Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Children of Thunder: The Helzer Brothers

Bags of Bodies

Mokelumne River
Mokelumne River

One by one, the black duffel bags bubbled to the surface of the Mokelumne River in August 2000. The scenic river, winding through deep granite canyons and thick pine forests, is a popular site for Northern Californians seeking relief from the baking summer heat.

A man on a Jet-ski spotted the first bag that washed up on the riverbank. Curious, he rode over, unzipped it, and found a human torso inside. A few hours later, a marina employee found another duffel bag floating under a dock a half mile away. This one contained a head. A marine biologist discovered a third during a survey of an island in the river. Nine bags were eventually recovered, some by dive teams.

Sacramento County Coroner's logo
Sacramento County Coroner's logo
They contained the co-mingled body parts of three people - an elderly couple, and an unrelated young woman. It took the Sacramento County coroner more than a week to sort through the parts and piece the victims back together.

Coroner with duffel bags
Coroner with duffel bags
The grisly discovery was the culmination of a murderous rampage by a trio of former Mormons who killed five people as part of a twisted scheme to start a group that would spread "joy, peace and love."

Glenn Helzer, 30, his brother Justin, 28, and Justin's girlfriend, Dawn Godman, 26, were arrested the same day the first of the bags were discovered. It would take four more years for juries to sort through the tangled details of the case and sentence the last of the trio for crimes they'd committed.

Their victims were Selina Bishop, 22, the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop - best known for his 1976 hit "Fooled Around and Fell in Love", Bishop's mother, Jennifer Villarin; her companion James Gamble, and Ivan and Annette Stineman, who'd been married 55 years.

The Stinemans were killed first, after the trio extorted $100,000 from them to fund their self-help group. The other three victims were killed because they knew details of the extortion plan.

The trio called themselves the "Children of Thunder" and they believed their homicidal plan had God's stamp of approval.

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