COLD SPRING, MINN. - On Sunday, three days after Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker was slain on duty, small groups of law enforcement officers and volunteers picked their way through brush along the Sauk River, just down the block from where Decker died.

They were still searching for the 20-gauge shotgun allegedly used by Ryan Michael Larson to shoot the 31-year-old officer late Thursday as he and another officer responded to a report of a suicidal man.

The officer's slaying, which investigators have described as an ambush, has led to a search not only for the murder weapon, but for answers in this small community.

"I think there's more story; we need to know, why did it happen? What snapped in this person?" resident Wayne Krone said Sunday while working at Winners Sports Bar. "The town needs closure. We need to start the healing process."

About 9 p.m. Thursday, officers first responded to a report of a suicidal man, but couldn't make contact with Larson, 34.

He lived in an apartment above Winners bar on Main Street, where Decker had made his last stop just before heading to check Larson's welfare, along with another officer, about 45 minutes after the first officers left.

Decker, a father of four, was shot in a parking lot behind the bar and a neighboring bowling alley. He died at the scene.

Within an hour of the shooting, Larson had been arrested in his second-floor apartment, apparently after leaving and coming back. It remains unclear where he was during that time, and what happened to the shotgun believed used in the slaying.

Sunday night, deputies from Stearns and Todd counties remained parked behind the steel-sided building where Larson lived. Law enforcement agencies from throughout the state were volunteering to take shifts for several days for the officers who serve Cold Spring and Richmond, while those officers are off duty in the wake of the shooting.

The wooden stairs to Larson's second-floor apartment were blocked at the top with plywood. Below, officers panned their flashlights in the foggy darkness and at the bowling alley next door, searching for any bits of evidence missed.

Authorities have asked residents to check their property for the weapon and, if they find it, not to touch it but to call 911. Divers had been searching in the river over the previous couple of days.

Few answers

Sunday, residents said they would not only like to help find the gun, but to know what led to the death of the well-liked officer, who was reared as one of eight siblings on a dairy farm a few miles outside of town.

"I believe at some point in time, the public would hope to know what provoked it," said Gart Theisen, an executive with Cold Spring Granite, which owns 28 acres being developed into a commercial and retail center along the Sauk River downtown.

"We don't know the details, so there's really not a lot to talk about," Theisen said as he paused in his own foot search of that property, which borders Main Street.

At Winners, among a dozen or so people who came to watch the Vikings-Packers game was a brother-in-law of Decker's, who told a bartender that he felt compelled to come to the scene. The brother-in-law declined to comment for this story.

He had traveled from Grand Forks, N.D., to gather this weekend with Decker's family and friends at the dairy farm where the officer's parents, John and Rosella Decker, still live.

Larson, a machine-tool student at a community college, had filled in as a bartender at Winners but hadn't worked there for more than a year, said Krone, who is a former brother-in-law of Decker.

He didn't see Larson often, maybe once a month when he'd stop by Winners to eat. And he hadn't seen him at all in weeks and knew of no problems he might have been having, Krone said.

Krone had known Decker since he was 12. Once he grew up and became an officer, Decker had influenced Krone's daughter, Stephanie, 19, to go into law enforcement, Krone said. She is Decker's niece and is studying criminal justice at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Her dream is to join the FBI.

"He got her interested in it because he loved the job so much," Krone said. "She's got the same personality that he had, always wanting to help others."

Learning of her uncle's slaying, Wayne Krone said, left his daughter more dedicated to the calling than ever.

"She said now she's going to try extra hard to make him proud," Krone said.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038