Nothing, perhaps, is a more overt display of narcissism than believing oneself to be a prophet of God; that's exactly what California Mormon Glenn Taylor Hezler called himself. When the self-professed prophet created a master plan in 2000 that he hoped would make him the new leader of the Mormon world, tragedy supervened. After the charming yet deranged Hezler manipulated his younger brother, Justin, and the credulous Dawn Godman to partake in a cult-like group called "The Children of Thunder," a bizarre and violent plan was put into motion-a plan that would leave five brutally murdered and tossed into the San Joaquin River. When violent workshops, drug abuse, mental illness and religious extremism combine, Hezler and his two disciples lose their moral compasses and commit the ultimate sin. In this case file it becomes hideously clear what can happen when people believe they have the right to kill in the name of God.
Stockbroker Turned Messiah
Raised by devout Catholics, Glenn Taylor and his brother Justin-one year his junior-lived relatively quiet lives in the San Francisco Bay area. Handsome, eloquent and charismatic, Glenn could be very convincing. A stockbroker, the 33-year-old was the more ambitious of the two brothers; Hezler was reported to have made Justin feel as though he would always be second best. But after Glenn returned from a Mormon mission in Brazil in the early 1990s holding new views that differed from the traditional Mormon doctrine, his behavior started to change. Suffering from bipolar disorder, Glenn began smoking and drinking, left his wife and child and was eventually hospitalized after a psychotic break in 1998. Both brothers were shamed when they were excommunicated from the Church that year due to drug abuse. Perhaps it was their severed relationship with the traditional Church that propelled them towards a life of violent extremism.
At a church social event in the summer of 1999, the brothers met Dawn Godman, a single mother with a speed habit, a failed marriage and a botched suicide attempt. According to Godman, she grew up unpopular in the Sierra foothills. After she married at 18 and had a son, in 1996 she started using methamphetamines and spent three days in a mental health ward after attempting suicide. After discovering the Mormon Church soon after, she said she felt a renewed sense of purpose. Unbeknownst to her, this newfound faith would soon lead her down a dark and violent path-one that would cause her to commit the most heinous of crimes.
Glenn encouraged Godman to attend "self-awareness classes," as he did with all the people he was close with. According to Helzer's attorney, these seminars, also called "Impact Trainings," are intense group experiences that tear down participants through humiliation and emotional pain in long sessions of degradation designed to awaken their "inner child." Once a participant reveals his or her deepest vulnerabilities, the group turns against them and heaves outrageous insults at them; the sessions are said to be so emotionally exhausting that participants often vomit. After finishing two of the program's three levels, during which Godman spent four days in a windowless room, Glenn Taylor took over instructing the remainder of the course. According to Godman's court testimony, on one occasion that Glenn "spoke for God," he silenced everyone as he ran into the rain, raised his hands to the sky and heard God tell him to kill the unfaithful. He then announced that if people weren't devoted to him, he'd be forced to eliminate them.
An Unholy Alliance
Soon following, Helzer began to present strange plans to his two followers. The Concord, California native had ambitious and peculiar goals which involved turning Brazilian orphans into private assassins to slaughter 15 leaders of the Mormon Church in Utah. He believed this would clear a path to allow him to become the Church's new leader, "defeat Satan" and usher in the second coming of Christ. But in order to execute the ambitious plan, called "Transform America," they would need the proper monetary resources. Convincing his brother and Godman that their victims would merely be necessary sacrifices to bring peace, love and joy to the world, things quickly turned violent when Glenn led a crime spree.
When their first intended victim wasn't home, on July 30th the three conspirators moved on to abduct two of Glenn's former clients, Ivan and Annette Stineman, a retired Concord couple. After extorting the elderly couple for $100,000 in checks, three days later Ivan, 85, and Annete, 78, were beaten, stabbed, decapitated and dismembered in a bathtub. Glenn let his brother do most of the dirty work, Godman said; he was too busy listening to messages from "Spirit." After the incredibly violent murders, they all kneeled as Glenn thanked the couple for sacrificing their lives for a "greater cause."
Moving down their list, Glenn befriended, Selina Bishop, 22, the daughter of blues musician Elvin Bishop. Glenn duped Bishop into helping him cash the Steinman's extorted checks through her bank account; after, they used a hammer to bludgeon her to death to prevent her from exposing them. The following morning, Glenn and Dawn drove to a Marin Country town to kill Bishop's mother, Jennifer Villarin, 45, who had previously seen his face and could thus potentially identify him. The dangerous duo also killed Jennifer's boyfriend, James Gamble, 54, a witness. Glenn used a gun Justin bought under his name to shoot the couple; Dawn drove the getaway car.
A Prophet Derailed
But the "Children of Thunder's" plans were disrupted when the tangled body parts of several of their victims surfaced in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, serving as waterlogged evidence to their grave crimes. The trio had previously dismembered each victim and tossed their remains in duffel bags and into the delta. Once police connected the killings in Woodacre to the death of the Stinemans, the Hezlers and Godman were arrested on August 7, 2000.
Glenn insisted to authorities that his disciples were innocent. Eventually he and Godman pled guilty, Godman agreeing to testify for the prosecution in order to save her own life. The exchange granted her a sentence of 38 years to life, becoming eligible for parole after serving at least 35. Justin pled not guilty by reason of insanity, asserting that his older brother manipulated him into committing murder by convincing him that he was doing a good thing. During Justin's trial, mental health experts for the defense contended that he had a "shared delusional disorder,"-one that he "caught" from Glenn. They claimed his psychosis was the result of a life of rejection and neglect as the child of a mother who favored his older brother. They said his depression due to low self-esteem could have made him mentally vulnerable to believing his brother was indeed a prophet of God. Prosecutor Harold Jewett countered by proclaiming that Justin was a willing participant who knew he was committing multiple crimes, as demonstrated by his efforts to conceal said crimes. Eventually, the jury sentenced both to death.
Under California state law, all death sentences are appealed, hence the Hezler brothers have at least 10 years of appeals before they are executed by lethal injection. For now, the brothers await their death in the hellish confines of death row. Recently Justin Hezler attempted suicide, jamming pens in both of his eyes which caused paralysis and brain damage. But for the family and friends of the five people who fell victim to these twisted and deranged individuals who believed they were serving God, true justice awaits.