On Nov. 29, 2012, Ryan Larson went to bed around 8 p.m. in his Cold Spring apartment. By midnight, he awoke to police armed with assault rifles smashing down his door.
Handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car, he asked what was going on. Finally, a cop told him: He was a suspect in the murder of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker.
Though he had nothing to do with the crime and would later be cleared of any wrongdoing, his life after that has never been the same, the 38-year-old testified Tuesday in his defamation trial against a pair of Minnesota media outlets.
Larson is suing KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times, claiming that stories the two news outlets ran on Larson’s arrest unfairly accused him of being Decker’s killer.
Those outlets sourced their stories to law enforcement, which issued a news release and held a news conference about eight hours after Decker was killed.
The news release said Larson “was booked into the Stearns County jail on murder charges.” In a video of a news conference repeatedly replayed for the jury, police described Decker going to Larson’s apartment on a welfare check when Decker was shot twice. The Stearns County Sheriff answered “no” when asked if anyone else was injured or involved. Drew Evans, then-assistant superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said “it’s apparent to us that the officer was ambushed at the scene.”
The news organizations contend they took that information to piece together their stories.
“[Decker] was the good guy last night going to check on someone who needed help,” KARE 11’s Jana Shortal reported on the 10 p.m. newscast that night, in a video played for the jury. “That someone was 34-year-old Ryan Larson who investigators say opened fire on officer Tom Decker for no reason anyone can fathom.”
The next day, the St. Cloud Times ran a story with the headline “Man faces murder charge.”
Larson testified in court on Tuesday that that reporting was false. Law enforcement, he said, never said any of that.
“All they were doing was putting words in the officers’ mouths who held the news conference that day,” Larson said. “I don’t want to know reporters’ assumptions or interpretation of what law enforcement said.”
Before the arrest, Larson was studying machine work at St. Cloud Technical College and getting good grades. After the arrest, he said, “Any public life for me pretty much ceased to exist.”
He stopped going to classes and his grades plummeted. Eventually he was suspended from school. Facing ridicule in his community, he moved. He lived in fear after reading online message boards.
“That SOB should be hung for what he did,” one post read.
“Someone will put a full magazine in him before the weekend is over,” read another.
He stopped going out with friends, and only went to places like Wal-Mart at night with a hat on and his eyes down. He said he was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder.
And though he has since finished his schooling, none of the 30 job applications he’s sent out have resulted in employment.
The attorneys for KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times argue that the reporting was accurate because statements made by law enforcement after Larson’s arrest show he was at the time a suspect in Decker’s murder. Larson was released from jail four days after his arrest and wasn’t officially cleared until August 2013, when the BCA said Eric Thomes, who killed himself the previous January, would have been arrested in Decker’s slaying.
During testimony on Monday, St. Cloud Times reporter David Unze was asked if law enforcement officials said during the news conference that they suspected Larson of killing Decker. “I think that was everybody’s interpretation,” Unze replied. “I don’t know how you could come away with anything else.”
However, in testimony Tuesday, Evans, who was part of that November 2012 news conference, said it would have been incorrect to say at the time that police believed Larson was responsible for killing and shooting Decker.
“It would have been too soon for us to make such a determination,” Evans said.