Week after officer's slaying, unnamed partner and missing gun a mystery

  • Article by: CURT BROWN and LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2012 - 1:01 PM

Investigators remain tight-lipped as the search for the slain officers' killer ramps up.

COLD SPRING, MINN. - One week after Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker was shot to death in a dark alley, the initial suspect in the case has been cut loose, investigators remain tight-lipped and the shooting has prompted far more questions than answers.

Did his partner see the shooting? Where is the murder weapon? How long will it take to solve the case?

Nearly every place here was shuttered and quiet Wednesday as the community once buzzing with investigators paused to bury its slain officer. "Closed for Funeral" signs hung at Winners bar, the saloon now linked to the slaying in the alley out back. Even Cold Spring City Hall, where the Police Department is housed, was locked for the day.

Many questions center on Decker's partner last Thursday, whose name hasn't been disclosed. Decker had made what authorities called a welfare check to an apartment above the bar after family members called with concerns that Ryan Michael Larson might harm himself.

Decker and another officer circled back around 10:45 p.m. to check on the apartment a second time when the shooting happened. Did the undisclosed partner run to offer aid to Decker instead of pursuing the shooter? Did he shoot back?

Larson was released from the Stearns County jail Tuesday because prosecutors said they lacked sufficient evidence to keep him locked up.

Larson continued Wednesday to proclaim his innocence to media outlets, saying he was asleep when Decker was shot and didn't hear anything until police came to arrest him around midnight. With sirens blaring and helicopters circling, how did he fail to hear something?

Bureau of Criminal Apprehension spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said he remains a suspect.

Still, with law enforcement officers from around the state and country attending Decker's funeral Wednesday, she would say only: "No new developments on the investigation to share right now."

For former longtime St. Paul Police Chief William Finney, the Decker case prompts flashbacks to 1970, when St. Paul officer James Sackett responded to a call from a pregnant woman needing help. Officers knocked on the door and no one answered. One officer went to the back door and Sackett was ambushed out front.

"We knew who the players were within six months, but it took 25 years to get a conviction," said Finney, who has no direct knowledge of the Cold Spring case but isn't surprised by the lack of developments so far.

"They want to be very thorough and exact because you don't want to rush an investigation and focus on a particular suspect when there are other avenues you should be exploring," Finney said. "That's how you end up with nobody being held responsible."

Investigators say finding the murder weapon, which they believe is a .20-gauge shotgun, is the critical clue, and they've searched the Sauk River and asked the public to help. Hunters commonly use that kind of gun for small game such as grouse or rabbits. But it packs a deadly wallop.

"It's a pretty good assassination weapon from close range," Finney said. 

Meanwhile, police appear to be ruling nothing out in their investigation, and unsubstantiated rumors -- from gangs to Decker stumbling on a drug deal -- continue to swirl.

"That's the challenge for investigators," Finney said. "They have to sort through all those variables and come up with a way to proceed."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751

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