On the night a SWAT team stormed Ryan Larson's apartment and arrested him for questioning in the shooting death of a Cold Spring police officer, he figured he'd be home and back in bed by dawn.
Five days passed before the 34-year-old was released from jail without charges. Two weeks later he remains a suspect in officer Thomas Decker's death.
Larson's fear has morphed to frustration and anger as he believes he was made a scapegoat for shoddy police work. He claims he would have to be "Superman" to perform what police are accusing him of: Shooting Decker behind Winners Bar, ditching the weapon, cleaning up and returning to his apartment above the crime scene without notice as police swarmed the area.
"I did not kill Tom Decker. As I've stated before and my story is not gonna change, I was in bed sleeping when I found that all this happened. I did not hear anything, nor did anyone in the bar downstairs. I don't know why I've been put in this limelight, but I was forced into it."
In an interview Friday, Larson spoke in detail about what happened Nov. 29, the night of Decker's slaying, on the heels of a document that revealed an account by Decker's partner, part-time officer Greg Reiter, of what happened -- namely, how he saw a man pointing a handgun, although Decker died from a shotgun blast to the head. On the night of the shooting, officers were looking for a suspect armed with a handgun and found a handgun next to Larson when he was arrested.
Larson said authorities, who immediately tested and found no evidence of gunshot residue on his hands or clothing, have nothing on him, yet they have not eliminated him as the possible killer.
"I just want to be cleared as a suspect. That's the first step I can take in an attempt to get my life back, but I'll never get my life back," he said. "I'll never be the person that I was because there's people out there that will always judge me as the person that got away with killing a cop."
Looking ahead, not suicidal
He maintains that he was never suicidal the night Decker and Reiter responded to a welfare check at his apartment above Winners Bar after his concerned family called police. He'd had a rough year, he said, emotionally describing how a girlfriend of more than a year left him without warning in March, then how he grew frustrated when there wasn't enough equipment available to work on his projects at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, where he was studying to be a machinist.
"I was starting to question life in general, just, 'Why?'" he said. "Sometimes it just doesn't seem worth all the troubles." But when he texted his family, "Tomorrow's going to be a big day," he was speaking solely of his plan to switch schools.
He said he kept a loaded handgun by his bed for personal protection because he lives above the bar, and he has a permit to carry for it. He admits he was wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt that night as Reiter claimed he saw on the shooter. He said he doesn't know Reiter and stopped short of saying he may have been the victim of any sort of coverup.
"I know how it feels to have somebody accuse you of something when they don't know the details. From this point I will never accuse anybody of doing something without knowing the facts. Officer Reiter can explain his own actions."
Larson said he spent most of the day in question doing homework and briefly hanging out at a friend's place before he returned to his apartment at 5:30 or 6 p.m., before Winners began filling up for bingo night. He did a little more homework, then cleaned up and got into bed and at 7:58 p.m. sent that text to his family.
"It was that I was thinking of switching schools. If it would have been anything other than that -- anything related to this case -- why would I say 'tomorrow'?"
If Reiter knocked on his door for a welfare check before he called Decker for backup, Larson said he didn't hear it. He said it was 12:15 a.m. when he woke to the sound of officers down the hall from his apartment screaming.
He saw their flashlights bouncing through the cracks in his door and sat up in bed, and said the first thing he told them was "For your safety and mine I have a loaded handgun at the top of my bed." They took the handgun and took him outside. He said all he saw was a sea of squad cars with a helicopter flying overhead, but no crime -scene tape. He still had no idea what had happened.
"I must have asked the question about 50 times before I got downtown ... all they said was we'll explain it to you in a little bit."
Questioned and jailed
Through the night, they questioned him and asked him about a sawed-off shotgun. Larson said he's a gun enthusiast and once owned a 12-gauge but sold it. He said he's never had a 20-gauge, the weapon allegedly used to kill Decker. He said they took his handgun and a rifle, as well as a computer and schoolbooks.
They also took a surveillance system he had recently set up for the back of the bar to deter vandalism and thefts. It worked, he said, but he couldn't find a VHS tape for recording.
"I wish I had it going," he said. "It was pointing right there. There would have been absolutely no questions."
Larson said he also submitted a DNA sample to authorities the night he was arrested.
For five days straight, Larson said, he was checked every 10 minutes because he was believed to be suicidal. On the day of his release, a jailer simply drove him to the hospital, and gave him the option to admit himself for mental-health reasons. He left immediately. Since then, he's been staying with friends and so far refuses to go to Cold Spring.
"I sit here and think and wonder sometimes, was I set up? I'm not making any accusations, but I have so much stuff going through my head right now, and why did this happen? Why am I being accused?"
Larson, a part-time bartender, said he was working when he last saw Decker. The officer was enjoying a drink with his wife, and Larson had just thrown out an unruly patron. The customer's friend followed Larson outside to fight when Decker grabbed him and put him against the wall, possibly preventing Larson from being blindsided.
The two walked together inside, and he bought Decker and his wife a round. He recalled telling the cop, "Thanks, Tom, I got your back now."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921