Thousands attend funeral honoring Pope County deputy killed in shootout

People line the street as a hearse drives by
People gather along Minnesota Avenue West in Glenwood on Saturday to show their respect to Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen, who was killed in the line of duty April 15, 2023.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Updated: 4:55 p.m.

Thousands of law enforcement officers, first responders, military members, friends and family flooded the small central Minnesota city of Glenwood on Saturday to pay respects to fallen Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen.

A police officer kneels next to a canine.
Pope County Sheriff Deputy Joshua Owen.
Courtesy of Pope County Sheriff's Office

Owen died on April 15, his 44th birthday, after he was shot while responding to a domestic violence call at a home in Cyrus.

At his funeral, Owen was remembered as a loving husband and father, heroic military veteran, selfless law enforcement officer and fun-loving friend and colleague with a sense of humor and a distinctive laugh. 

A horse drawn caisson carries a casket
A horse-drawn caisson on Saturday carries the body of Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen, who was killed in the line of duty April 15, 2023, in Cyrus.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Pope County Chief Deputy Nathan Brecht tearfully remembered how Owen disliked paperwork, but loved working the night shift and believed that law enforcement is a noble profession.

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“This man was your protector in Pope County,” Brecht said. “As your family slept soundly, he kept watch … There’s nobody else I'd rather have driving by my house at night when I'm sleeping. He's strong. His presence brought a sense of calm. You just felt like everything was gonna be OK when you were around Josh.” 

People line a street during a procession
People gather along Minnesota Avenue West in Glenwood on Saturday to show their respect to Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Owen also served in the Army National Guard, and deployed overseas twice, to Bosnia and Iraq.

Lt. Col. Jon Anderson was Owen’s platoon leader while they were in Iraq for 16 months. Anderson described Owen as a hard-working, common sense soldier, and said he learned quickly to “always pick Josh.”

That included one incident in Taji, Iraq, when they were part of a convoy escort mission that was ambushed by intense small-arms fire and an improvised explosive device.

K9s line up
K9s were positioned near Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen’s squad car in recognition of his service with the unit during his funeral on Saturday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Anderson said he sent Owen ahead, where he helped rescue a truck driver who was trapped in his crashed vehicle.

“This is just one of the less violent examples from Iraq where Josh lived up to the definition of a hero,” Anderson said. “And I understood from this point forward again, always pick Josh.”

Flag-draped coffin in front of people in brown and black uniforms
A crowd of law enforcement officers salute as the casket carrying the remains of Pope County Sheriff's Deputy Josh Owen is taken inside Minnewaska Area High School on Saturday.
Paul Middlestaedt | MPR News

Anderson said Owen’s heroic nature and ability to remain calm under pressure made him a natural fit for law enforcement. 

Hours before the funeral, a seemingly endless line of law enforcement vehicles, ambulances, fire trucks and buses crawled up the road to Minnewaska Area High School. Owen’s family, including his wife, Shannon, and 10-year-old son Rylan, arrived on a coach bus and were escorted inside.

A family walks in front of a line of law enforcement
Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen's wife, Shannon, and 10-year-old son Rylan attend his funeral on Saturday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Then, as dozens of law enforcement officers in dress uniforms stood at attention in front of the school, a black caisson drawn by four horses with riders carried Owen’s flag-draped casket up the hill. Members of an honor guard carried the casket inside.

Officials said about 4,500 people attended the funeral, filling the gymnasium and auditorium and leaving some people standing in the hallway.

People gather along a street during a procession
People gather along Minnesota Avenue West in Glenwood on Saturday to show their respect to Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

After the funeral, mourners filed outside and stood at attention as bagpipes played. A military plane circled overhead, trailing a plume of blue smoke. 

Dozens of officers brought their canine partners in honor of Owen, whose K9 partner Karma was in attendance.

A procession of law enforcement vehicles escorted Owen’s casket to a private burial service at a local cemetery. 

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has said that Bryan Nygard, 34, opened fire on Owen and two other officers after they told Nygard that he was under arrest. Nygard died of multiple gunshot wounds after Owen and Pope County Deputy Brody Merrill returned fire.

Handgun rounds also struck Merrill and Starbuck Police Officer Alex Olson, but neither suffered serious injuries.

Owen was a patriot who loved his country and was honored to serve in the military, said his cousin, Josh Palmateer.

People gather along a street during a procession
People gather along Minnesota Avenue West in Glenwood on Saturday to show their respect to Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

As a law enforcement officer, Owen was open-minded and didn’t judge anyone, Palmateer said. Owen once sat for hours talking to a suicidal man, and counseled a woman struggling with drug abuse issues to turn her life around, he said.

“Josh never stopped trying to help people and that says a lot,” Palmateer said. “It's so easy to be cynical in this day and age, and there were undoubtedly people who never came around. But Josh never stopped trying.”

Owen’s death hit the small community of Glenwood hard. Signs and flags were on display throughout the city, showing support and love for him, his family and law enforcement at large.

A squad car in front of a high school
The squad car for Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen serves as a memorial in front of Minnewaska Area High School during his funeral on Saturday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Brian Hubbard, president of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association and a deputy police chief in Crystal, said everything he’s heard about Owen is that “he was not only an outstanding deputy, but an outstanding member of this community, a great husband, a great dad.”

“The loss is obviously huge for the family, not to be diminished,” Hubbard said. “But I think this community has experienced a loss in his passing.”

 A plane leaves a trail of smoke
A plane leaves a trail of smoke in tribute at the conclusion of the funeral service for Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen on Saturday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for law enforcement. Last weekend was the funeral for two Wisconsin police officers killed in the line of duty.

Hubbard said law enforcement officers know there’s a risk that comes with the job, but the deaths are a stark reminder.

A plane leaves a trail of smoke
A plane leaves a trail of smoke in tribute at the conclusion of the funeral service for Pope County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Owen on Saturday.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

“It’s a very in-front reminder that as officers are grieving, you have to rethink about putting that uniform on and going back to work the next day,” he said.

The public can donate to Owen’s family via two local banks, according to his obituary: The Josh Owen Memorial Fund at Glenwood State Bank or The Josh Owen Memorial Fund at Eagle Bank.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this story.