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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence