Twenty years later, people still remember Candi Harms

2012-09-17T11:00:00Z 2012-09-22T13:50:08Z Twenty years later, people still remember Candi HarmsBy MARGARET REIST / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

In Madison, Wis., in the desk of Capital Newspapers general manager Todd Sears, sits the photo button of a young woman with sandy brown hair and a friendly smile.

Nearly 500 miles west, buried in the desk drawer of Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady is the same button, same young woman, same friendly smile.

Look closely at that button -- at the 18-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln freshman looking out from its plastic-covered surface -- and the years began to melt away, first one decade, then two, to a September night in 1992, when an act of random violence gripped the city.

It claimed the life of a young woman -- a college student, girlfriend, sister and daughter -- and left fear, grief and anger in her place.

Twenty years later, people still recognize the name: Candi Harms, the girl who kissed her boyfriend goodnight on Sept. 22, 1992, and vanished.

Fear took hold in Lincoln that fall, seeping onto the UNL campus and into quiet neighborhoods with tree-lined streets.

Police and sheriff’s deputies worked nearly round the clock, and when they found her body two months later, the details confirmed a community’s worst fears: There was no happy ending, no rational explanation, no connection to Candi, no chance for Lincoln to heave a sigh of relief.

Just two men bent on violence and chaos.

But it was the young woman, her parents and sister who so desperately wanted her back that touched the people of Lincoln, prompted complete strangers to hold candlelight vigils, moved law enforcement officers to attend her funeral and the Lancaster County sheriff to stand at attention at the entrance to the cemetery as cars filed by.

It’s why that sheriff, now Lincoln’s public safety director, has that button in his desk 20 years later.

“Something made me realize, with very little information, that something was different about this one,” Casady said. “Through this whole case, I just felt this real connection with (Candi’s parents) Stan and Pat Harms.”

* * *

The memory is still vivid, 20 years later.

Sears was 23 and a recent UNL graduate enrolled in graduate courses. He’d met Candi two months earlier and something clicked.

“I just remember how alike we were,” he said. 

They’d been inseparable since. On Sept. 22 they watched TV and studied at his apartment until 11:40 p.m., when they said goodnight so Candi could make her midnight curfew.

His phone rang shortly after 6 a.m. It was the Harmses. They all spent the morning scouring the city for Candi and her blue Chevy.

They found nothing.

They called police, and later that day a farmer who’d found an abandoned blue Chevy at the edge of his milo field north of town called the owner, Stan Harms.

A sheriff’s sergeant called Casady. Missing person reports are common. So are college freshmen who decide not to come home at night. He went to the field anyway.

“I drove out there,” he said. “It was very unusual for me to do this.”

In the next months, law enforcement officers and volunteers combed the area on foot and horseback. Helicopters with infrared cameras flew overhead. Investigators interviewed anyone with any connection to Candi.

They found nothing.

But police had the killers in their sights, had been following them for weeks. They just didn’t know it yet.

* * *

Lincoln detectives had been investigating a string of violent robberies at hotels, gas stations, a liquor store and finally a heist that netted $31,000 from the Goodyear Credit Union on Sept. 30.

On Oct. 3, less than two weeks after Harms disappeared, Officer Robert Varga got a tip.

A guy named Scott Barney was walking around with an unusual amount of cash, the source told Varga -- too much cash for the 24-year-old high school dropout who'd committed petty crimes and had no decent job. Detectives turned their attention to him and a 30-year-old guy he was hanging out with named Roger Bjorklund.

“The more we looked at them, the more we liked what we saw,” said Lincoln Police Detective Sgt. Greg Sorensen.

For weeks, Sorensen and Detective Sgt. Sandy Myers watched the two men, began linking them to the robberies. They got a warrant to tap their phones and learned they were planning a second robbery at the credit union on Dec. 2. 

That day, nearly 30 officers surrounded the credit union, but Barney and Bjorklund overheard transmissions on their scanners and backed off. Police arrested them anyway.

The next day, Bjorklund wanted to talk, and he recounted details of the robberies to the detectives.

Barney got nervous and called his attorney. He wanted to talk too, but about another crime.

On Dec. 6, Barney led police to a snow-covered field near 134th Street and Yankee Hill Road, where they found Harms' naked, partially buried body.

Barney eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and avoided the death penalty, but Sorensen believes both men were equally culpable. One just beat the other to a deal.

“They were both evil people,” he said. “I think it was a combination of the two of them. Together they reached critical mass."

The veteran detective, who has worked some of Lincoln’s highest-profile cases over three decades, said the Harms case remains one of the toughest.

“This is something you see in the movies,” he said. “A kid terrorized and the suspects are just dogs, they keep doing crimes and acting like they’re some kind of brilliant criminals.”

* * *

Lincolnites had been on edge for months while Harms was missing. There were billboards and newspaper ads and buttons made to help find the young woman pictured on them.

College students used the buddy system. Mace sales went up. Sixty miles away, an Omaha high school student named Kenyatta Bush disappeared within days of Harms and was later found murdered. Speculation that hers and Candi’s cases were connected was rampant, though they turned out to be unrelated. 

