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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Saying Goodbye to a Grandchild and a Son

September 27, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

A woman in a blue dress, Gail Helms, 55, comes forward in a Van Nuys courtroom and takes a seat. She begins to read from a prepared text, nervously. "I am the grandmother of Lance Helms," she says, "and the mother of David Helms.

"My daughter and I raised Lance from the time he was 5 days old to the time he was 23 months. He was the center of our lives.

"Lance's biological mother went to prison when Lance was 5 months old.

"His father, David, is a serial batterer who has beaten every woman he has known. That includes his sister, his grandmother, his girlfriend . . . and me.

"David savagely beat Lance to death with his fists.

"Lance loved people, especially men. If David had shown him any affection at all, Lance would have followed him around like a little puppy. He was such an incredibly good little boy that I cannot comprehend how anyone could possibly hurt him.

"In California, you can get 25 years in prison for killing a grizzly bear. But not . . ."

Her voice cracks for the first time.

". . . for killing a little boy," she says.

*

It is a Friday morning in Judge Sandy R. Kriegler's court, 8:30 and very quiet. A court clerk checks the coffee. A bailiff is asked where a TV camera can be set up. A lawyer from a different case looks around, then asks a second lawyer, "What's going on?"

"David Helms," the second whispers.

It is not a name he instantly recognizes. His colleague whispers again, "Killed his son."

Lance Helms was 30 months old on April 6, 1995, when he died bearing bruises, head to toe.

A coroner's report said Lance was beaten so badly, he looked as if he had been in a car crash. Even his liver was damaged.

The baby was born addicted to heroin, due to his mother. She didn't raise him. She went to prison for robbery.

An aunt, David Helms' sister, Ayn, did everything she could for that innocent lamb.

"I would like to share how his death has affected my daughter," Gail Helms continues, her voice again strong, "because she cannot speak for herself.

"Lance's aunt was 28 years old. She was a natural with children. The day Lance got Ayn to raise him, he won the lottery.

"Ayn read him a book every day. She held his hand everywhere they went.

"Unfortunately, Ayn suffered from lupus. And when Lance began to suffer, her own health began to deteriorate.

"My daughter Ayn died, five months after her beloved 'son,' Lance, died. They are buried next to each other."

When Lance was a year old, a court returned him to his biological father. David Helms was now living with a girlfriend, 12 years his junior, Eve Wingfield.

Lance's grandmother says that any time the boy was driven back to David's apartment building, as soon as he saw it, he began to scream. He begged to stay with his grandmother and aunt.

The boy was beaten to death, and charged with his murder was . . . Eve Wingfield.

She pleaded guilty to causing Lance's death. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and served two.

That's when a medical examiner uncovered new evidence, implicating David Helms, 37. The boy's father was convicted on Aug. 14 of second-degree murder and assault of a child.

He, too, wore blue--L.A. County Jail issue--when he came to court Friday to be sentenced. He sat 20 feet from his mother.

Where he watched a video of his son.

*

A baby splashes in a bathtub. A boy has his first birthday party in a pointy red hat. A toddler sits holding a string of balloons.

David Helms watches the video.

"Where's your nose?" someone off-camera asks. Lance touches his nose. "Where's your knees?" Lance touches his knees. "Where's your hair?" Lance touches his hair.

David Helms watches the video.

A child rides a merry-go-round. His grandmother, watching the video, says aloud in the courtroom: "That was his second birthday. I'm sorry. I would keep you here all day watching my videos. Sorry."

The TV is shut off.

"Ayn asked me after Lance's death, why would God bother making Lance so smart if He was only going to let him die. Well, God didn't cause Lance to die. He was murdered by his own father."

She looks at her son. David Helms says nothing. He is taken away to serve 21 years to life . . . another of Gail Helms' babies, taken away.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail mike.downey@latimes.com.

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