A nude model, five bodies and the Mormon assassination plot attempt

This may be the year of the celebrity trial - Michael Jackson the King of Pop on child molestation charges, the basketball star Kobe Bryant accused of rape, the legendary record producer Phil Spector indicted for murder - but the kookiest, darkest, most grimly compelling court case in America may well be one that is receiving almost no media attention at all.

This may be the year of the celebrity trial - Michael Jackson the King of Pop on child molestation charges, the basketball star Kobe Bryant accused of rape, the legendary record producer Phil Spector indicted for murder - but the kookiest, darkest, most grimly compelling court case in America may well be one that is receiving almost no media attention at all.

This week, a jury in Martinez, a small town outside San Francisco, will retire to consider the bizarre, brutally violent cult surrounding one Glenn Taylor Helzer, a lapsed Mormon accused of bludgeoning and dismembering five people in an elaborate extortion racket intended to hasten the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Helzer, a former stockbroker who has already pleaded guilty and faces the death penalty, exerted a charismatic hold over an eclectic group of followers including his younger brother, a former girlfriend turned Playboy centrefold model, and a self-described "good witch" who once offered to raise money for Armageddon by appearing in porn films.

The first two victims were elderly former clients of Helzer's, who were forced to write cheques for $100,000 (£55,000) while being tortured and held under the influence of the date-rape drug rohypnol. The third victim was Selina Bishop, 22-year-old daughter of the blues guitarist Elvin Bishop, who was initially part of the gang but was then slaughtered to ensure that she did not testify against the others. Her mother, Jennifer Villarin, and her mother's boyfriend were the fourth and fifth victims.

The star witness in the trial was a former housemate of Helzer's, Dawn Godman, who calmly described how she held up the severed heads of three of the victims while another member of the gang bashed their teeth out with a hammer and chisel to make them harder to identify. She also explained how Helzer had hoped to feed the severed bodies of the victims to his pet rottweiler before deciding this was impractical, stuffing them in duffel bags and dumping them in the Sacramento river delta instead.

The culmination of Helzer's plan was to have been an operation codenamed "Brazil", in which he would send South American orphans to Salt Lake City to kill the 15 elders who run the Mormon church.

According to Godman's testimony, Helzer imagined he could blame the murders on the "government behind government" and take over the leadership of the world's 12 million Mormons himself.

Helzer was excommunicated by the Mormons in 1998, which is about the time he started declaring he was the one true prophet of God and devised something called "the 12 Principles of Magic" that included the exhortation: "No such thing as right and wrong."

His ex-girlfriend Keri Mendoza, who went on to become Playboy's Miss September 2000 under the name Kerissa Fare, told the court Helzer had given her the confidence to send her modelling shots to the magazine. "It was special just to know him," she said.

She also described Helzer's younger brother Justin as a gentle soul who ate organic food and refused to kill insects buzzing around the house. Justin's fate will be the main topic of discussion by the jury, who must decide whether his brother's influence in effect rendered him insane or whether he was responsible for helping to commit the murders and subsequent dismemberments.

Godman has already pleaded guilty to her role in the killings and is expected to receive a sentence of 38 years to life. She was spared capital charges in exchange for her testimony, which left the court so sickened that the judge at one point called for a collective "deep breath".

She described how Helzer called her into the bathroom, where Selina Bishop had already been bludgeoned and may already have been dead, telling her he wanted to see the gruesome details of his plan in action. "Spirit says you get to know. This isn't a dream," she quoted him saying. She then described him picking up a knife and slitting the victim's throat.

It was Godman and Justin Helzer who cleaned up after the murders. She explained: "Taylor said he had more important things to do, like sit and meditate and listen to the spirit."

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