In an attempt to help repair his reputation and rebuild his life, a Minnesota man has filed a defamation suit against a second Twin Cities TV station for wrongly identifying him as the killer of Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker.
Ryan M. Larson, who lives in Long Prairie, is suing KSTP-TV for a Nov. 30, 2012, newscast that said he was charged with murdering Decker, according to a suit in Ramsey County District Court.
It is the second time this month that Larson has taken legal action against a Twin Cities news organization stemming from the Decker shooting. Earlier, he sued WCCO radio and television in U.S. District Court for news and social media reports that identified him as the killer. “He’s still feeling the effects of it,” Larson’s attorney, Stephen Fiebiger, said Monday of the publicity surrounding his client’s arrest. “I think he’s looking certainly for some compensation, and to try to restore his name as best as possible.”
KSTP’s attorney, Joseph J. Roby Jr., said Monday the station did nothing wrong. He said that a Stearns County jail log said Larson was being held for “felony murder.”
“KSTP did its job in a lawful manner,” Roby said. “We reported what the police were telling the public.”
Larson’s suit, filed April 25, said that although he was arrested and investigated in Decker’s death, law enforcement authorities never identified him as the killer. Yet, KSTP anchor Leah McLean said on-air, “Investigators say this man, 34-year-old Ryan Larson, shot him,” the suit said.
Fiebiger said Larson might sue other broadcast and print media outlets.
“We’re still investigating,” Fiebiger said Monday.
Decker, a 31-year-old father of four, was fatally shot twice in the head at close range on Nov. 29 while making a welfare check on Larson about 10:45 p.m. Larson, who lived above Winners Sports Bar in Cold Spring at the time, was arrested early the next day and jailed for five days, but never charged.
Another man whom Decker had arrested in 2011, Eric J. Thomes, was later named a person of interest in the shooting and committed suicide after a standoff with police in January 2013.
A Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) statement in August 2013 said there was no evidence that Larson was involved in Decker’s death. It said Thomes was the likely suspect.
‘Innuendo of an ambush’
At the time of the shooting, Larson was a machine-tool student at a community college. Fiebiger said Monday, however, that the media attention following Decker’s death cost Larson job opportunities and affected his personal life and forced him to move out of state for some time before relocating to Long Prairie, about an hour from Cold Spring.
Shortly before Decker was shot, Larson’s mother had asked police to check on her son because she feared he was suicidal. Part-time officer Greg Reiter checked on Larson at 9 p.m., but he wasn’t home, prompting the second check later that night. Reiter was with Decker when Decker was killed, but apparently left the scene in his squad without attempting to pursue the killer.
According to the suit filed last week: The station broadcast a color picture of Larson’s mug shot several times during the 5 p.m. newscast that also featured an emotional interview with Decker’s mother. KSTP reporters Joe Mazan and Todd Wilson said Larson was charged in the crime when he was being held and investigated.
The phrases, “Officer Killed,” “Murder Suspect” and “Officer Ambushed,” used in TV graphics connected Larson to the killing, his suit said.
“The innuendo of an ambush murder by plaintiff Larson broadcast by defendant KSTP was false and unsupported by evidence connecting plaintiff Larson and was intended to sensationalize the broadcast and was defamatory,” the suit said.
$50,000 in damages sought
The station did not correct or rescind that broadcast when Larson was released from jail on Dec. 4, 2012, when investigators identified Thomes as a new suspect or when the BCA cleared Larson, the suit said.
Larson is seeking damages in excess of $50,000.
Asked Monday if reporters misinterpreted Larson’s arrest as an official charge signed by a county attorney, KSTP’s Roby said, “The police arrested and jailed a man and charged him, and we reported that.”
At the time of Larson’s arrest, Stearns County prosecutors had asked a judge to approve an extra 24-hour jail hold on him in order to review the case against him. They later released him without filing charges.
“Some of these are close calls; this one is not,” Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall had said at the time about the decision not to charge Larson.
Roby said Monday that the station did not consider retracting its Nov. 30 broadcast “because the story was true.”