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Slain Minnesota Police Officer Mourned by Colleagues

COLD SPRING, Minn. -- Cold Spring-Richmond Police Officer Tom Decker got the parade every law enforcement member and their family fears.

It started in the early hours of Friday morning, when a caravan of patrol cars escorted his body from the parking lot of a Main Street bar where he'd been shot twice and killed while responding to a report of a suicidal man late Thursday.

Decker's body was taken to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's office for a preliminary autopsy that confirmed he died of multiple gunshot wounds. The trip came full circle early Friday evening when a similar cavalcade of vehicles with lights flashing and sirens sounding accompanied Decker's body back home. Cold Spring-Richmond Police Chief Phil Jones said Decker's body would be guarded 24 hours a day until his funeral, which has not yet been set.

And the tight-knit Central Minnesota community will have to come to grips with the loss of a "hometown kid" in what officials are calling an ambush shooting.

Decker, 31, who had been with the Cold Spring-Richmond Police Department since March 2006, was married and had four young children from a previous marriage.

"We lost an officer and the community lost a citizen," said Phil Jones, chief of the Cold Spring-Richmond Police Department. "It's a privilege for me to talk about Officer Tom Decker. He's a hometown boy. He was a chief's dream. Not only did I have no problems with him, but he was the type of officer who accumulated six letters of appreciation and commendations within his short six and a half years with us."

It's the first death of a police officer in Central Minnesota since St. Joseph Police Officer Brian Klinefelter was gunned down while trying to apprehend three robbery suspects in 1996. The event also jarred an area that dealt with a shooting in 2003 at Rocori High School that led to the deaths of two students.

Within an hour of the shooting, Stearns County SWAT team investigators arrested Ryan Michael Larson, 34, of Cold Spring. Larson was booked into Stearns County Jail on second-degree murder charges early Friday.

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is leading the investigation with the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, reported several guns had been located by late Friday. Law enforcement divers also searched a portion of the Sauk River on Friday afternoon, though no official word was released on what the reason for the search. Officers also were still conducting interviews and searching for guns or weapons .

Decker, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, was killed near Winner's Bar at 200 Main St. as he and his partner were conducting a welfare check at one of the apartments above the establishment at about 11 p.m.

The subsequent hunt for a suspect shut down much of downtown Cold Spring late Thursday and early Friday. Officers responded and a police perimeter was set up during the search for the suspect. A State Patrol helicopter hovered overhead.

It started with a phone call

Larson's family had called the Stearns County Sheriff's Office at about 9 p.m. Thursday, concerned that he might kill himself. Decker and another responding officer did not immediately make contact with the suspect. They returned about an hour and 45 minutes later, still trying to make contact, and Decker left his squad car.

"What I can say about this is from our preliminary investigation it's apparent to us that the officer was ambushed at the scene," said Drew Evans, assistant superintendent with the BCA. The Cold Spring-Richmond Police Department, the Minnesota State Patrol and several other state agencies are assisting in the investigation.

Brian Moen, who lives about a block from the bar, said officers came to his door and said they were looking for a sawed-off shotgun.

The crime scene was still being processed Friday as squad cars barricaded a block-square area around Winner's. Evans said Stearns County deputies and other police personnel were conducting a followup investigation with interviews around the entire state.

Evans said he didn't have any information to believe that any other suspects were involved in the shooting.

"But it's in early stages of the investigation," Evans said. "We continue to follow up on all leads."

About the suspect

A former employee of Winner's Bar, Larson is a second-year machine tool student at St. Cloud Technical & Community College, according to Heidi Everett, a spokeswoman for the school.

Jones said he didn't believe Decker and Larson knew each other before the shooting. However, at least one of Jones' officers was familiar with Larson. The department has eight full-time and eight part-time officers to cover a jurisdiction of roughly 37 square miles and about 9,500 citizens.

"He didn't seem to have a lot of background," Jones said of the officer's recollection of Larson. "We are basically looking into how long he has even lived in this location. We don't believe that he has occupied that apartment for very long."

Downtown Cold Spring was relatively quiet late Thursday, according to Mark Schurman, operations manager at Cold Spring Bakery. He said two of his bakers were in the building about a block and a half from Winner's when the shooting occurred.

