COLD SPRING, Minn. (AP) — Even for those who didn’t know him, the fatal ambush of a local police officer provoked tears Friday for residents of the small central Minnesota community where he was killed while trying to help a man believed to be suicidal.
Officer Tom Decker, a six-year veteran and father of four, had gone to check on a man’s welfare when he was fatally shot after getting out of his squad car near a bar in Cold Springs late Thursday. Investigators said Friday that several guns were found, and the man who was reported to be suicidal was taken into custody.
“He was a policeman trying to help someone. He was called there to help and he went there and was shot doing his job,” said Donna Knaus, a manager at Cold Spring Bakery not far from the crime scene. “It’s horrible.”
Many other residents of Cold Spring, a city of about 4,000 residents about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis, became teary-eyed when asked about Decker. The officer grew up on a farm south of town, and after graduating from college, worked at several small Minnesota police departments before coming home for what he called his dream job.
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing in a community this size,” said Florence Benson, 72, of Rockville, just a few miles down the road. “Just about everybody knows everybody — especially police officers.”
The man taken into custody, 34-year-old Ryan Michael Larson of Cold Spring, was being held Friday on suspicion of second-degree murder. The county attorney’s office was considering criminal charges.
Larson’s relatives either couldn’t be reached or declined comment Friday to The Associated Press. One said she wasn’t sure whether Larson had an attorney.
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said his department got a call around 9 p.m. Thursday reportedly from Larson’s family, saying he might be suicidal. Cold Spring police went to his home once and couldn’t raise anyone, then returned almost two hours later.
It was during the second trip that Decker was shot. He was wearing a bulletproof vest.
“It’s apparent to us the officer was ambushed at the scene,” said Drew Evans, assistant superintendent of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Investigators wouldn’t elaborate on why they believe the shooting was an ambush, saying only that the shooting was still being investigated.
Residents, meanwhile, were focused on the officer’s family. One woman who said she didn’t know the officer left a flower bouquet for his family at City Hall, where a heart-shaped balloon and candle were also left. A banner made at a local school was filled with dozens of colorful handprints cut out of construction paper and read: “We thank all of you for your service to our community.”
When asked about the banner, Cold Spring Mayor Doug Schmitz was moved to tears. “It’s tough,” he whispered.
“A lot of people woke up this morning in shock, and we’re still in shock,” he said later. “We’re a strong community. We just bind together here. It’s going to be a tough few days and weeks to come, but we’ll make it.”
Blocks surrounding the crime scene were cordoned off with police tape on Friday, and officers — some using dogs, others searching rooftops — canvassed the area.
Several guns were found, according to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, but the agency was searching for additional weapons that may be related to Decker’s death. Brian Moen, who lives about a block from the bar, said officers who came to his door told him they were looking for a sawed-off shotgun.
Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones said Decker was the “department jokester” on a force with only eight full-time officers. Decker served as the department’s instructor on firearms and use of force. Jones said he never had problems with Decker, noting he’d received repeated letters of commendation and appreciation.
Decker leaves behind a wife and four children from a previous marriage — two daughters ages 8 and 7, and two sons ages 6 and 5.
His younger brother, Joe Decker, told The Associated Press that his brother loved to travel and be outdoors. He said his brother was shy and reserved as a youngster but became outgoing and gregarious as an adult.
“He was one of those people who’d be the life of the party,” Joe Decker said.
Police attention had been drawn before to Larson, a machine tool student at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, though mostly for traffic-related offenses but once in an abuse case.
In 2009, he reached a plea agreement to settle a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for engaging in behavior that could “arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others.” As part of the plea deal, he served a day in jail and agreed to undergo domestic abuse counseling. A no-contact order was issued. Court files indicated he violated his probation in 2010.
“He’s a normal person,” Jeff Scoles Jr., a friend of Larson’s, told the AP late Friday. “He’s not a monster.”
Scoles said Larson lived in an apartment above his bar and has filled in as a bartender at another bar he owns. Scoles added that Larson was doing his homework at one of the bars Thursday and was in a “good mood” when he left that afternoon.
He added that Larson took a concealed-carry class in January and that Larson owned guns, but “was cautious with them.”
Condolences for Decker came from fellow police officers in other Minnesota departments and from elected officials, including Gov. Mark Dayton.
“On behalf of the people of Minnesota, I extend my deepest sympathies to his family and to the Cold Springs Police Department for their tragic loss of an outstanding officer, father and friend,” the governor said.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee and Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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