The investigation into the 2012 shotgun slaying of Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker has been closed without charges, the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday, five years after the suicide of the main suspect in the case.
Investigators had hoped at one time that more information might emerge, but no work has been done on the case since 2016, when a routine property inventory was filed.
“The short answer is, it’s just time,” said Stearns County Chief Deputy Jon Lentz.
Eric J. Thomes, a 31-year-old man considered the investigation’s main focus, killed himself in early 2013 just as authorities were trying to find him for a formal interview. A van that matched the description of Thomes’ vehicle was seen speeding away from where Decker had been shot, and the murder weapon was found on Thomes’ neighbor’s property, according to court records.
The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office said that Thomes’ arrest was imminent when he died by suicide.
The investigation’s closure comes almost a year after Stearns County appointed Don Gudmundson to serve out the remainder of retiring Sheriff John Sanner’s term. It was Gudmundson who asked for a review of the Decker case, and Lentz’s findings led Gudmundson Friday to formally close the investigation.
Decker, a father of four and a 10-year police veteran, was shot twice Nov. 29, 2012, in the alley behind Winner’s Sports Bar & Grill in Cold Spring, a town of about 4,000 residents some 65 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. He was about to conduct a welfare check on a man who lived in an apartment above the bar. That man, Ryan M. Larson, was arrested but then released days later for lack of evidence. He filed defamation lawsuits against several media outlets.
Larson has also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Stearns and Benton counties, the city of Cold Spring, the former Stearns County sheriff and others. That case is pending, and Larson’s attorney termed the investigation’s closure a “huge development.”
“Essentially, it’s an admission that Ryan Larson was innocent all along and never should have been living under this cloud of suspicion,” said attorney Devon Jacob.
On the night of Decker’s murder, a part-time Cold Spring officer who heard the fatal gunshots reported seeing a man point a handgun at Decker’s squad car; the officer then backed out of the parking lot, losing sight of the shooter, according to court records.
Shortly after Decker’s death, officers broke down Larson’s apartment door and found him asleep, a handgun on the bed near him. Larson was handcuffed and taken to the police station for a lengthy interrogation. Larson, who had been the bartender at Decker’s engagement party and wedding, asked repeatedly what had happened. Upon learning from detectives that Decker had been shot and killed, Larson cried, the lawsuit states.
The suit alleges that Thomes lost his job on Nov. 29, 2012, hours before Decker was slain. Thomes, already in a bitter custody dispute, was angry about losing his job and went drinking at several Cold Spring bars. He then went to Winners, armed with a 20-gauge shotgun to confront his former boss, who was usually at the bar at that time of day, according to the suit.