AITKIN, Minn. — This small city’s biggest room couldn’t fit them all.
Family members, neighbors and about 2,000 law enforcement officers from across North America gathered here Friday to honor one of their own, Deputy Steven M. Sandberg.
They began arriving at 6 a.m., standing in the cold rain, directing long lines of cars and emergency vehicles streaming into town. They were still standing vigil eight hours later, as raw winds swept the cemetery where Sandberg was laid to rest on a hilltop overlooking one of Aitkin County’s many lakes.
The 60-year-old deputy was killed Sunday by a suspect he was guarding at St. Cloud Hospital. Sandberg left behind his wife Kristi, daughter Cassie, and a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone — particularly the 24-year veteran sheriff’s investigator who took the time to listen.
Officers in uniforms with patches from places as far as Canada, New York City and Phoenix filled the gymnasium at Aitkin High School for a ceremony marked by bagpipes and remembrances. An overflow crowd watched a live video feed from another gym, an auditorium and the cafeteria.
Cassie Sandberg said that her father was the reason she was able to stand before the crowd — “because of the strength that he instilled in me.”
With a clear, even voice, Cassie said her father was “never the loudest in the room or the person seeking the spotlight.” Instead, he would be talking one-on-one on the side of the room, she said.
Snapshots of the pair dotted photo boards in the entrance: Holding hands on a first day of school, posing with Minnie Mouse, smiling over deep-dish pizza. Her father was her “biggest fan,” she said, rarely missing a game and always putting his arm around her shoulder afterward.
He would bring her to open gym to help her with her free throws and to the tennis courts at dusk to work one-on-one. Sandberg played football and baseball at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, where Cassie is now a student.
“Looking back, I think my dad always tried to get across that having strength didn’t mean showing it outward to everyone,” she said, “but using that inner strength to have inner confidence and then channeling it to help others.”
Looking out at the packed gymnasium, Sheriff Scott Turner said that this kind of attention “was not Steve.” Instead, he was “probably the most unassuming man that I’ve ever met,” Turner said. “Sorry, buddy, you’ve earned all this and more.”
In voice mails to his boss, Sandberg would identify himself by his badge number: 203. As an investigator, he “would often handle the more difficult cases,” Turner said, including child abuse charges. The people he worked with appreciated his care.
“With Steve, I think it was always about helping people,” Turner said. “There were never any airs about 203: He was, as he would often say, ‘the real deal.’ ”
Sandberg was proud to be a cop, he continued, but never let that become his identity. “Rather he let the content of his character define who he was and help determine the kind of officer he became.”
Turner looked out at Cassie, who was sitting in the front row, beside her mother, Kristi. “As you know, Cassie, Steve was very proud to be your dad,” he said.
Kristi grabbed her daughter’s hand. The pair leaned toward each other, touching heads.
A hero never dies
The town, home to about 2,300 people north of Lake Mille Lacs, dressed itself in flags and blue and black ribbons. A pair of ladder trucks hoisted a flag outside the auditorium, recognizing the almost two decades Sandberg also served as an Aitkin firefighter. Signs posted in stores around town said, “A hero remembered … never dies.”
A death in the line of duty is always tragic, but it hits especially hard in a small community and a small force like Aitkin County’s 18-officer sheriff’s department.
“Minneapolis loses an officer, everybody probably knows them, but they didn’t build a house with them, they didn’t raise children together, probably didn’t vacation together,” said Jeff Beahen, president of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association and chief of the Rogers Police Department. “It’s a family.”
“It’s a tough day for Aitkin,” said Aitkin Mayor Gary Tibbitts. “We’ve never lost an officer like this before … Now the community will wrap themselves around Kristi and Cassie.”
Sandberg was shot with his own weapon in the early hours of Sunday morning by 50-year-old Danny Hammond, a rural Aitkin County man. Hammond, who was hospitalized after an apparent suicide attempt, had kidnapped and terrorized his wife and was facing multiple felony charges once he was discharged.
Investigators say Hammond jumped from his hospital bed and attacked Sandberg, wrestling away his weapon and shooting him. Hammond died shortly after shooting the deputy, after being subdued by a hospital security guard with a Taser.
The deputy’s killing was the nightmare scenario for many victims of domestic violence, said Lisa Hamilton, executive director of Advocates Against Domestic Violence in Aitkin. Black bunting was wrapped around the group’s logo Friday and Sandberg’s name was added to the two dozen people killed by domestic abusers in Minnesota this year.
“I think everyone is grieving the loss of such a gentle soul,” Hamilton said.
‘Aitkin to 203’
Sandberg “always gave himself wholeheartedly” to his many roles — fireman, coach, Sunday school teacher and police officer, said Larry Foote, former pastor at United Methodist Church, which hosted a visitation Thursday. “He gave everything to what he was doing.
“And in this case, doing that cost him his life.”
Foote knew Steven and Kristi when they were dating and married the pair. He has faith that the community will support Kristi and Cassie in the coming years “because that’s part of the joy of a small town.”
Mourners lined the street to watch the long procession of emergency service vehicles traveling the 10 miles between the high school and Bennettville Cemetery.
Some wore a T-shirt printed to raise money for Sandberg’s family. A few held the blue-dipped roses handed out at the ceremony. Many put their hands on their hearts.
At the cemetery, taps rang out, bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” and Aitkin sounded “last call” for its lost officer.
“Aitkin to 203,” the dispatcher’s call carried across the cemetery. “All units, Investigator Steve Sandberg, badge number 203, is out of service … Aitkin County 203 is 10-7.”