BEMIDJI -- An emotional and largely symbolic sentencing hearing brought legal proceedings against Brandon Bjerknes to a close Thursday.
Even Ninth District Judge Paul Benshoof described his sentence as “moot” during the hearing, shortly before sentencing Bjerknes -- the former Bemidji Middle School assistant principal who posed as a teenager online in order to have sexual conversations with children -- to what amounted to two years and six months in prison.
Bjerknes, 35, also was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of production of child pornography and one count of coercing or enticing a minor to engage in sexual conduct. A federal judge decided during that hearing that any sentence Bjerknes received stemming from charges in State District Court would be served at the same time as the one handed down Tuesday.
“You might ask yourself, why are we even here?” Benshoof said. “The offenses were committed in Beltrami County...It is altogether fitting and proper that Mr. Bjerknes be held to account.”
Benshoof told the many parents and community members gathered at the Beltrami County Courthouse for Thursday’s hearing that his hands were tied. Bjerknes was charged locally with four counts of engaging in electronic communication relating or describing sexual conduct with a child. Benshoof sentenced Bjerknes to 15 months in prison for the first count, 20 months for the second count, 25 months for the third count and 30 months for the fourth count. Though the months add up to seven and a half years, the sentences will be served concurrently, meaning it is, in effect, a two-and-a-half year sentence.
State guidelines determined the sentence.
Technically, Bjerknes will be eligible for supervised release after serving two thirds of the state sentence. But he will be required to remain in federal prison. Under state law, that prison time would normally be stayed, but Bjerknes and his attorney Peter Wold asked Benshoof to execute the sentence. Following the hearing, Bjerknes was remanded to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, rather than a state agency.
Speaking before Benshoof pronounced the sentence, prosecutor David Frank said that the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office decided to essentially hand over the case to federal prosecutors in order to expose Bjerknes to a harsher sentence. But, because Bjerknes’ crimes were committed in Beltrami County, local prosecutors chose to go forward with the four charges.
Frank told Benshoof that he did not believe that Bjerknes was truly sorry for his crimes, which included asking his own students for nude and pornographic photos and videos while pretending to be someone else online. “Mr. Bjerknes is minimizing his behavior,” Frank said. “He targeted these individuals...we call that grooming.”
In his second tearful apology of the week, Bjerknes told the court that he was sorry for his actions, and for the trauma his victims experienced. “I know, as a parent myself, I couldn’t forgive somebody that hurt my child,” he said. “I understand the pain they’re going through right now.”
Two parents read victim impact statements before Bjerknes was sentenced. Though state statute does not allow any departure from the guidelines Benshoof followed in Bjerknes’ case, one parent asked for a “maximum sentence.” The Pioneer will not name either parent, in order to allow the victims to remain anonymous.
The father of “Minor One” said he was offended by an activity Bjerknes did at the behest of his therapist, requiring Bjerknes to come up with a plan for parents to use to protect their children from sexual predators. “We did step in, and we did stop Brandon Bjerknes,” said the father, who was one of the parents who brought Bjerknes’ conduct to the attention of law enforcement. “Brandon only stopped abusing children when he was caught.”
The mother of another victim said that, though the legal portion of the case is now over, her daughter will have to live with the trauma for the rest of her life. “It’s far from over for the victims,” the mother said. “This kind of pain does not heal that easily.”