How Not To Get Away With Murder: Glenn Helzer And The Children Of Thunder
Any good true crime story takes us on a stroll down the darkest alleys of the human mind; to put ourselves in the mind of a killer and try to figure out how they did it and why. And then there are stories like this one, where every answer we seek about the killer’s motives and plans for getting away with it only leaves us with more questions, and nearly all of those questions are “Wait, what the hell?!?”
Glenn Taylor Helzer believed himself to be a prophet. He had big plans to change the world and defeat evil once and for all. But there were three things his plans lacked: funding, followers, and an ability to improvise an effective backup plan if things went wrong. And boy… did things go wrong. You would think that a self-proclaimed prophet like Glenn Helzer might have foreseen all of his grand plans going to crap in such spectacular fashion, but hey…
The Helzer Brothers and the Start of Children of Thunder
Brothers Glenn and Justin Helzer, along with their sister, were raised in a devout Mormon household. Glenn was very much the golden child of the family. He was very charismatic, and people were drawn to his magnetic personality, which served him well in his duties within the LDS church. Justin, on the other hand, was much more timid and reserved. He may not have been the favorite, but he always looked up to Glenn and was always willing to go along with whatever adventures his big bro had in store.
After high school, Glenn served in the National Guard for a while, then went on a Mormon mission trip to Brazil, where the locals absolutely loved him. Upon his return to the U.S., Glenn took a job as a stockbroker, got married, and had a couple of kids. Over the next three years, he got really into a self-help program called Impact Training, which seriously lit a fire under Glenn’s ass to accomplish all of his goals in life. The problem is, this was around the same time in his life that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (severe enough to qualify him for disability), so a lot of the goals in Glenn’s head were a bit… out there.
After separating from his wife, Glenn started engaging in a lot of behavior the LDS church did not approve of: drinking, doing drugs, and partying. Of course, Justin rode along as his wingman through all of this, which led to both brothers being excommunicated from the church. This is what led to Glenn deciding to start his own religion, the Children of Thunder. Member count: Just Glenn and Justin-- but that’ll soon change.
The Cult Membership Reaches a Total of Three
Over Memorial Day weekend in 1999, Glenn and Justin attended a Mormon-sponsored murder mystery dinner in Walnut Creek, California. Seeing as both brothers had both been excommunicated from the church at this point, their appearance at the dinner was apparently a bit of a scandal. Most reports we found about it said the brothers (brace yourself) showed up dressed all in black!
At this dinner, the pair met Dawn Godman, who was feeling like a bit of an outcast at the dinner herself. She was new to the church, socially awkward, and conveyed the kind of vulnerability that charismatic cult leaders like Glenn liked to exploit. Dawn soon started dating Justin, later moving into the brothers’ house, at which point she was sleeping with both of them, becoming the third official member of the Children of Thunder cult.
Let that be a warning to everyone: Nothing good really happens at a murder mystery dinner. Granted, this is a worst-case scenario here, but as far as entertainment goes, it’s generally just not worth it. Just stay home and play a game of Clue with a couple of failed Theater majors while eating cheesecake. You’ll have just as much fun, and you probably won’t get recruited for a death cult.
About the Cult
For him and his followers to adhere to, Glenn Helzer developed a list he titled “12 Principles of Magic,” which already makes it sound like an indestructible book held in a locked chamber at Hogwarts that no one’s allowed to read. We’re gonna share these principles with you now, but to prevent any of our readers from falling under Helzer’s spell, we’re going to annotate these rules with sarcasm:
“1. I am already perfect and therefore can do nothing wrong.
2. There is no such thing as right and wrong.
3. I am all-powerful and therefore the creator of and accountable for, everything that occurs in my life.”
We’re not sure how this mindset would work out in a cult setting, but these first three rules pretty much nailed what would eventually become the respective business models of Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit.
“4. Life is always right, I embrace all of my results.
5. All of my results I have created, to learn from, at some level.”
By the end of this story, those two rules will prove to be quite ironic.
“6. I know nothing; I believe nothing; I simply perceive without fear.”
Yeah… No duh, on the first part.
“7. It is of no concern to me how accurate, or inaccurate, my perceptions are, and therefore I am always right.”
We were wondering if he was also gonna predict Facebook.
“8. Unconditional fearless love is the most powerful force in the universe.”
