A budding serial killer targeting the gay community of Minneapolis, Minnesota has the city on edge after a string of shootings in the summer of 1991.
On the evening of July 31 that year, police received reports of shots being fired in Loring Park. Responding officers found the body of 21-year-old Joel Larson, who had just moved to the Des Moines, Iowa area. Witnesses remember seeing the victim running and hearing him scream before collapsing and dying from a bullet in the back.
Investigators initially speculated that Larson’s murder was related to a robbery and had few clues to proceed except for bullet fragments recovered from the scene and a description of the shooter.
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On August 10 around 5:30 am, another shooting shook the city. Officers checking reports of a person screaming at Riverside Park along the Mississippi River found 19-year-old Cord Draszt lying on a trail with two gunshot wounds to his back. Draszt, who survived the attack, was able to give police a description of the person who shot him: a 5-foot-9 man who had long hair and was wearing a baseball cap.
As emergency responders tended to Draszt, officers dug deeper into the park to search for the suspect. They discovered another victim, John Chenoweth, a 48-year-old former state senator, shot twice in the chest and lying dead in a pool of blood.
Detectives sent bullet victims recovered from the body of the second victim for ballistics.
Police speculated that the two murders could be linked, as they both happened at night in remote places that gay people often frequented. The theory was confirmed when bullet fragments found at the Larson and Chenoweth murder scenes came back as a match, indicating they had been fired from the same .38 caliber pistol.
In February 1992, the case took a turn when several organizations received an anonymous six-page letter referring to the murders. Addressed to “Our dear gay friends,” the memo says “the continuing ignorance regarding the Minneapolis murders that occurred in your community last summer has finally prompted us to act.”
The death of the victims, the letter said, “undoubtedly slowed the spread of AIDS in the general population.”
The author only identified himself as a member of “The AIDS Commission”, which was ultimately determined to be a fictional group. But the letters, officials realized, contained very real details about the murders that only someone at the crime scene could know.
Shortly after, advocacy group Gay Lesbian Community Action Council received a chilling phone call from a man who said he was a member of the AIDS Commission and claimed to be involved in the murders. He warned that more deaths were to come.
Detectives set up a wiretap on the GLCAC phone lines and the six-month murder case investigation moved quickly after they were able to find the caller’s address when he called back a few days later. late. Authorities immediately began surveilling a home in the Minneapolis suburb of Roseville and obtained search warrants for the property, including a car.
Police took Jay Thomas Johnson, a 24-year-old host at Denny’s restaurant, into custody for questioning, and an eyewitness to one of the murders singled him out from a queue. Detectives found newspaper clippings about the murders in the murder suspect’s rented room, as well as a wig, baseball cap and .38 caliber handgun in his car.
A newspaper in Johnson’s possession hinted at a possible motive for the crimes: “My dream to commit mass homicide and join the ranks of the nation’s most notorious serial killers,” he wrote in an entry.
“The ambition that had become as dormant as the AIDS virus now in my cells, was now awakened,” the entry continued. “They had now found a new sense of urgency. I have every intention of sending a certain number of souls to the gates of heaven or to the dungeons of hell.
Johnson was charged with two counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted murder. He entered a plea deal, admitting guilt on the murder charges, and a judge sentenced him to two concurrent life terms plus 15 years for the attempted murder of Draszt.
In a written statement read at Johnson’s sentencing in 1992, the outlet reported, Chenoweth’s parents told him, “You committed the sin of sins when you decided who will live and who will die.
Kelly Wall recently reflected on the killer who stole the life of her friend, Larson, in the first attack.
Johnson “grew up and was taught to hate gay people. So, in essence, he was taught to hate himself,” Wall told Hometown Homicide.
“Joel was a perfect example of someone who was the opposite of that,” she noted. “He accepted himself. He accepted others for who they were, and he was filled with love, openness and caring, and unfortunately this person didn’t have that.