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Newly released case file sheds light on investigation of police officer's shooting death

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Casket leaves funeral
The casket of Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker is brought out of St. John's Abbey and University Church on the campus of St. John's University following Decker's funeral in Collegeville, Minn. Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012.
Jeffrey Thompson for MPR News 2012

More than five years after the shooting death of Cold Spring, Minn., police officer Tom Decker, Stearns County has released the investigative file in the case. 

The thousands of pages of documents, released Monday, show what led investigators to settle on the man who they think killed Decker.

What happened to Decker?

Winner's Sports Bar and Grill
Cold Spring Police Officer Thomas Decker was killed here, in the back parking lot of Winner's Sports Bar and Grill, on Nov. 29, according to police.
Madeleine Baran for MPR News 2012

On Nov. 29, 2012, Decker responded to call for a welfare check of a man living in an apartment above Winners Bar in Cold Spring, Minn. When Decker, 31, got out of his squad car, he was shot and killed.

The killing shook the small community. Thousands of people attended Decker's funeral in Cold Spring. Rumors swirled about who might be responsible.

Who do police think killed Decker?

Eric Joseph Thomes
This photo provided by the Stearns County (Minn.) Sheriff's office via The St. Cloud Times, shows Eric Joseph Thomes. Thomes, questioned several times in the slaying of Tom Decker, a Cold Spring police officer fled from investigators and committed suicide this week, authorities said Friday, Jan. 4, 2013.
Stearns County (Minn.) Sheriff's office via AP

In August 2013, investigators said they had the evidence to suspect that a 31-year-old man named Eric Thomes was the shooter. They had talked to Thomes a few times and were going back to talk to him again in January 2013, when he locked himself in a shed and hanged himself after a standoff with police that lasted hours.

Police said Thomes had access to the shotgun that was likely used to kill Decker, and would have been arrested for the crime, had he not killed himself.

But the case wasn't officially closed until April, more than five years after Decker's killing. Stearns County officials kept the case open, hoping new information might surface.

What is in the investigative file?

The investigative file contains thousands of pages of investigators' reports, photographs, transcripts of interviews and 911 calls.

Investigators interviewed dozens of people who might have had information about the shooting. Because Decker was a small-town police officer, he came in contact with a lot of people who investigators thought might have a grudge against him.

In addition to the details about who investigators interviewed and physical evidence in the case, the documents released Monday give a sense of what led investigators to focus on Thomes.

Thomes had changed the story he gave investigators about where he'd been that night. He seemed to be in a downward spiral. His girlfriend told investigators he was depressed over his kids moving to another town. He had been fired from his job at Rotochopper on the day of Decker's murder, reportedly for missing work without good explanation. 

But the police didn't focus on Thomes immediately. 

Initially, investigators' focus was on Ryan Larson, the man who lived in the above-bar apartment and who Decker was called to check in on.

Ryan Larson speaks during an interview in 2012.
In this Dec. 14, 2012 photo, Ryan Larson speaks during an interview.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

The investigative file indicates that police initially suspected Larson in the killing. Larson owned weapons and had sent texts to family members suggesting he might be suicidal.

Larson was arrested shortly after the shooting, but was released from jail a few days later. He maintained his innocence and was never charged in the case.

Why is the investigative file being released now?

Then-Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said he wanted the case kept open in case any new information came to light. 

When current Sheriff Don Gudmundson took over in 2017, he asked for a review of the case. In April, he decided to close the investigation, more than five years after Decker's death.

Once a case is closed, the investigative files become public. 

Police officer funeral
Students from ROCORI school in Cold Spring, Minn. greet a procession of police and safety vehicles following Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker's funeral Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012.
Jeffrey Thompson for MPR News 2012

Is there anything left to resolve in this case?

Ryan Larson sued Stearns County and others for civil rights violations. That case is still pending in federal court.

Larson also filed defamation lawsuits against several media organizations over their reports naming him as a suspect in Decker's death. In May, an appeals court sided with the media, saying the news stories were protected because they accurately summarized law enforcement statements.

The file also leaves many unanswered questions. It doesn't definitively conclude that Thomes shot Decker, and it doesn't provide a motive.