Former Minn. assistant principal sentenced to 25 years for child pornography, explicit conversations with students
ST. PAUL — Nearly a year after the Bemidji community discovered that Brandon Bjerknes had engaged in sexual conversations with his students, his victims and their families continue to suffer.
One girl is currently in a state mental hospital due to multiple suicide attempts. At least two more have had to make trips to the emergency room after cutting themselves. Some have been bullied by other students. Some can't trust boys or men.
In a two-and-a-half hour sentencing hearing in U.S district court in St. Paul, the victims' parents asked a federal judge to sentence Bjerknes, 35, the former Bemidji Middle School assistant principal, to the maximum time allowed by federal sentencing guidelines.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright ordered that Bjerknes spend 25 years behind bars—five years less than prosecutors requested.
The parents who spoke at the hearing—who will not be identified in order to protect the identities of the victims—described an ordeal that began even before Beltrami County law enforcement discovered that Bjerknes had spent three years posing as a teenager online, convincing more than 50 children to send him sexually explicit photos and text messages.
One mother told Judge Wright that, shortly after Bjerknes—posing as "Brett Larson"—asked her daughter for nude photos, the child said that she wanted to kill herself and told other adults that she was being sexually abused.
The mother lost custody of the girl for six months while she was taken from treatment center to treatment center. The girl wouldn't reveal who had abused her, her mother said. And though custody of the child was eventually returned to her parents, she was civilly committed and is now undergoing treatment elsewhere.
"She has completely lost out on her teenage years," the mother said. "She has no will to live."
Another of Bjerknes' victims struggled with mental health and communication issues, making her vulnerable to his online advances, her parents said.
In their victim impact statement, the parents of "Minor One" said they trusted Bjerknes during his time as assistant principal and enlisted him to help with issues their daughter faced at school. Bjerknes used his knowledge of those issues to groom the girl and convince her to send him sexually explicit pictures, her parents said.
"Brandon Bjerknes knew that my daughter would be a perfect candidate," the girl's mother told a federal judge. "She wasn't going to tell anyone."
Minor One's father said the family continues to struggle. He had to adjust his work schedule because Bjerknes' wife frequents his workplace. She also bought a house in their neighborhood, the father said. He and his wife no longer feel comfortable riding their bikes and walking their dogs near their home.
"The thought of him later occupying that home in the future sickens me," the girl's mother said.
Though he has now been sentenced for the federal charges against him—one count of coercion and enticement of a minor to engage in sexual conduct and one count of production of child pornography—he has another hearing ahead of him. Bjerknes pleaded guilty in state district court to four counts of engaging in electronic communication relating or describing sexual conduct with a child. He will be sentenced for those four felonies Thursday, Feb. 8, in Bemidji.
During Tuesday's hearing, Bjerknes tearfully apologized to his victims, saying that he does not expect forgiveness. His attorney asked the judge to sentence him to 15 years in prison.
"I never should have entered a world I had no business being in," he said. "The victims and their families all deserve much better."
And though he repeatedly apologized, the four parents who spoke on Tuesday said they don't believe Bjerknes feels any remorse for his exploitation of their children.
"There's no remorse in your words," said the mother of the "Minor 34." "I believe you are only sorry that you got caught."
Before ending the lengthy hearing, Wright also reprimanded Bjerknes.
"Their childhoods have been marred," she said. "These are injuries that do not heal easily."