Well, someone’s obviously never tried frozen Peanut M&Ms.
“9. Spirit knows.
10. I gain total control by losing all control.”
We all knew that this list was gonna have some pointless fluff to get it up to an even dozen, but this is MyPillow-level amounts of useless padding.
“11. Life is such a precious gift. And when I give back to life, immediately life gives more back to me, and therefore I am forever in its debt. What goes around comes around.
12. There is a higher power than mine, and that is my Savior, Jesus Christ, the son of my Father.”
It wouldn’t be a real religion without some sort of vaguely threatening statement like what goes around comes around being immediately followed by a shout-out to the Lord. “Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it? Anyway, Almighty God, hear our prayers…”
But this was just the start of Glenn Helzer’s big plan for the Children of Thunder (wringing hands) and the world. The 12 Principles of Magic was what would get everyone on the same page. The next step was to take mission trips to Brazil to volunteer with orphans. You know what? We’re just gonna take a break in our research right there and reflect on what a beautiful gesture that was for the cult to do for those children. We’re sure there are no sinister motives behind it. Now, to take a long drink of this beverage and continue reading about this Brazilian orphan idea.
They wanted to train the orphans to assassinate Mormon leaders so that Helzer could install himself as the leading prophet of the LDS church?!? That’s a helluva step two! Once Helzer installed himself as head of the church, his third step was almost more evil: He wanted to start his own self-help movement.
Helzer called his movement Transform America. The group’s goal was to unite everyone in a “state of peace and joy” in order to hasten the return of Jesus Christ and defeat Satan once and for all. Don’t get us wrong here that is a noble goal, but part of what brings new people into these movements is the success story of their leader. Just saying, when part of that leader’s backstory involves brainwashing a squad of Brazilian child soldiers, it wouldn’t have the same “If I can do it, so can you!” vibe of your typical Tony Robbins seminar, would it?
But in order to put any of these plans in motion, Helzer would need some seed money to get his cult start-up off the ground. This really wasn’t the kind of money you could ask for at the bank without the loan officer frantically smashing the panic button under their desk. Although, to be fair, it wouldn’t have been the worst pitch for Shark Tank. As always, Glenn Helzer had an idea. Several, in fact.
The first idea for raising money was to start up a high-end prostitution ring and then blackmail their wealthiest clientele. OK, you can’t expect the first idea out of the gate to be the winner, but this is early in the brainstorming session, so let’s see what else he’s got.
The second idea: trade stocks in a chain of fast-food restaurants and then manipulate the stock price by damaging property and calling in fake threats. Dude, really?… maybe we should steer this in a direction with a little more fiscal stability? Stealing catalytic converters, perhaps?
Third idea: Extort money from five of Glenn’s former clients from when he worked as a stockbroker, and then kill them and feed them to the dogs. Whoa! Dial it back a bit on the evil a bit there-Oh, they actually ran with this one? Alright… Step one: Get three dogs…
Glenn Helzer convinced his girlfriend (that’s right, Dawn was just his side piece), Selina Bishop, to open up a bank account in her name that Glenn also had access to. He told her that he was about to inherit a bunch of money soon, and he needed to keep it all hidden from his ex-wife in those accounts. Why wasn’t Selina a member of the cult? Well, she was never intended to be a part of the long-term plan. Once all of the money was collected and fully laundered, they were going to, ahem, sever ties with Selina. Selina didn’t even know Glenn’s real name. She only knew him as “Jordan.”
By the way, Selina Bishop was the daughter of famed blues guitarist Elvin Bishop. Probably his most famous song was the 1976 hit song “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and we only really mention it because if we gotta think of this murder victim every time we watch the first Guardians of the Galaxy, so do you.
The Killing Spree
Glenn Helzer had five former clients in mind, and since their first intended target wasn’t home, they went for number two on the list: Ivan and Annette Stineman, a retired couple from Concord, California. On July 30, 2000, Glenn and Justin dressed up in their finest suits and knocked on the Stineman’s door, just as they used to when they went door-to-door for the Mormon church back in the day. Once they were inside the house, they held the couple at gunpoint, Glenn forced the couple to take six pills of Rohypnol each, and then made them write him (well, technically Selina) a series of checks totaling $100,000.
