Five years after the shooting of police officer Thomas Decker, the community of Cold Spring, Minn., paused to remember the incident and pay respects to the man who lost his life.
About 40 people held a ceremony last week to install a new sign in Decker’s memory near the spot where the 31-year-old was shot Nov. 29, 2012.
It’s one of three “end of watch” signs that Stearns County installed this year for officers killed in the line of duty. The signs, paid for by the local Minnesota Fraternal Order of Police lodge, also honor St. Joseph police officer Brian Klinefelter and Stearns County Deputy Edwin Arendt.
“It’s something to remember him and to memorialize the sacrifice he made … so people don’t forget,” Cold Spring/Richmond Police Chief Jason Blum said. “It was a big thing to lose an officer. It affected us. It still does.”
Decker, a father of four and a 10-year police veteran, was shot twice in the head in a dark alley behind Winners Sports Bar as he responded to a welfare check on a man who was later wrongly named by authorities as a person of interest in the case. For weeks, the killer remained a mystery.
More than a month later, 31-year-old Eric J. Thomes, who was a regular patron at the bar, was named as a person of interest after the shotgun used to kill Decker was found on a property Thomes had accessed.
A day after Decker’s death, a judge ordered Thomes’ arrest after he failed to appear in court on a drunken-driving charge. Thomes later killed himself when police arrived to question him about Decker’s case. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Stearns County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that Thomes would have been arrested for Decker’s murder. The case remains open because it’s unknown if Thomes acted alone.
Reminders of Decker are scattered about Cold Spring, a city of 4,000 people 65 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Besides the memorial sign, the post office, a memorial garden outside City Hall and a portion of Hwy. 23 were named after Decker. His badge number, 6402, was also retired by the police department.
The loss hit the department’s nine officers hard. Decker, who had a reputation as the jokester, would leave balloon animals in squad glove compartments to surprise colleagues and lighten the mood, Blum said.
“He always wanted to make people smile,” said Blum, who fished with Decker on days off. “He always went the extra mile to help people in need.”