death.

Glenn Taylor Helzer, 33, pleaded guilty shortly before his trial was to begin, but a jury must decide whether he should be sentenced to death. Godman, 30, pleaded guilty and testified against Justin Helzer in exchange for a sentence of 38 years to life.

Prosecutor Harold Jewett has argued that Justin Helzer was a willing participant in the crimes and his efforts to conceal the crimes show he knew what he did was wrong. Defense attorney Daniel Cook, who did not call any witnesses, insists Helzer was the hapless follower of a domineering brother whom he believed spoke for God -- a point he is expected to underscore in the days to come.

The trial also illuminated the bizarre relationships among the three people involved in the crimes, and those too are sure to be revisited during the sanity phase. Justin Helzer was portrayed as a shy, Spartan young man whose older brother often told him, "I'm No. 1, and you're No. 2." Godman was a lonely woman who as a child found comfort in the forests of the Sierra foothills and as an adult sought salvation for a speed habit, failed marriage and attempted suicide.

And then there was Glenn Helzer, a former stockbroker with a magnetic personality who wanted to defeat Satan and stretched beyond all reason the Mormon belief that people can communicate directly with God.

The Helzers met Godman on Memorial Day 1999 at a murder mystery dinner in a Mormon temple in Walnut Creek. The Helzers, raised by devout parents in Martinez but excommunicated in 1998 for drug use, were dressed entirely in black and didn't seem to fit in.

Neither did Godman, who was drawn to Glenn Helzer.

"He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world," Godman testified.

He had that effect on women.

"It was special just to know him," testified Keri Mendoza, who once dated Glenn Helzer and said he gave her the confidence to get breast implants and become a Playboy centerfold.

As he did with everyone close to him, Glenn Helzer forced Mendoza and Godman to attend self-awareness classes. He believed the program "began a process of breaking down people's walls ... so they would be more open to his ideas," Godman testified.

And so she spent four days in a windowless room with about 30 other people who confronted their demons with the help of a facilitator who Godman said reminded her of Glenn Helzer. She finished two of the program's three "levels" before Helzer said he'd take over the lessons.

That, she said, was when she realized Glenn Helzer was a prophet. She mentioned it to Justin Helzer, who agreed with her.

Before long, Glenn Helzer was laying ambitious plans. They included a bizarre plot to train Brazilian orphans to slaughter the leaders of the Mormon Church so he could become its prophet, and "Transform America," a self-help group to foster "a state of peace and joy" and defeat Satan, Godman recalled.

They needed money to carry out "Transform America." They decided to blackmail one of Glenn Helzer's former clients. Their first victim wasn't home, so they chose Ivan and Annette Stineman, a retired Concord couple. They extorted $100,000 from the couple and killed them.

The next day, they eviscerated and dismembered the bodies. Glenn Helzer let his brother do most of the dirty work, Godman said.

"Taylor said he had more important things to do, like sit and meditate and listen to the spirit," Godman testified.

When they'd finished, they kneeled as Glenn Helzer "thanked Ivan and Annette for being willing to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause," she said.

Two days later, Glenn and Justin Helzer fatally bludgeoned Selina Bishop, the daughter of bluesman Elvin Bishop. Glenn Helzer had befriended her because he wanted her to cash the Stinemans' checks. Before dismembering her body, Glenn Helzer showed Godman the body and said, "Spirit says you get to know: This isn't a dream," Godman testified.

The next morning, Glenn Helzer took Godman to the Marin County town of Woodacre to kill Bishop's mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45, and her companion, James Gamble, 54, because Villarin had seen his face and he worried she might identify him. Glenn Helzer tried to keep his name clean but didn't seem as concerned about his brother -- he shot the couple with a gun Justin Helzer bought under his own name.

Police quickly connected the killings in Woodacre to the death of the Stinemans, whose bodies surfaced after being tossed in duffel bags into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Police arrested them on Aug. 7, 2000. Glenn Helzer insisted his brother and Godman were innocent.

"Spirit said that I should not let them be in here," he told the cop.

Godman continued to believe. For at least two years, she remained certain that Glenn Helzer was a prophet of God.

"I believed that no matter what happened, Taylor, working with the angels, would work to free us," Godman testified. "I believed that I could communicate with Taylor through the angels."

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