"They came in about 10 p.m. and were working and of course they saw and heard a crazy amount of sirens going by," Schurman said. "They went out to ask what was going on and were told to stay inside. We're pretty much the only business up and about in the middle of the night around here. There were three others of us who were trying to get in to work, but (officers) stopped us at the edge of town a little after 11 p.m. We couldn't come in until after 12:30 a.m. It's a terrible thing. I know of (Decker) and some of our employees know the family."

Decker, a 2000 Rocori High School graduate, had worked in law enforcement for more than 10 years with stints on police forces in Isle, Watkins and Kimball. He was a 2002 graduate of Alexandria Technical and Community College. He was the use-of-force instructor and a firearms instructor for the Cold Spring-Richmond Police Department.

Family left behind

Becky Decker, formerly Becky Wollschlager, married Officer Decker in 2003. They divorced in 2008, but Officer Decker remarried in the past year, according to Becky Decker's twin sister, Roxie Knowles. His second wife's name is Alicia.

Decker's children include 8- and 7-year-old daughters, Kelly and Jade, and 6- and 5-year-old sons, Justin and Devon. All live with their mother in Sartell and attend Pine Meadow Elementary.

Becky Decker, 28, learned of the death of her former husband when law enforcement showed up at 1 a.m. Friday at her residence.

"The kids are just devastated and Becky's obviously having a real hard time with it," Knowles said. "When three officers show up at your door in the middle of the night, it's never good news. She called me and I came over at 2 a.m. and have been here ever since. The worst part was how she had to break the news to her kids when they woke up that their daddy was gone. Now, I'm hearing the girls say all they want for Christmas is their daddy back, and I don't know what to tell them."

The Rev. Cletus Connors of St. Boniface Catholic Church in Cold Spring said he has known Decker for years and met with Decker's parents, John and Rosella, in the hours immediately after the shooting. They are retired and live on a farm near St. Nicholas, south of Cold Spring.

"He was a nice young person," Connor said of Officer Decker. "Always sincere and the type of guy who always wanted to do what was right. He would give everybody the benefit of the doubt. He always wore his vest at work and was highly respected. I don't know anyone next to the chief (Jones) who would command more respect in this town."

John and Rosella Decker had eight children. Officer Decker was the second-youngest. A sister died at the age of 8 about 30 years ago from complications of heart surgery, according to Rita Hennen, a neighbor of John and Rosella Decker.

"Cold Spring is sort of a bedroom community where everyone knows each other and a lot of people work in St. Cloud," said Hennen, who is president of the Cold Spring Area Chamber of Commerce and was having coffee and donuts with several other members early Friday -- just across the street from the police station. "It will help if a lot of information comes out about what happened so we can try to understand why this happened."

Community rattled

That might be difficult no matter how much the incident is scrutinized.

"There are a lot of young families in our community, and that's because we don't want to live in St. Cloud because of problems like this," said Kelly Warren, an attorney with Willenbring, Dahl, Wocken & Zimmermann, which has offices less than two blocks from where the shooting took place.

"You go to the bakery or the drug store and you know everyone. The police know who works where, and it's like people have each others' backs," she said. "There's an element in town that's unsavory, and we all know who they are, but our community is so interconnected that we'll rally around each other at a time like this."

Amy Brickweg is originally from Cold Spring but lives in Sartell. She also was at the Cold Spring chamber on Friday morning.

"It rattles you," Brickweg said. "I'm like a lot of other people who have moved away but keep coming back because this place has a small-town atmosphere. You feel safe. I'd hate for this to disturb that."

Gov. Mark Dayton issued a statement Friday that read: "On behalf of the people of Minnesota, I extend my deepest sympathies to his family and to the Cold Spring Police Department for their tragic loss of an outstanding officer, father, and friend."

Funeral arrangements for Officer Decker were not available Friday, though it's likely any memorials will be well attended by law enforcement officers from around the state sometime in the week ahead.

"He had a great sense of humor. Everyone who met him liked him," Jones said. "He eventually ended up finding what he called his dream job with us here at the Cold Spring-Richmond Police Department. We're going to miss him. The community and all of law enforcement will miss Tom Decker."

Copyright 2012 - St. Cloud Times, Minn.

McClatchy-Tribune News Serivce