We all operate under a general moral code: don't kill, don't steal, don't crash into that car just because they didn't signal before merging, blah blah blah. When someone breaks that code in an exciting way, we flock to our preferred news sources like moths to a flame to learn all the gory details, before some other crime catches our attention.
How often have you found yourself wondering what it's like to be on the other side of a sensational headline? When I was 10 years old, it happened to me. In August 2000, my mother's three best friends were arrested for the murders of five people. She was accused of providing the alibi. Looking back, this is what I learned:
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In July 2000, brothers Glenn and Justin Helzer and their friend Dawn Godman murdered five people. Most of the news coverage looked something like this:
Thankfully, the Daily Mail never got to this case.
That "plot" or "crusade" was actually an absurdly complicated scheme to raise $100,000 and start a self-help group called Impact America so they could fund an army of Brazilian child assassins that would wipe out the leaders of the Mormon Church. Right away you can see there's a problem: The Brazilian child assassins have an ancient alliance with the Mormon elders that precludes them from ever attacking, and also all of that is gibberish. When your murderous conspiracy reads like a mistranslated synopsis of a David Lynch film, it's probably not going off without a hitch.
Initial plans were to start a company that would sell drugs and prostitutes to wealthy businessmen and use underage girls to seduce and blackmail married businessmen, but both were too complicated and time-consuming. Instead, Glenn Helzer devised a much more practical plan: He coerced his girlfriend, 22-year-old Selina Bishop, to open some bank accounts for him, telling her that he was going to inherit money and needed to keep it hidden from his ex-wife. He took advantage of his job as a stockbroker to find an elderly, wealthy, and trusting ex-client who would let him into their home long enough to extort $100,000 from them.
Wait, shit. This suddenly got terrible. Can't we go back to the child assassins?
July 30, 2000: Glenn, Justin, and Dawn abduct elderly Annette and Ivan Stineman and bring them back to the Helzer house. The Stinemans are then drugged and forced to write out checks to Bishop totaling $100,000. My mother's role in all this? She was responsible for the trio's alibi: receipts for us all for dinner and a movie. At first blush, that seems like the most innocuous crime ever committed, but it gets bad in a hurry.
My mother took me out that night and bought three extra adult tickets for a showing of X-Men and three extra adult meals at Denny's -- so far, the only crimes being committed are against good taste. But as my mother and I watched Professor Xavier battle his longtime frenemy, Magneto, Glenn and Justin dragged the elderly couple into the Helzer bathroom. Justin bashed Ivan's head against the tile, and Glenn slit Annette's throat with a hunting knife. While I stuffed my face with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Glenn, Justin, and Dawn dismembered the elderly couple's bodies and tried feeding them to a pair of dogs Glenn had recently adopted. The animals refused the meal.
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"That ... was not kibble."
Over the next week, the Helzers and Godman, calling themselves "Children of Thunder" (dang, why do murderers always take the best metal band names?) tried and failed to deposit $100,000 worth of checks into a fake account owned by Bishop. Before the checks cleared, they murdered Bishop, her mom, and her mom's friend for good measure. The corpses were dismembered, dumped in a lake, and found almost as quickly as the murderers.
At the time, I only vaguely understood the complexity and enormity of the situation. I knew that my mom's best friends had been arrested for killing five people, but other than that, I was kept in the dark. While people across the nation watched or read about the bizarre events, my mom and I pretended all was well as the media vans parked outside our apartment. It wasn't until years later that I realized the true scope of my involvement.
Thanks for remembering, Internet.
When you see a headline like this ...
... you tsk your tsks and maybe read on a little bit for the gory details, but you probably don't think much about the stuff that preceded the gore. Where did they get knives that could cut through bone? Did they buy those dogs specifically for people-eating, or were they a multitasking breed?
I don't have to ask those questions. I remember being in Justin's truck, tapping on the glass to keep the attention of the two dogs Glenn had just adopted so they wouldn't jump out of the truck bed. Looking back on that simple memory, I realize now that those dogs I played with were fed the body parts of old people. They didn't have a taste for the elderly, so that plan failed, but still: I happily played with (almost) man-eating Rottweilers.
Chihuahuas probably would've eaten the meat.
