After his latest murder conviction, this time for strangling his cellmate in Oregon, a Minneapolis man who in the 1980s said God and the devil beckoned him to kill two women and his children could be coming home.
In handing down Craig Bjork’s fifth life sentence, for committing his sixth murder, a judge has asked the Minnesota Department of Corrections to move the 60-year-old prisoner out of Oregon, where Bjork is serving time through an interstate compact that allows correctional systems to trade problem inmates.
That means Bjork has escaped Oregon’s death penalty, the sentence prosecutors there sought for him.
“I think it’s disgusting,” said Matt Kemmy, deputy district attorney in Marion County, Ore. “The death penalty is supposed to be for the worst of the worst, and Craig Bjork is absolutely that. This is a man who has been convicted of killing men, women and children — plural of each. Frankly, he should be the poster child for why we have the death penalty.”
Thirty-eight years ago, Bjork, then known as Craig Jackson, committed a spree of four murders that Minneapolis police called the city’s worst of the 20th century. He achieved new notoriety years later as a problem inmate when he beat a man to death in Stillwater prison. In 2013, after Minnesota sent him to Oregon State Penitentiary, Bjork killed his cellmate, a convicted murderer named Joe Atkins.
After Bjork’s conviction for the latter killing, Judge Tracy Prall and Oregon corrections officials agreed that Bjork would stay in Oregon through April, while Minnesota finds new housing for him, according to court documents. Prison administrators here have not yet decided whether to place Bjork in Minnesota or send him to another state, said Department of Corrections spokesman Nicholas Kimball.
Craig Bjork: “I’m not a monster that was raised in a cave.”
Bjork ranks among a tier of violent inmates who pose a dilemma for prisons. He is serving, at minimum, a 170-year prison sentence. With two more murder convictions under his belt, his outlook has hardly changed from when a Hennepin County judge first sentenced him to “never be permitted to walk the streets of any community for the remainder of his life.”
Brad Colbert, who runs a legal assistance clinic for prisoners at Mitchell-Hamline law school, said inmates like Bjork are “why supermax prisons were built,” referring to the long-term, high-security facilities with segregated cells.
“Bjork is really the .001 percent of the .001 percent of people who are incarcerated,” he said. “I think you put him in a place where he can’t hurt anyone else. But you don’t forget that he is not like the other people who are incarcerated.”
In 2017, after a Star Tribune report on Bjork facing the death penalty, he called from solitary confinement in Oregon and spoke at length about his life and murders. Bjork claimed that killing Atkins was an act of self-defense.
“It’s an old penitentiary at the end of the tier,” Bjork said. “It’s dark. We’re alone. Two convicted murderers in the cell in the middle of the night. There is no help, you know?”
Bjork doesn’t deny the six killings of which he’s been convicted over the years. He is adamant, however, that those acts do not alone define him — that he feels deep remorse and wants to be viewed with more nuance than simply a “monster.”
“I actually am a human being,” he said. “I actually have a conscience.”
A brutal childhood
Bjork grew up in Des Moines with an abusive father who ranted about his hatred for women and blacks, and taught his son to tell time by beating him when he got it wrong.
He lived mostly with his mother, a cocktail waitress named Shirley Fees, in small apartments crowded by cousins and grandparents.
Craig Bjork: Horrific crimes are not “the content of my whole being.”
As a kid, Bjork angrily stamped out all the flowers in his yard. Once he tied two cats together by the tails and watched them tear each other apart, a psychiatrist later testified at Bjork’s trial.
When he was 18, Bjork got his underage girlfriend, Terry, pregnant, and they moved to Minneapolis. Bjork proudly showed off his first son, Joey. “I ought to charge you a dollar to see this baby of mine,” he told people.
But trouble always followed him. Drugs were anesthesia to make it through the day. He carried a gun and ransacked one of his mom’s friend’s mobile homes. A month after Joey’s birth, he spent two weeks in jail. After their second son, Jason, was born, Bjork and Terry broke up. Bjork started dating a waitress at Dulono’s pizzeria, Ramona Yurkew. It was a brutal relationship and Yurkew left several times when she got sick of the beatings.
