Several thousand community members, peace officers and others gathered Saturday to pay tribute to slain Pope County deputy Josh Owen, remembering him for his love of service, country and family.

Owen was fatally shot last weekend while answering a domestic call in the west central Minnesota town of Cyrus. He later died at a hospital. It was his 44th birthday.

"Today serves as a stark reminder of the very dangers that lurk in all communities," said Nathan Brecht, Pope County chief deputy, at Owen's funeral, where some 4,500 people spilled out of the gymnasium at Minnewaska Area High School in Glenwood. "The answer is not to give into darkness ... but to keep that light."

Multiple speakers, including a former platoon leader and cousin of Owen, described him as strong — mentally and physically, as evident by the "24-inch pythons" that he showed off when he stood with folded arms — as well as kind and funny, with a booming laugh.

"He didn't just laugh — he often broke eardrums," Brecht said.

Lt. Col. Jon Anderson of the Minnesota National Guard, who served in Iraq with Owen, described him as a prankster who was good at staying under the radar of fellow soldiers with his jokes. But more importantly, he was hardworking and reliable.

"In war, there are two protectors: the guy next to you and God," Anderson said. "I would have given my life for Josh, as I know he would have for me. On April 15, Josh gave his life for all of us."

Owen and two other officers — Pope County Deputy Brody Merrill and Starbuck police officer Alex Olson — were struck by gunfire as they attempted to arrest 34-year-old Bryan Nygard of Cyrus during a domestic call.

Neither Merrill nor Olson were seriously injured.

Owen leaves behind wife Shannon and son Rylan, as well as mother Kathy Yarns of Prior Lake, father Daniel Owen of Saginaw, Mich., and brother Matthew of Prior Lake, according to his obituary.

"In the hours of darkness, you have wrapped your arms around my son and me to help us get through this enormous loss," Shannon Owen said in a statement read aloud by a cousin. "Even through the tears and all the emotions I can still see Josh everywhere, in the pictures that decorate our fridge, in the fire pit he built by hand and in the neighborhood we call home."

Josh Owen was born in Saginaw and lived there until his family moved to Albany, Minn., when he was 14. He joined the Army National Guard in high school and was deployed to Bosnia in 2003-2004 and Iraq in 2006-2007. He earned his law enforcement degree from Alexandria Technical & Community College and briefly served as police chief in Lowry, Minn., and as an officer in Glenwood before joining the Pope County Sheriff's Office in 2009.

Cousin Josh Palmateer said the stint in Lowry was so short because Owen didn't like paperwork. But he found his niche as a deputy.

"You don't have to be a manager to be a leader," he said. "It's been evident this week what a tremendous leader Josh was amongst his fellow officers. They respected him, looked to him for advice and direction, and thought the world of him."

"This man was your protector in Pope County," Brecht said. "As your family slept soundly, he kept watch."

After the funeral, Owen was interred at Glenwood Cemetery in a private burial service.

Gov. Tim Walz was not at the funeral. A spokeswoman said he didn't attend because when he called the widow she asked him not to.

"I will respect the family's wishes. I don't want to say or do anything that adds to the pain they already have," Walz said Friday on WCCO Radio.

Minnesota leaders in Washington, D.C., held a moment of silence honoring Owen on Tuesday.

"This is a devastating, heartbreaking reminder that our men and women in law enforcement put their communities above all else every single day," said U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach of Minnesota's 7th Congressional District, which includes Pope County. "We are praying for Josh's family and for the Pope County community as they mourn the loss of a local hero."

Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.