Killer under spell of brother, expert says

Psychiatrist testifies 2 murderers shared psychotic delusions

San Francisco Chronicle/June 29, 2004
By Demian Bulwa

Convicted murderer Justin Helzer was so submissive to his older brother that, long before he helped him kill five people in a bid to defeat Satan, he picked up a psychotic disorder from him and shared its effects, a psychiatrist said Monday.

Dr. Stephen Raffle was the first witness called by Helzer's lawyers during the sanity phase of his Contra Costa County capital murder trial. A jury will hear from other experts who disagree about whether Helzer knew right from wrong when he killed.

Helzer, 32, his brother Glenn Taylor Helzer and their former roommate Dawn Godman brutally killed five people in the summer of 2000 to raise money for a self-awareness group they believed would hasten Christ's return to Earth.

Raffle, a forensic psychiatrist from Kentfield who interviewed Justin Helzer six times, said Monday that Helzer believed his brother was a prophet of God and that he "was not able to comprehend that the homicides he committed were morally wrong."

Helzer was in a close and symbiotic relationship with his brother, who was more charismatic and successful and bossed him around, Raffle said.

"Justin saw himself the opposite way, so Taylor became the ideal that Justin aspired to," he said.

Glenn Helzer suffers from bipolar and borderline personality disorders, and when he suffered a psychotic break in 1998 and was hospitalized, Raffle said, "Justin couldn't afford to lose the relationship" and suffered from "shared delusional disorder." The psychiatrist said the condition was so rare that he had never diagnosed it before.

Prosecutor Harold Jewett said during opening statements that Justin Helzer had not been diagnosed with a mental illness before his arrest or before he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity last year. He said Helzer's comments to doctors, including Raffle, show he knew right from wrong.

Jewett quoted Helzer as telling Raffle that he initially thought his older brother's claims of prophet status were "a little nuts" and that he didn't believe every revelation the elder Helzer passed along.

Justin Helzer's statement that killing was justified if it prevented "something much worse" -- a catastrophic end to the world -- shows he understood the killings were bad, Jewett said.

Glenn Helzer, 33, has pleaded guilty to the five murders and will have a death penalty hearing. Godman, 30, also pleaded guilty and testified against Justin Helzer in exchange for a sentence of 38 years to life.

Raffle's testimony shed light on Justin Helzer's beliefs before he killed: He comes across in his interviews as a soul-searching, troubled young man who studied other religions after being raised in the Mormon Church and believed in conspiracy theories about the U.S. government.

Justin Helzer said he left the Mormon Church in the late 1990s to try the "sinning department," to see if he would be possessed by demons or, conversely, forgiven and allowed to return, according to Raffle.

Raffle also said that the brothers' family has a history of psychiatric problems, and that Justin Helzer had a major depression after he returned from his Mormon mission to Texas as a young man, withdrawing into his house and pondering suicide.

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