ST. NICHOLAS, MINN. - Moments after he placed a knee on the frozen cemetery ground and presented Tom Decker's widow with a folded American flag, Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones walked to a waiting vehicle, pausing only briefly to reflect on the day spent burying his young officer.
"It was a funeral befitting a hero," he said, his face tight. "Now it's time to catch a killer."
As more than 3,200 people gathered Wednesday to say goodbye to Decker, gunned down last week behind a downtown bar, the person responsible for his death remained free. The concern was never discussed during the Catholic funeral mass and burial. But it clearly weighed on the 2,300 officers from across the country who stood at attention, and on the schoolchildren and residents from central Minnesota communities who steeled themselves against freezing temperatures to honor the 31-year-old cop, known by many simply as "Tommy" in the community where he was raised and worked to protect.
"It's impressive but sobering," said Ken Lutgen, who had known the officer for more than 25 years, as he watched the ribbon of flashing squad cars wind down Hwy. 21 toward St. Nicholas cemetery. "Tom was somebody people liked and could talk to. If the case isn't solved, it's going to be difficult. This community needs closure."
A silence heavy with grief hung over the service and burial for Decker, a father of four who remarried last year. The officers, deputies and troopers from as far away as Florida looked on as Decker's widow, Alicia, was escorted to the front of St. John's Abbey and University Church on the arms of her husband's colleagues. They stood at attention as she stood in the wind, slumped and head bowed, wearing his leather police jacket over her dress and sobbing while embracing Jones and officer Ruben Zayas.
Decker's four children took turns sprinkling holy water on his casket before it was lowered into the ground at the rural cemetery south of Cold Spring.
"It's heart-wrenching to see what this does to families and communities," said Constable Jeff Elvish of the Thunder Bay, Ontario, Police Department. "We always hope this will be the last police funeral we will attend, but we also know the realities."
As he stood before the white-draped casket, the Rev. Cletus Connors, Decker's friend and neighbor, said that while it's difficult to make sense of his death, it's important to remember him as "a gift that helped spread God's love everywhere in his short life. ... We are all better for having known him.
"Sometimes we need to be reminded that life is good, and worth putting effort into," he said. Decker's death leaves "a feeling of darkness" and one of a "bright light having been extinguished."
The funeral procession wound slowly through Cold Spring, where a line of children from elementary to high school held signs, hands on their hearts. A flag hanging from a backhoe whipped in the wind, while a lone man in a snowmobile suit hoisted an American flag high. Two orange industrial trucks parked on opposite sides of the highway saluted a fallen friend: One read "RIP," while across the street the other read "Tommy."
Less than a mile from the cemetery, the hearse carrying Decker's body stopped at a farm, where the casket was placed on a caisson.
Horses then pulled Decker's body to the cemetery, where his family waited in silence. Bagpipes filled the air, the music picked up by the same cold wind that drowned out the Rev. Thomas Olson's words as Decker's body was lowered into the ground. A bell rang nine times, and two helicopters flew over. Then there was silence again.
The observance was an honor befitting a gentle, soft-spoken officer who always put his community first, said Decker's neighbor, Terry Czech, who recalled the officer stopping by and flashing the lights on his squad car to the delight of Czech's grandson.
"He would have thought this was wonderful," Czech said. "Now people want answers."