Thirty-five years ago, a Minnesota judge sentenced Craig Dennis Bjork to three consecutive life sentences in prison for the grisly murders of two women and his two young children. But that didn’t stop Bjork from killing again.
Now the notorious mass murderer could face the death penalty.
Minnesota abolished capital punishment in 1911. But after decades of violence and escape plots from behind prison walls, the state transferred Bjork to Oregon, where he allegedly killed another prisoner. Prosecutors are seeking capital punishment, meaning Bjork, now 57, could be the first Minnesota prisoner sentenced to death in modern history, according to corrections staff and criminal justice experts.
Human rights groups say the unusual case shines a spotlight on the “randomness” of the death penalty in America, and how geography determines if a crime is punishable by execution.
“As a state that abolished the death penalty more than 100 years ago, Minnesota should consider refusing to transfer its prisoners — and the taxpayer dollars that go with them — to states where the death penalty remains on the books,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director for nonprofit The Advocates for Human Rights. Bjork’s attorney in Oregon, Gordon Mallon, said he’s looking into whether Bjork being committed to Minnesota’s corrections system will be an issue in the case.
Oregon prison officials denied a request to interview Bjork in person. In letter correspondence, Bjork agreed to talk over the phone, saying he had “nothing to lose.” But he reneged after a Star Tribune reporter declined to pay him $100.
“Nothing is free,” wrote Bjork, saying he needed the money for postage and phone calls related to the interview, much more than the actual costs for these services.
“If not, I wish you well,” Bjork wrote. “I’m genuine.”
Murder of the century
Bjork’s story as a notorious prisoner begins in March 1982. After his girlfriend, Ramona Yurkew, had been missing for four days, Minneapolis police searched Bjork’s duplex unit near Powderhorn Park.
There, they found Yurkew’s body beneath a bed. Police also discovered the lifeless bodies of Bjork’s sons, ages 1 and 3, along with Gwendolyn Johnson, a 20-year-old woman with a history of prostitution arrests. All had been strangled. Police called it the worst mass murder in the city since the turn of the century.
After a month on the run, Bjork surrendered to police in Wichita, Kan. At the trial, a psychiatrist who’d interviewed Bjork said he had binged on amphetamine and alcohol. He’d killed Johnson after she solicited him for sex, and the next day choked his family and hid their bodies under beds.
“I choked everybody with my hands,” Bjork said, according to the psychiatrist. “It was all peaceful. There was no bizarre episode. No running through the halls or clanging. In my eyes it ain’t murder. I was just taking care of everybody. I wasn’t trying to hurt nobody.”
Kevin Burke, now a Hennepin County judge, took on Bjork’s defense pro bono. “It was a challenge,” Burke explained in a recent interview. And Burke was no stranger to ambitious cases; at the time he was also representing a cop killer.
Burke had no illusions about his client’s role in the murders, but he argued Bjork was so detached from reality he didn’t understand his actions and should be found not guilty by reason of mental illness. He cast Bjork as a deeply troubled man who binged on drugs and alcohol to manage a serious personality disorder. His client had lost the internal battle, he told the court, and simply snapped into a fugue of violence.
The judge rejected the insanity plea. He sentenced Bjork to three life terms, plus 20 more years for killing Johnson — all but guaranteeing he would die in prison.
After the sentence, Bjork was a problem prisoner, known by other inmates as “The Family Killer.” One summer day in 1996, while serving a stint in solitary confinement, Bjork wrote an internal memo to the Stillwater prison warden demanding he be moved back to Oak Park Heights prison. If he didn’t comply, Bjork threatened to kill again.
“I’m very homicidal,” he wrote, according to court records. “I’m very close to committing mass murder in Stillwater. Trust me minimum of 3 bodies, I’d go for 10 and come real close.” A prison psychologist interviewed Bjork and said he appeared capable of following through on his plan.
On Thanksgiving Day 1997, a correctional officer, John Sward, found Bjork in the Stillwater prison kitchen mopping up a dark red liquid that looked a lot like blood.
“What is going on?” he demanded, according to court documents.
“It’s these beet cans making a big mess,” Bjork replied.
It didn’t look like beet juice, the officer said.
“I gotta get out of here,” Bjork said, and he walked out of the kitchen.
Sward followed red drag marks through the kitchen to a garbage storage area. He lifted an overturned garbage cart and found Edwin Curry, another inmate who had been on kitchen duty that day. Curry had been bludgeoned with a pipe.
Correctional officers searched the prison and found Bjork in the dining hall eating a candy bar and drinking a cup of milk. “It was nothing personal,” Bjork said, “but a few minutes more and you would have had a dead guard on your hands also.”
Prison staff found a notebook in his cell with an underlined entry for that date: “Should have moved me, punks.”
The trial of his life
After Bjork killed Curry, the Minnesota Department of Corrections transferred him out of state through a program called the Interstate Corrections Compact. He ended up at Oregon State Penitentiary, a maximum-security facility in Salem.
On Aug. 13, 2013, he killed a prisoner named Joseph Akins, according to a grand jury indictment filed in December 2015.
The full details have not yet been made public, but Marion County prosecutor Matthew Kemmy confirmed his office is seeking the death penalty. In court filings, Bjork has called the killing self-defense.
In a pretrial hearing earlier this year, Bjork lashed out at one of his defense attorneys, shouting for him to “shut up” during court proceedings and then speaking over the judge’s warnings to be quiet. “This idiot isn’t going to represent me,” he said, according to court documents filed by the prosecutor, and then he muttered insults under his breath.
Bjork fired that attorney and Mallon took his case this spring. Prosecutors are asking that Bjork be restrained during the trial.
Because of Oregon’s backlog on death penalty cases, the trial won’t take place until April 2019.
Bjork will have to answer for more than just the Akins murder. Oregon law considers it aggravated murder when a person kills someone while incarcerated or intentionally kills after being convicted of murder. In addition to killing Akins, the indictment includes five more counts for the killings of his two children, Johnson, Yurkew and Curry.
But even if a jury sentences Bjork to death, he may never be executed. Oregon currently has a moratorium on executions. And even if the temporary ban is lifted, it could be decades before Bjork is actually executed if he is convicted.
“People have been sitting on death row for more than 30 years,” said Mallon, “and so there’s a question of whether he could live long enough to get executed.”