By Claire Booth
My first book came out 10 years ago this week. It was crime, but it wasn’t fiction. The False Prophet: Conspiracy, Extortion and Murder in the name of God recounted the true story of a California man who claimed to be the one chosen to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And he decided that he needed to finance his apocalyptic cult through any means – including drugs, prostitution, and fraud. None of those crimes made him enough income, however. So he turned to murder.
When Taylor Helzer was done, he had killed five people and irreparably harmed the lives of many more.
I covered this case as a newspaper reporter, starting the very day bodies began to surface in the Sacramento region of the Bay Area. That was in 2000. The court case didn’t finish until 2004. It wasn’t until that was complete that law enforcement officials could speak freely to me about their roles in the case. That also became when I could get access to things like trial exhibits and court transcripts. Then I put together a nonfiction book proposal, which had to include a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.
As I was creating the book proposal – which ultimately ran to 53 pages – I knew that I wanted the book to read like a novel. I wanted my readers to become completely immersed in the story and not be pulled out of it with phrases like “the witness later recalled that he saw…” To me, that sort of thing was jarring. So I structured my narrative to read like a crime novel. BUT everything in it – every single detail – was true. What makes me smile now is that I didn’t realize at the time I also was laying the groundwork for my career as a novelist.
Here’s the overview of the case I wrote to lead off my book proposal:
Taylor Helzer is a handsome devil.
Imagine his trusting brokerage clients, a retired couple who want his steady hand to make sure their savings can support their beloved RV vacations. Imagine an innocent girl meeting this gorgeous man at a rave, his flirting and his smile making her knees weak when she is with him. And imagine a daughter happy and in love as she talks about her new boyfriend, a man she doesn't know has secret plans for more than just romance.
Taylor Helzer is much more than an ordinary lothario or con artist. As the millennial year 2000 begins, he proclaims himself the prophet of God who will usher in the coming reign of Christ.
And he has a plan.
He says he wants to spread peace and love throughout the world by starting what he calls a self-awareness program, but his real intention is to brainwash participants and create his own personal cult.
Like any other American dream, this one needs funding, $20 million by his estimate. He will raise the money at any cost, because in direct contradiction with his program goal, Taylor does not believe in keeping the peace, or in right and wrong. Drugs, prostitution, extortion, murder -- anything goes.
He jettisons the Mormon faith in which he was raised but conveniently keeps many of its teachings, including belief in divine communication and the anointing of prophets. He brainwashes two fellow Mormons, including his brother, into helping him. And then he starts killing. The retired couple, the girlfriend, her mother and more die at Taylor's hands. Three of the bodies are dismembered, stuffed into gym bags and sunk in the Sacramento Delta. The killings quickly become infamous -- the duffel-bag murders. Only through crack police work and his own drug-addled attempts at money laundering are Taylor and his two disciples caught.
The False Prophet: Conspiracy, Extortion and Murder in the Name of God will be the first authoritative book chronicling Taylor Helzer's journey from good Mormon boy to condemned mass murderer. Based on more than four years of reporting and research, the book will be written by the only journalist to cover the case from the commission of the crimes to the imposition of the sentences. The book will be 324 pages long, excluding 16 pages of photographs, four pages of acknowledgements and 12 pages of endnotes.
The author is the only person to have the endorsement of the families and friends of all the victims and the cooperation of law enforcement officials, as well as exclusive access to never-before-released grand jury testimony in the case.
Instead of merely recounting Taylor Helzer's criminal activities, the book will place his disturbing plans in a broader context by paying close attention to how his religious upbringing helps fuel his messianic ambitions. It also will make clear through the recollections of many of Taylor's friends and his accomplices that had he not been caught, he could have become a cult leader of unparalleled power and reach, with no morality binding him to the laws of man or God.
The False Prophet will include details too compelling, and simply too bizarre, to imagine:
- Taylor, who served a Mormon mission in Brazil in his late teens, wants to train Brazilian orphans as assassins and then use them to kill the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The leaderless church will then have to make him its prophet.
- Taylor's ex-girlfriend, who is initially involved in his plans, leaves him to become a model in Hollywood. The Playboy magazine issue featuring her as the centerfold hits newsstands the same week the duffel bags are discovered in the Sacramento Delta.
- A friend and theological sounding board of Taylor's who helps him cover his tracks is both a self-described witch and a practicing Mormon, beliefs she does not find at all incongruous.
- One of Taylor's money-making schemes involves running a prostitution ring catering to wealthy businessmen. Potential working girls he meets at raves are given questionnaires that include such questions as "Is murder ever wrong?"
- The three accomplices – Taylor, his brother Justin, and their friend Dawn Godman – leave voluminous evidence, including several "to do" lists that include tasks like "ashes, vacuum, (and) tooth brush bathroom," which are easily found by police.
The False Prophet will be structured chronologically with the exception of the first three chapters, which will introduce the victims and foreshadow their deaths. The book then will turn back to the childhoods of Taylor and his brother Justin Helzer and continue forward through the commission of the crimes, their arrests and subsequent convictions.
That was the beginning of my book proposal (and the beginning of my publishing career). The finished product hit stores on Feb. 5, 2008. It seems like just yesterday.