According to Dawn Godman’s testimony, Annette Stineman was unable to finish filling out checks because the drugs were putting her to sleep. Well, duh… you just gave her enough roofies to stun a rhino. And what was their plan for waking her up? Forcing her to smoke meth! By the way, this woman was 78 years old! When the meth didn’t work, Dawn forged the last of the checks herself.
The trio then killed and dismembered the Stinemans, making sure to destroy anything that might aid in identifying the bodies, like crushing the victims’ teeth with a hammer. But it turns out Glenn’s dogs weren’t as hungry as they thought they would be (or maybe they weren’t in the mood for benzodiazepine septuagenarian tartare with a hint of methamphetamine), so they stuffed the remains in six duffel bags, loaded them up in the Stineman’s van and set out to toss the bags in a nearby river.
Then they sent Dawn to the bank to try to deposit the checks, and for some reason, they decided to have her do this while in a wheelchair and wearing a lime green tracksuit, silver hat, red boots, and a huge pair of sunglasses. You know, to keep a low profile.
It was at this point that all hell broke loose (because everything had been completely solid so far, right?): In order to deposit checks in such large amounts, the bank manager would first need verification from the Stinemans to ensure these checks weren’t fraudulent. In that moment, we imagine Dawn’s pupils got as big as saucers as her brain replayed the sound of duffel bags hitting the water of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
So, our trio killed an elderly couple for $100,000 in checks they could never cash, and now that the bank suspected fraud, it was only a matter of time before police looked into the Stinemans… As well as Selina Bishop, who owned the account they were trying to deposit the checks into. The Children of Thunder cult desperately needed to cover their tracks. So, Glenn picked up Selina for an impromptu camping trip to Yosemite… but first, they needed to “stop by the house.” Say, honey… What are these three duffel bags for? And why are you holding that hammer?
And then, Glenn Helzer realized he had another Selina problem: Her mother, Jennifer Villarin, was staying at Selina’s apartment, and Glenn knew she would be able to identify him and his car. So, Glenn and Justin went over to the apartment and shot Villarin to death, along with her friend James Gamble, who just happened to be visiting that night.
On August 7, while police arrested Justin Helzer and Dawn Godman at their house, Glenn managed to flee to a neighbor’s home and attempted to rob them of their car, a gun, and whatever cash they had on them. He slipped out the back door and was apprehended soon afterward.
The Aftermath (TW: Self-Harm and Suicide)
It seems like every effort made by Glenn Helzer and his two partners to cover their own tracks only led to them making more tracks that led police directly to them. Justin Helzer and Dawn Godman’s fingerprints were found in the Stineman’s abandoned minivan, along with the chainsaw they used to dismember the couple. Glenn's car and Justin’s truck matched the description of vehicles seen nearby all of the crime scenes.
When they checked the house the three shared, police found that carpets had very recently been replaced, and the bathroom had been scrubbed completely clean. It was believed they had tried to get rid of any blood or trace evidence of their crimes, but for some reason, they overlooked paperwork in the house that mentioned the Stinemans and Selina Bishop by name.
A phone number that came up most frequently on Selina’s pager traced back to the landline at Glenn’s house. Glenn may have targeted Selina’s mother because she could identify him, but he also failed to consider that so could many of Selina’s friends… which they did as soon as they found out what he had done to her.
Dawn Godman met with a cult deprogramming counselor while in custody, and once she came out from under Glenn’s spell, she reached a plea agreement to testify against the brothers to avoid the death penalty for herself. She received a sentence of 38 years to life.
Glenn Helzer decided to plead guilty to all 18 charges against him. This was not part of a plea deal or attempt to avoid the death penalty, he pretty much just accepted that he was royally screwed and was ready to get on with whatever he had coming to him. He received five death sentences, and still sits on death row due to California’s current moratorium on executions.
But Glenn’s guilty plea kinda threw a wrench into Justin’s defense strategy, as the two brothers were originally going to be tried together for the murders, and Justin was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. Justin was found guilty and received three death sentences for the murders of Selina and the Stinemans, as well as two life sentences for killing Jennifer Villarin and James Gamble. In 2010, Justin attempted suicide by stabbing two pens into his eyes, which resulted in permanent blindness and mild brain damage. Three years later, Justin finished the job by hanging himself in his jail cell.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
Top image: Rifleman/Shutterstock