Helzer's insanity case under way

Defense portrays Helzer as an 'American tragedy'

Tri-Valley Herald/June 25, 2004
By Simon Read

Martinez, CA -- The story of Justin Helzer, a Concord resident convicted last week in the summer 2000 slayings of five people, is an "American tragedy of untreated mental illness and the bringing down of a family and members of the community," Helzer's defense attorney said.

Charles Hoehn previewed this "tragedy" for the jury during opening arguments in the sanity phase of Helzer's trial, which got under way on Thursday.

Helzer, 32, was convicted on June 16 on multiple counts of first-degree murder in the killings of Ivan Stineman, 85, and his wife, Annette, 77, both of Concord; Selina Bishop, 22, of Woodacre; her mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45, of Novato, and Villarin's companion, James Gamble, 54, of Laytonville.

Helzer had pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. To avoid a possible death sentence, it's up to the defense to prove Helzer was insane at the time of the killings.

The defense has argued Helzer was under the influence of his domineering older brother, someone the defendant believed was a man of divine providence. "(Helzer) believed his brother divinely communicated to and was a prophet of God," Hoehn said.

Glenn Helzer, 34, has pleaded guilty to 18 felony counts against him. They include five counts of capital murder that make him eligible for the death sentence.

"The state seeks death," Hoehn said. "We want to prove ... that (Helzer) was insane."

Justin Helzer had no sense of self-worth, Hoehn said. He was a young man let down by his own failure of trying to live up to the high standards presented in the scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hoehn said Helzer was unable to discern what was morally right and morally wrong when he killed and dismembered the Stinemans and Bishop in a plot he believed would pave the way for the second coming.

Helzer's mental illness was came from a cruel childhood, one where he lived in the shadow of his "mean, dominant and cruel" brother and was ignored by his mother, his lawyer said.

"From day one, Justin was considered the mosquito, the irritant in the family," Hoehn said

Believing his brother was communicating directly with God, Helzer strived to do Glenn Helzer's bidding. Citing his client's interview with a psychiatrist, Hoehn said Justin Helzer did not want to face God and say he lacked the courage to stand strong in the battle against Satan.

Deputy District Attorney Hal Jewett argued Helzer knew exactly what he was doing when he smashed Selina Bishop's head with a hammer and helped dismember her and the Stinemans' bodies with a reciprocating saw.

Jewett read excerpts from interviews between Helzer and court-appointed mental-health experts in which Helzer expressed thoughts on the killings.

Reading from one psychiatrist's report, Jewett quoted Helzer as saying the Stinemans' deaths "were disgusting, but it had to be done . . . I turned my brain off. I tried not to think or feel -- just to get it done."

Jewett argued that an insane individual, one who could not determine morally right from morally wrong, would not have such feelings.

"Ultimately, he did know that what he did was morally wrong," Jewett said.

The prosecution argued there was never a mention of mental illness from the defense until after Helzer entered his plea of innocent by reason of insanity in October 2003.

According to court records, Glenn Helzer sought to extort $100,000 from the Stinemans to fund a number of business ventures. Five people wound up dead when things did not go according to plan.

Selina Bishop, Glenn Helzer's girlfriend and the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop, was murdered to prevent her from becoming a witness in the event the plot was exposed and went to court.

Glenn Helzer marked Jennifer Villarin for death because he feared she knew too much about him. Gamble was killed just because he happened to be at the apartment that night.

In other court developments on Thursday, Judge Mary Ann O'Malley ruled in favor of a prosecution motion seeking to have Justin Helzer interviewed by the prosecution's psychiatrist.

The trial continues on Monday.

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