Once Candi's body was found, Lincoln mourned with the Harmses, raised money to build a memorial bench on campus, held more vigils and wrote guest editorials in the newspaper to express themselves.

“There was a definite connection with the family,” said retired Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey, who prosecuted one of Harms’ killers. “They were just like us. Middle class people who loved their kids and helped them all they could. There was a connection because we identified with them.”

Judge Donald Endacott granted a defense request that Bjorklund's trial be moved because of the publicity.

But the sheer mass of the case -- boxes of reports and hundreds of potential witnesses -- prompted Endacott to make a novel decision.

Instead of moving the trial somewhere else, they’d pick a jury in the western Nebraska town of Sidney and bring 12 jurors and four alternates to Lincoln.

* * *

Nyla Hobson worked at Cabela’s in Sidney, had a husband and three young children and absolutely no idea what she was getting into when she was picked as an alternate juror.

She came to Lincoln in October 1993 and spent 13 days listening to testimony that ranged from the mundane to the terrifying.

“It’s just something that will be with me forever,” she said.

The magnitude began to sink in the first day when she and other jurors were confronted by a wall of television cameras. Later, she wrote a check at a Lincoln store. The employee saw the Sidney address, dropped her pen and said: “You’re one of the jurors."

* * *

Bjorklund -- who’d once considered entering the seminary as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church but later fancied himself a gangster, even calling himself Tommy DiSimone, like the real-life crime boss -- seemed to revel in the notoriety. 

For months after his arrest, he’d call detectives, wanting cigarettes and soda and the opportunity to talk. They obliged.

“Sandy and I talked to him 13 times after he was arrested,” Sorensen said. “He talked about the crime, he’d talk about himself, he’d talk about anything and everything.”

He and Barney told the detectives how they’d decided they wanted to rape a woman, describing how they considered other women before spotting Candi. How Bjorklund approached Candi’s car at her parents' apartment building, used a scanner to make her think he was a police officer then forced his way into her car. How they took her to a field near 84th and Holdrege streets and raped her, then drove her to 134th Street and Yankee Hill Road, choked and shot her.

Bjorklund’s numerous statements led to one of the lengthiest suppression hearings anyone involved can remember, though the judge eventually allowed them to be used at trial.

Other issues complicated the case, and Chief Deputy Public Defender Scott Helvie, who represented Bjorklund, said it was the most difficult of the many homicide cases he's handled.

Partway through the trial, several jurors got anonymous letters threatening to harm them or their families if they didn’t convict Bjorklund.

Investigators linked the letters to Bjorklund, who’d used rubber gloves to type the letters in jail and tricked a minister into delivering them to The Cornhusker hotel.

His efforts to cause a mistrial failed, but jurors didn’t learn anything until later.

“It was pretty scary,” Hobson said. “I had a daughter in kindergarten, I didn’t know if her life would be in danger.”

After the jury convicted Bjorklund, Casady gave them each a manila envelope of newspaper clippings.

“I knew they’d be interested in knowing the rest of the story,” he said.

Hobson read the packet, then went home and back to her life. But she worried when her own daughter went off to college.

“That was hard,” she said. “I remember (my daughter) saying ‘what happened to Candice is not going to happen to me.' It just brought up all that fear.”

* * *

Two years after Candi disappeared, Hobson drove back to Lincoln to watch the judge sentence Bjorklund to death.

The appeals went on for years, including one that centered on a short prayer the judge had said with jurors at the start of the trial. 

Then in 2006, Bjorklund died of a heart attack. His wife, who stuck by him through the trial, later divorced him and requested a name change for her and her two daughters.

Nebraska Department of Corrections officials denied a request for an interview with Barney, who is serving a life sentence.

The Harmses, who declined to be interviewed for this article, moved to Minnesota some years after the trial, and have moved again. They are grandparents now.

Earlier this year, Hobson came across the packet of news clippings and decided to throw it away.

“I just thought, you know, I’ll never read through it again, I’m not sure I want to read through it again,” she said. “I just kind of felt like after he died, it was over.”

* * *

Back in 1992, Sears quit going to his graduate classes when Candi disappeared, but landed a job in advertising at the Lincoln Journal Star. Eventually he began dating a woman who sat in a nearby cubicle.

After he proposed, Pat Harms threw them a wedding shower. She and her husband became godparents to their first son.

Now 43, the general manager of Capital Newspapers has two boys, 13 and 9. He hasn’t told them about Candi, but thinks his oldest son might be ready to hear the story.

There are lessons for them, he said. How important it is to be kind to the girls they will date. How their reputation is important, and fragile. Because he was the boyfriend, police initially turned to him as a possible suspect, interviewing everyone from girls he'd dated to his grade school teachers.

“You need to be cognizant that it only takes an instance or two to change people’s perception of you,” he said.

He started a scrapbook then, and filled boxes with news accounts: a way to focus his energies, help him make sense of what was happening.

Whenever he moved, so did the scrapbook and boxes, including the button of an old girlfriend's smiling face.

“I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away."

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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