Bar patron was a wanted man night of slaying

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2013 - 6:44 AM

The man who hanged himself after becoming a ''person of interest'' in the slaying of officer Thomas Decker had faced imminent arrest on the night of Decker's shooting.

COLD SPRING, MINN. - The local man who hanged himself after becoming a ''person of interest'' in the shotgun killing of officer Thomas Decker had faced imminent arrest on the night of Decker's shooting.

According to court records, Eric J. Thomes, 31, a regular patron of Winners Bar near where Decker was shot, had failed to appear in court in connection with a drunken-driving charge and a judge had ordered that he be taken into custody.

Thomes was later linked to a vehicle seen leaving the bar after Decker was shot, and police had interrogated him several times before he committed suicide last week.

His death threw a new obstacle before investigators, who said Friday they were still struggling to piece together the events that led up to Decker being shot twice in the head. Decker had assisted in the DWI arrest of Thomes, but it was unclear whether Thomes understood he was about to face the threat of arrest on the night of Decker's killing.

Authorities on Saturday said they had no new information about the investigation or possible suspects. On Friday, they stopped short of calling Thomes a suspect, though they linked him to the shotgun believed used in the slaying. They said the investigation remained open and refused to rule out as a suspect Ryan Larson, who was arrested the night of the shooting but later released.

The unanswered questions have left a continuing sense of unease in the small central Minnesota town of Cold Spring.

"People just want to have closure ... so the Decker family can get some justice and the town can get to rebuilding," Mayor Doug Schmitz said Saturday. "It's been a tough time ... People in town are still somewhat on guard."

At Winners Bar, near where Decker was gunned down shortly before midnight on Nov. 29, patrons didn't want to talk about the slain officer, or Thomes, who police said killed himself Wednesday when officers went to his house for a follow-up interview in the Decker case.

Thomes' family also didn't want to talk Saturday.

A divorced father of two boys, Thomes grew up in Cold Spring and graduated from Rocori High School in 1999, a year before Decker. Schmitz, a lifelong Cold Spring resident and Rocori graduate himself, said he knew little about Thomes other than his name was known throughout Cold Spring.

"I was shocked as anybody else when his name was mentioned," Schmitz said. "We're hoping in the next few days there will be some new information. Everybody's wondering when and where and how."

Decker had assisted in an August 2011 arrest of Thomes, helping officer Greg Reiter, a Cold Spring police part-timer who also was on patrol with Decker the night he was killed. According to arrest records, Reiter pulled Thomes over at 2:30 a.m. because the registration on his vehicle had expired six months earlier. Thomes, who said he was driving friends home, acknowledged that he'd been drinking at Winners Bar. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.13 percent, more than 60 percent above the legal limit for driving of 0.08 percent, arrest records show.

Thomes had been scheduled to appear in court Nov. 20 but didn't show up. On Nov. 28, prosecutors requested a warrant be issued for his arrest. A judge approved that request and ordered the warrant, which was filed Nov. 30, according to court records.

Thomes was arrested and on Dec. 8 posted $25,000 bail.

BCA Superintendent Wade Setter said Friday that investigators began interviewing Thomes about Decker's shooting after getting a tip that he drove a vehicle similar to the one described leaving the area after Decker was killed. Setter said after several interviews, investigators had found "inconsistencies" in what Thomes was telling authorities. The shotgun used to kill Decker was found on a property to which Thomes had access.

Thomes also has had numerous run-ins with police, all involving drinking and driving, starting when he was 16 years old. He was convicted in late 2011 for drunken driving after being stopped in Cold Spring. He was then booked three times -- in September, November and December of this year -- for violating the terms of his probation in the 2011 case, according to Stearns County jail records. Thomes had been scheduled to appear at a probation violation hearing Thursday, the day after his suicide.

However, investigators continue to say they have not ruled out other suspects, including Larson, the part-time Winners bartender who was arrested in his apartment above the bar within hours of Decker's killing. On Saturday, Larson's attorney, Joe Friedberg, said he had no comment about the developments.

A conclusion in the case could still be a ways off, BCA officials said last week. A resolution is much anticipated not just by the families of those involved, but the community.

"The shock any time something like this happens in a small town ..." Schmitz said. "It's going to take time for the healing."

Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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