WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - A fugitive who evaded police as the "Bushman of the Shuswap" and later loved playing Santa and ran for mayor in his hometown of Williams Lake, B.C., has died.
John Bjornstrom's death came suddenly on Jan. 13 at age 58, according to an obituary in the Williams Lake Tribune. A celebration of life will be held on Sunday.
Bjornstrom escaped from jail in Kamloops and was on the lam for two years before being captured in November 2001 after a massive manhunt.
He survived by stealing food and property from dozens of cabins in the woods around Shuswap Lake, where he repeatedly eluded the RCMP but spoke with several media outlets about his underground encampment.
RCMP posed as journalists making a documentary in order to arrest Bjornstrom.
In 2004, he was sentenced to house arrest for 23 months after pleading guilty to 10 charges including break and enter.
Mayor Walter Cobb of Williams Lake said he last saw Bjornstrom in December as he sported his long white beard and a Santa suit at a community dinner hosted by the Salvation Army.
Cobb didn't know how Bjornstrom died, but said he ran into him at a Chamber of Commerce meeting last fall, where the former "Bushman" said he'd suffered a heart attack.
The obituary suggests donations go to the Heart and Stroke Foundation or the Salvation Army.
In 2014, Bjornstrom entered the Williams Lake mayoral race saying he was healthy despite a recent battle with cancer.
He finished with 91 votes and in last place among four candidates.
Cobb said he was surprised that someone who had never run for council would enter the mayoral race.
"It shows that people, while things happen in their lives, they can turn things around and do better," he said.
"I saw him as someone who was willing to stand up. Every once in a while you need that."
Bjornstrom worked as a truck driver and also drove a limousine for a local company but seemed to be a reclusive type, Cobb said.
Mary Betts said she didn't know Bjornstrom personally but her son is married to Bjornstrom's sister, though the siblings were estranged from each other.
"I think people always talked about him because he was an interesting individual," she said. "People around here liked him. He was a novelty when he first came here because of the things he had done. I mean, he had to be a smart man to do the things he had done."
Her niece lived in a trailer park across from Bjornstrom's motorhome, Betts said.
"He was very good to her, and not in a romantic way. He was just nice to her. And I know that for a special occasion he drove her somewhere in a limousine."
The obituary in the Tribune says Bjornstrom had moved from Ontario at age 12, loved the outdoors and horses, and was an accomplished bare-back rodeo star.
"John brought a smile with him everywhere he went and always had a joke to share," it says. "John was selfless when it came to his many friends at the Salvation Army Drop-in Centre, often running a coffee tab for everyone who visited for the day."