ST. CLOUD — The sting of uncertainty still lingers for those closest to Thomas Decker, the 31-year-old Cold Spring, Minn., police officer who was shot and killed while on duty a decade ago this fall.
The investigation into Decker's death closed with little fanfare in 2018, five years after the main suspect in the case killed himself just as authorities were looking for him. No charges were ever filed.
"We'll never have all the answers, and that's unfortunate," said Alicia Wehner, 34, Decker's widow who has since remarried. "I'm not at peace. I am at peace knowing he's at peace. But there's always going to be questions that will never get answered."
Decker was shot in the head behind a downtown Cold Spring bar on the night of Nov. 29, 2012, as he responded to a report of a suicidal person. The details remain murky, and the killer's motive is unknown.
Phil Jones, who was Cold Spring's police chief at the time, was never in charge of the investigation; that was conducted by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. But when he tries to make sense of what happened, it bothers him how events just seemed to fall into place that November night.
"It's too big of a coincidence to think that someone just happened to be in the parking lot," said Jones, now 57. "Someone just happened to have a deadly weapon. Somebody just happened to have the capacity to kill. Someone just happened to have the capacity to kill a police officer."
Amid the uncertainty and grief is the resolution of Decker's survivors to live his values. "He loved hard — and he made sure you knew that every day," Wehner said.
A campaign is underway to erect a bronze statue in front of the Cold Spring police station to honor Decker and law enforcement officers. Organizers hope to raise the remaining $19,000 for the $60,000 memorial by the 10th anniversary of Decker's death.
Paul Waletzko, 35, who moved to Cold Spring a few years ago and works at a granite foundry, is spearheading the fund drive.
"I don't want to say people forget, but memories do fade," Waletzko said. "I'm trying to prevent that — not only for Tom but for all law enforcement officers."
'We march on'
The main suspect, 31-year-old Eric J. Thomes, had been under repeated questioning about Decker's death when he hanged himself in August 2013 after an hourslong standoff with law enforcement officers at his home in rural Cold Spring.
According to court documents, a van matching the description of Thomes' vehicle was seen speeding away from where Decker was shot, and the murder weapon was found on the property of Thomes' neighbor.
Jones, who retired the year after Decker died and now lives in Oklahoma, led the Cold Spring department though two high-profile cases: Decker's slaying and the 2003 Rocori High School shooting that left two students dead. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the incidents.
"We march on," he said.
Jones remembers Decker as a lighthearted prankster who wrote goofy messages on the whiteboard and joked with colleagues. He said Decker also was an officer who had the gift of connecting with people.
"He was really compassionate, especially with people in major crisis. That's not something I've seen in every officer," Jones said.
Decker's mother, Rosella, now 77, attributes her son's unique ability to empathize to having grown up with two brothers who dealt with mental health issues. "That helped Tommy understand anybody with a mental illness," she said.
Decker, the second youngest of eight children, would stop by her farmhouse south of Cold Spring every morning after finishing a night shift to check on her and his brother, Billy. The brothers raised chickens together, and Decker would sometimes sell eggs to the other officers, his mother said.
"I talked to Tommy shortly before he got killed. He said, 'I'll be over in the morning, Mom,'" she said.
Instead, she got a knock on the door from Chief Jones.
"There's no such thing as closure," she said. "To lose a child is the worst thing that can happen to you because they are part of you."
Decker's loss hit the city of 4,000 residents particularly hard, given that he grew up there and spent six years on the police force. Members of the Police Department, along with family and friends of Decker, have casual get-togethers each year around the anniversary of his death.
The death left a big hole in the department, and a few officers left because of the stress, said Police Chief Jason Blum, whom Decker helped train when Blum joined the department in 2006.
"We're from a small community," Blum said. "You hear that [phrase] that it's not going to happen here. It's the shock that it can happen almost anywhere."
The memorial planned for the Cold Spring police station will show an officer holding the hand of a young boy with an ice cream cone. It's an homage to Decker, who got lost once in a St. Cloud mall as a child and was comforted by a kind officer who bought him a cone and then waited for Decker's older sister to find him.
"I think that was one of the reasons why he became a cop," Rosella Decker said. "That was the seed that grew."