Joel Larson, a dynamic 21-year-old, had moved to Minneapolis from Iowa just seven months before he was fatally shot in the back in Loring Park on July 31, 1991 — a block from home. Ten days later, former state Sen. John Chenoweth, 48, was shot and killed and a 19-year-old was wounded along the east bank of the Mississippi River south of Franklin Avenue.
Homophobic hate crimes and gay bashing surged in Minneapolis in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Now it had turned deadly right where LGBT people gathered.
After six months of heightened fear and friction between cops and the gay community, Minneapolis police finally pointed to a prime suspect for the two random murders in the scary summer of ’91. Then a haunting letter surfaced and the case took a twist. The robbery suspect they had in custody couldn’t have done it.
The six-page letter, sent to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, KSTP-TV and gay advocacy groups, contained details only the killer could know — including the .38-caliber murder weapon used. Calling himself the AIDS Commission, a made-up organization, the writer said “the chairman” shot Larson as he ran toward a basketball court, shouting for help. That’s when “the chairman realized he had hit his mark.”
The letter writer went on to offer a warped explanation, hollow apology and violent threat, saying that the killings were an attempt to slow the spread of AIDS by shutting down areas popular among gays. He said he was sorry people had to be hurt to “send a message to the promiscuous, filthy gay community …
“The rather obvious purpose of this letter is to advise members of the gay community to avoid public places,” the letter warned, bragging: “You’ll never catch us.”
Jay Thomas Johnson was wrong about that. He’s currently Stillwater prison inmate No. 168950. He’s been locked up the past 27 years since pleading guilty. He was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences for the killings plus 15 years for wounding Cord Draszt. Johnson is now 51 and won’t be eligible for parole until 2032.
A host at the Denny’s restaurant in Roseville, Johnson was 23 when he shot Larson, Chenoweth and Draszt. He had been a student at Bethel College, a Christian school in Arden Hills, where his father served as a vice president. During his 3 a.m. arrest at a Roseville boardinghouse on Feb. 22, 1992, police found a .38 revolver, wig and documents about past and potential future slayings.
Johnson’s hateful letter implied a group was involved in the slayings. Police soon determined he acted alone, with the letter steering them away from the suspect they had in custody. Two follow-up phone calls to the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council ultimately brought Johnson down. Police traced the calls to his residence, where they found an incriminating, chilling journal.
In it, Johnson claimed contracting the AIDS virus spurred him to become a killer who dreamed “of committing homicide on a large scale and entering the ranks of the nation’s most notorious serial killers.”
Instead, his name has been largely forgotten, while his first victim’s has not.
Five years ago, Larson’s friends successfully raised $2,168 on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to place a memorial bench in Loring Park where he was murdered.
“Every June, hundreds of thousands of … people converge on Loring Park to celebrate Twin Cities LGBTQ Pride,” the fundraising plea said. “The bench will face away from the scene of violence and toward the beauty and life that is Loring Park.”
The bench, now a permanent fixture in the park, is etched with the words: “In Memory of Joel Larson — Teach Love” along with a brick carved with the words: “Let us turn our backs on hate. Teach love.”
Local writer Andy Birkey wrote an in-depth story about Larson in 2014 for the online Minnesota website The Column.
One friend said Larson “showed up in the world authentically and he didn’t seem to care much what others thought. … And if he did, he didn’t let it show.”
Janet Larson, Joel’s sister, told Birkey “how we would all wait for hours on end until he had that perfect look and flawless aura before going out.” She said they joked about Joel being late to his own funeral. “As it turned out, he was,” she said, recalling the viewing line stretching outside and around the church at his funeral.
Larson family members chose not to make statements when Johnson was sentenced in 1992. But letters from Chenoweth’s parents and the wounded Draszt were read out loud in court.
“You have committed the sin of sins when you decided who shall live and who shall die,” Chenoweth’s parents wrote. Draszt said Johnson “struck out against mankind in an attempt to become a merciless celebrity.”
And Judge Myron Greenberg told Johnson: “You destroyed part of our community, our sense of comfort.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.