Inside The 1990s Serial Killings Targeting Minnesota’s Gay Community

‘I fully intend to expedite a number of souls to the gates of heaven or the dungeons of hell,’ murderer Jay Johnson wrote in his journal.

June 24, 2021
Joel Larson [via Remembering Joel Larson/Robert Whicker/Facebook]

Joel Larson [via Remembering Joel Larson/Robert Whicker/Facebook]

Joel Larson [via Remembering Joel Larson/Robert Whicker/Facebook]

By: Aaron Rasmussen

An aspiring serial killer targeting the gay community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, put the city on edge after a series of shootings in the summer of 1991.

On the evening of July 31 that year, police received reports of shots fired in Loring Park. Responding officers found the body of 21-year-old Joel Larson, who had just moved to the area from Des Moines, Iowa. Witnesses recalled seeing the victim run and hearing him scream before he collapsed and died from a gunshot to the back.

Investigators initially theorized Larson’s murder was connected to a robbery and had few clues to go on except for bullet fragments recovered from the scene and a description of the shooter.

For more on this story, stream the "Unsafe Anywhere" episode on Season 2 of Hometown Homicide on discovery+.

On August 10 around 5:30 a.m., another shooting rocked the city. Officers checking out reports of a person screaming in Riverside Park along the Mississippi River found Cord Draszt, 19, lying on a trail with two bullet wounds to the back. Draszt, who survived the attack, was able to give police a description of the person who gunned him down: a 5-foot, 9-inch male who had long hair and wore a baseball cap.

As emergency responders tended to Draszt, officers went deeper into the park to look 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 collected from the second victim’s body to ballistics.

Police speculated the two killings could be related since both occurred at night in remote locations gay men often frequented. The theory was confirmed when the bullet fragments found at the Larson and Chenoweth murder scenes came back as a match, indicating they were fired from the same .38-caliber gun.

In February 1992, the case took a turn when several organizations received an anonymous six-page letter referencing the slayings. Addressed to “Our dear gay friends,” the note said the “continued ignorance in regards to the murders which occurred in Minneapolis in your community last summer at last has provoked us to respond.”

The victims’ deaths, the letter read, were “no doubt slowing the spread of AIDS to the general population.”

The author only identified themself as from “The AIDS Commission,” which was eventually determined to be a fictitious group. But the letters, officials realized, contained very real details about the slayings only someone at the crime scene could know.

A short time later, the 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 killings. He warned more deaths were to come.

Detectives set up a tap on the GLCAC’s phonelines and the investigation into the six-month-old murder cases quickly came together after they were able to trace the caller’s address when he phoned again days later. Authorities immediately began surveilling a home located in the Minneapolis suburb Roseville and got 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 picked him out of a lineup. Detectives found newspaper clips about the slayings in the murder suspect’s rented room as well a wig, baseball cap and .38-caliber handgun in his car.

A journal in Johnson’s possessions hinted at a possible motive for the crimes: “My dream of committing homicide on a large scale and entering the ranks of the nation’s most notorious serial killers,” he wrote in an entry.

“Ambition which had grown as dormant as the AIDS virus now in my cells, were now reawakened,” the entry continued. “They had now found a new sense of urgency. I fully intend to expedite a number of souls to the gates of heaven or the dungeons of hell.”

Johnson was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. He took a plea deal, admitting guilt to the murder charges, and a judge sentenced him to two concurrent life sentences plus 15 years for the attempted murder of Draszt.

Johnson, now 53, is incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater and eligible for parole in 2032, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In a written statement read at Johnson’s 1992 sentencing, the news outlet reported, Chenoweth’s parents told him: “You have committed the sin of sins when you decided who shall live and who shall 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 other people for who they were, and he was filled with love and openness and caring, and unfortunately this person didn’t have that.”

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