One day, in February 1982, Bjork decided to will his soul to the devil in exchange for “money, good physique, women, a good family,” according to the psychiatrist’s testimony.
A couple weeks later, Bjork dropped off his sons with a babysitter and spent the day popping speed, drinking whiskey and beer, smoking marijuana, then snorting PCP and amphetamines, according to testimony. He went downtown Minneapolis and drank on Hennepin Avenue, where he met Gwendolyn Johnson, a 20-year-old woman with a history of prostitution arrests. He brought her back to the house and strangled her during sex, then hid her body under the bed.
The babysitter dropped off Jason and Joey, ages 1 and 3, and Bjork choked them to death, too. Then he waited for Yurkew to come home from her shift, and strangled her.
By the time police found the bodies three days later, Bjork was gone. Detectives didn’t know whether he was hiding or dead.
Police tried to find Terry for questioning. She was missing, too.
In April, Bjork turned himself in to the brother of a Minneapolis homicide detective in a pancake house in Kansas. A month later, a father and son foraging for mushrooms in rural Iowa found Terry’s remains.
Bjork was charged with her murder but it never went to trial. He maintains he did not kill Terry.
Looking back on his first murders, Bjork said he was locked into a drug-induced psychosis, disconnected from reality. “I believe that with every fiber of my being.”
He said he’s been sober now for 20 years and feels remorse deeper than he can express. “I literally totally destroyed myself,” he said. “Who could ever punish me more than my own mind would punish me for what I’d done? The law couldn’t come close to what I did to myself mentally.”
‘I’m very homicidal’
When he first entered prison, Bjork fought other inmates. Prison staff caught him in several escape plots, and transferred him back and forth from different prisons to foil his plans. Bjork boasted that he was untouchable. He was already serving three life sentences, and Minnesota didn’t have the death penalty. One staffer recorded Bjork saying he had “nothing to lose by killing any inmate.”
Andy Mannix asks Craig Bjork to explain prison killings. (Profane language)
One summer day in 1996, Bjork wrote an internal communiqué to then-Stillwater prison Warden David Crist demanding he be moved back to Oak Park Heights prison. If Crist didn’t comply, Bjork threatened to kill again. “I’m very homicidal,” he wrote. “Trust me if I made a move I’d complete it. 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.”
On Thanksgiving Day 1997, a corrections officer found Bjork in the prison kitchen mopping up a dark red liquid. The officer followed drag marks to a garbage cart, where he found the body of inmate Edwin Curry.
Asked about this killing, Bjork said the prison was playing a “punk game” with him, “and I gave them a body.”
“This is what prison is. This isn’t 3M and this isn’t the neighborhood and this isn’t Powderhorn Park,” he said in an interview. “It probably wasn’t the best choice, but it was the choice I made.”
In 2013, Bjork was transferred to the Oregon prison. He killed Joe Atkins on Aug. 16, 2013. Two years later, a grand jury indicted him for the murders of Atkins, Curry, Johnson, Yurkew and his two children — each one enough to carry the death penalty.
Craig Bjork tells Andy Mannix he hopes for a botched execution. (Profane language)
As he prepared for the trial, Bjork told the Star Tribune that Atkins tried to kill him in his sleep because Bjork had confronted Atkins for hiding a knife and razor blades in their cell, and that he strangled him in self-defense.
Bjork said he never intends to kill another person; he said he could be released from prison today and never harm another soul. But if faced with the same threat in prison, he said, he wouldn’t hesitate to act.
“If some dude up in here threatens my life next week and I think he’s serious, I’m going to do whatever I need to do to take care of myself and defend myself,” said Bjork. “That’s how it is.”
Facing death, Bjork said he wanted a botched execution that sent flames shooting from his body. “We can all go to hell together,” he said. “I mean, you want to kill me? Then botch the execution, screw it up, I want it to be horrific.”
The opportunity for such a spectacle would never come. Last year, as Bjork awaited trial, Oregon’s governor signed a new death penalty law making Bjork ineligible for the punishment.
Asked what he thinks should be done with him, Bjork struggled to arrive at an answer.
“What’s fair? I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a difficult question. It’s almost like asking someone what’s the meaning of life.”