7 Things I Learned as an Accomplice to Mass Murder
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:
You Could Be Right in the Middle of It and Not Even Know
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.
"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.
You Will Definitely See the Signs Later
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.
The Cops Interrogate Everybody -- Even the Kids
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.
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?
The Fear and Paranoia Don't Magically Go Away When the Bad Guys Get Arrested
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.
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!
It came with a cool free jacket!
The Psychic Toll Lasts for Years
My mom was so desperate for friendship with these people that she agreed to be in a pornographic film, took Ecstasy, took her 10-year-old daughter with her to create an alibi for their unspecified (at the time) crimes, and even agreed to help them hide the murder weapon.
Headline technology has made staggering advances in just 10 years.
My mother was a model of what I was supposed to aspire to, but all I saw were her mistakes. She trusted people too readily, so I ended up with some pretty serious problems trusting people. I suspected that friends just wanted something from me and lived every day waiting for the other shoe to drop ... and to be devoured by man-eating dogs. I'm really fun at parties.
Put anyone under the kind of pressure my mother endured and they don't exactly turn into diamonds. To this day, my mother occasionally speaks to "spirits" that she believes the trio (well, duo now) send to her. She once told me I wasn't allowed to open the blinds because Russian satellites would be able to see inside. I probably would have cracked up, too, if I hadn't been too busy dealing with my mother's descent into semi-functional insanity. Hey, silver lining!
Oops, nope. Turns out that silver lining was just one of MI6's orbiting telescopes.
Before her best friends went on a murder spree, my mother practiced and taught Wicca. The power of suggestion was right up her gullible little alley. She believed in Wicca because it indirectly allowed her to believe in herself. After everything that happened, my mother didn't have anything to do with Wicca for several years because she believed she was tainted. She put away her healing crystals and obsessively watched any Harry Potter movie that was on TV because it inspired her to be a "good witch." Pretty strange, but ultimately innocent stuff, until you bring in the media.
The Media Will Distort Everything
Everything I've come across about my mom makes it a point to highlight the fact that she was "a self-described witch."
Is being a self-described witch more or less crazy than having someone else call you a witch?
Is that weird? Yeah, duh. My mom was and remains excruciatingly insecure, latching onto anything that comes along that might give her strength. If throwing some herbs in a pot and calling it an attraction potion gives her confidence for a date, great. If burning sage in the house makes her feel less anxious, awesome!
But hey, you can't expect the media to see the word "witch" and not seize on that sucker like a pit bull. What really pissed me off was when the news at the time made a big deal about my "eccentric" mom wearing a sewer company sweater to court.
Clearly, the ferret with a weird name is a contributing factor to this tragedy.
"That was her boyfriend's sweater!" I say to the article. She was terrified, going on a witness stand in front of three murderers who had threatened her life. She wanted something comforting to take with her. It's actually the least crazy thing she ever did. But none of the reporters ever bothered to dig into humanizing details like that, because a witch who offered to participate in porn on behalf of murderers is all the headline you can technically handle, lest the font itself explode.
You Will Find a Way to Blame Yourself
A day after our great migration from southern California to northern California, my mom asked me, "Do you want to go to grandma's church or the Maughns' church?" This took me about half a second to decide. My grandmother is a beautiful, wonderful, inspiring woman, and her presence feels like home. That said, the thought of going to church with my grandma felt lame, because hello, I'm 5 years old and this is serious business. I can't be seen sitting next to an old person whose job is to shush me by patting my thigh. What would the other 5-year-olds think? By contrast, the Maughns were a party. They'd color with me at church, and nobody ever did the shut-up-you-gremlin thigh pat.
"The Maughns'." That's it. Those are the words that laid the groundwork for the rest of my life.
If only I'd heard the good news about Tammuz.
So, we joined the Mormon Church. My mother frequently attended the church's singles mixers (can you think of a sadder thing, besides, uh ... everything else in this story?), and in December 1997, she met Dawn Godman, one of the killers. My mother loved how much Dawn liked her. And the only reason why my mom met Dawn is because I wanted to go to the Maughns' church after we moved to northern California, and the only reason we moved to northern California was so I could be closer to my dad. You see where this is going: I never bashed anybody's head in with a hammer or threw bags full of body parts into a river, but I obviously still have a lot to feel guilty about.
Editor's Note: No, you really don't. The greatest responsibility we ever had as kindergartners was to watch Raphael, the class turtle. He escaped. The turtle. Escaped. That one was on us, because even as 5-year-olds, we probably could have caught that turtle. But that would have been the extent of our 5-year-old abilities. We could not have prevented a mass murder with our tiny, Popsicle-sticky fingers. You're totally in the clear on this one, Talia.
Talia Jane is a relatively well-adjusted adult who spends most of her time not writing about murder. You can follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.
Robert Evans wrote a book, A Brief History of Vice, in which he drank his own pee to test an ancient tobacco recipe. The least you can do is pre-order it.
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