I once asked Dawn for a pair of scissors. Instead, she opened a drawer and pulled out a knife that "could cut through bone." You might recognize this as "not scissors," which was less than helpful given the situation. Later that same day, Glenn took me into a dark area alongside his house to show me a Taser. He told me he used it on his dogs when they misbehaved. He half-whispered in my ear about this device that could incapacitate a potential threat, and I remember thinking, "Gee, that seems a bit excessive for a dog." Later that night, I pretended to sleep on a beanbag in the living room while my mom, Dawn, Glenn, and Justin talked. I was focused on looking as adorable as possible in the hope that I'd overhear an adult genuinely intimate to another adult how angelic I looked while I slept. Instead, I overheard Glenn whispering about a circle of trust.
"The circle," he said, "has people in it and outside of it. If someone left the circle to share with someone outside of it, that person and the people around them would have to be eliminated." Basically, totally unbeknownst to me at the time, Glenn and Dawn had spent the whole day trying to psych me out in front of my mother. And after I was "asleep," they told her that they'd kill both of us if she narced.
Bullets are circular, if viewed from the right angle.
So on the upside, by age 10 I had more street cred than the average rapper.
In August 2000, I was taken in for questioning. I sat in a small room with a comically large mirror on the wall. In an attempt to make me less nervous, my mom sent me in with a bag of jelly beans. She said they were to share with our new district attorney friends. After a while, a woman with a no-bullshit voice came in. I offered her some jelly beans and she turned me down like I'd tried to slip her a stack of 100s to look the other way. Her overall demeanor was more befitting the interrogation of a cartel hit man than a 10-year-old armed with candy beans, but there we were.
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If she'd been diabetic, I'd have represented a serious threat.
She showed me photos and asked if I recognized small spots on them. Ten years old and face stuffed with jelly beans, I was looking at photos of people my mom's best friends had straight up murdered. R-rated movies lost a bit of their forbidden appeal after that.
I told the stern blonde woman that maybe the dots were from a Taser. She said, "No, we already checked." I popped some more jelly beans in my mouth and said, "Maybe they're bug bites?" She told me no again. "Shit, man. Why the hell are you asking me?" is something I did not say at the time, because I was 10 and I did not know how to be sassy.
That's something you learn in high school, right?
If you didn't already guess, my mom hightailed it the fuck out of that "circle of trust." After the trio was arrested, we moved into the Witness Protection Program.
The Oakland Tribune
Journalist says his job is real damn easy.
We got a P.O. box, and the district attorney's office covered half the cost of rent at our new apartment. My mother had become so paranoid about the evil demons her ex-BFFs would send for her that she was one sheet short of an aluminum foil hat. I wasn't any better: I'd bike around our apartment complex every day, super suspicious of anyone I didn't recognize. Not exactly the fully paid suburban vacation My Blue Heaven promised, is it? Instead of a white picket fence and a full security detail, I got super good at making Top Ramen and waiting for murderers to attack.
One time, my mom didn't come home from her therapy session. I was awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of someone pounding on the front door. I had gotten my yellow belt in karate, but what if the murderer was a blue belt or higher?! Scared out of my mind, I grabbed ... a spatula. I approached the door to peer through the peephole and imagined the person on the other side holding a gun at gut level, ready to turn my stomach into Swiss cheese because my foolish ass chose to stand behind the door rather than beside it.
At least it was a metal spatula, and not one of those wussy plastic ones.
"Who is it?" I said, in the strongest tone a terrified 11-year-old girl could muster.
"I'm a police officer. I'm here to pick you up. Could you please open the door, Talia?"
My heart was beating so hard, I thought I would faint. They know kids know to open doors for strangers who know their name. Well, I'm no dummy, mister fake cop!
You can buy all that stuff in a gas station!
I opened the door a tiny crack and asked to see the cop's badge. He smiled at my request and pulled out his identification. I took that smile as a sign that he thought he'd bested me and would get away with his (probably) karate-based kidnapping. But I'm smart. I have a spatula. You will not take me! He handed me his ID. I examined it carefully, having no idea what I was looking for, but the point was that I looked like I knew what I was doing. When he failed to flee the scene, unnerved by the careful scrutiny of an 11-year-old, I put down the spatula and opened the door. The police officer told me he was going to take me to my mom. Turns out she had a severe mental breakdown and her psychiatrist admitted her under a 5150 hold. Bet your mom doesn't have one of those!
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It came with a cool free jacket!