ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner last week discussed the investigation into the shooting death of Cold Spring-Richmond Police Officer Tom Decker.
The conversation happened four weeks after the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension announced there had been probable cause to arrest a man who killed himself in January.
Because the case still is considered open, Sanner said he couldn't discuss specifics about the investigation. He stressed that investigators still want help answering two key questions: Did the person who killed Decker act alone, and what was the motive behind the killing?
Sanner talked about Ryan Larson, the man who was arrested the night Decker was killed and was later released without being charged. And he discussed why there was so little information released initially and why it's necessary to continue to withhold certain investigative information.
Decker was shot Nov. 29 behind Winner's Bar in downtown Cold Spring after he responded there to check on Larson, who lived above the bar. Larson was reported to have sent text messages to a family member that night that caused the family member to be concerned about his welfare.
Eric Joseph Thomes, 31, was considered a person of interest in Decker's death and had been questioned multiple times before investigators returned to question him again in early January.
Thomes ran to an outbuilding; investigators tried for several hours to convince him to come out. When they finally entered the building, they found Thomes had hanged himself.
The 20-gauge shotgun that was found on a separate property that Thomes had access to was determined by the BCA to be the weapon used to kill Decker.
Q: Why is the case being classified as open if investigators have identified Eric Thomes as the person who would have been arrested for the shooting had he not killed himself?
A: Because two significant questions still remain unanswered. And that is "What was the motive?" and "Did the shooter or shooters act alone?" We owe it to the community and the families involved to make absolutely every effort to provide answers to these questions. If you look at the big picture, this case is still relatively fresh compared to open investigations across the state and nation that are literally decades old. So, be patient.
Q: The BCA called Eric Thomes a "person of interest" in the death of Officer Decker and said that he would have been arrested had he not killed himself. What makes him a person of interest?
A: Mr. Thomes provided remarkably different accounts as to his whereabouts on the evening Officer Decker was shot and killed. The investigation proved that the information provided by Mr. Thomes was both misleading and untruthful.
Q: How would you characterize Mr. Thomes' level of cooperation when he was questioned?
A: I can tell you that the responses he gave us were not credible and turned out to be not true. He must have been cooperating with us because he talked to us three times. He was talking to us, he just wasn't giving us valid information.
Q: Do you have any witnesses that put him at the bar that night?
A: I can't talk about that. The specifics of the case I have to avoid because it's still an open and active case and we're still trying to preserve the potential prosecution down the road. That remains a constant theme in these types of cases.
Q: How did the BCA determine that the shotgun found on property Thomes had access to was the one used to kill Decker?
A: Forensic examination at the crime lab has proven beyond any doubt that was the weapon that was used.
Q: Did the investigation develop any people other than Larson and Thomes as suspects who later were ruled out?
A: We had information coming in, as you can imagine, very regularly. And all of those potential leads were checked out, and all of it was happening at the same time. I think at one time we had close to 30 investigators assigned to this investigation from the BCA, FBI and Stearns County Sheriff's Office. And it kept them all very busy. I would say for a while the investigation was relatively broad in nature. But as information comes in and is confirmed, the scope of the investigation narrows.
Q: Is there a person or persons other than Thomes who you've identified as possibly being involved, but there's not enough evidence yet to make an arrest and file charges?
A: I can't talk about that.
Q: Do you still have tips and leads coming in?
A: It's obviously slowed down. But information is still trickling in and that's why we're leaving the investigation open and active in an attempt to answer those two questions we talked about earlier. Because I truly believe that we owe it to the community to try to get those questions answered before we simply close the case and say that we're done.
Q: Is it possible that you will get no more substantive information about the case and get no further toward answering the two questions that remain?
A: Of course that's a possibility, that nothing else comes in and we don't resolve those two questions, ever. But I still think we need to make an attempt to at least try to do that. And as an investigator -- and I spent nine years as a detective with the sheriff's office -- the goal is to close the case, make the arrest and provide that type of closure to the families and the communities. And when that doesn't happen, at least right away, of course it's a frustration. But it pales in comparison to frustration that the families are feeling.
Q: Can you understand the thinking from some people that they still haven't gotten enough specific information about the case to fully accept the determination that Thomes was involved in the murder of Officer Decker?
A: I do understand that, but I still have to protect the integrity of the investigation. I understand the frustration that the media might feel, that it seems like we're not giving them exactly what they're asking for. But in this case, protecting the integrity of the investigation certainly outweighs that.
Q: What do you think the likelihood is that one day you will be able to discuss this in great detail and answer some of those questions?
A: If that would be the case, that would mean that the case would be closed. And, of course, that is our goal.
Q: Why was there was so little information released by investigators to the public in the weeks after the shooting of Officer Decker?
A: Because the focus of the investigation was at the time, and remains today, to bring any party or parties involved to justice. To do that details of the investigation must remain confidential to preserve the integrity of a potential prosecution. So we can't just release information when we get it during the course of the investigation. We have to be very careful about what we release and how we release it.
Q: What can you say to the people who are calling for more information to be released about the Decker case, the man suspected of killing Decker and the reason he is considered the suspect?
A: Be patient. A tremendous amount of resources, both emotional and physical, have been poured into this investigation, and the premature release of critical information could destroy successful prosecution down the road.
Q: In the past, your office has handled the release of information in high-profile cases. Tell me why that was different in the Decker case.
A: Because in this case, multiple law enforcement agencies were involved, and the release of information needs to be consistent. In a high-profile case such as this it normally will generate a large amount of media requests, and the BCA has full-time staff just for that purpose. Plus, if they handle that important function of the case, that would enable our staff to stay completely focused on the investigation and the task at hand.
Q: Ryan Larson, who was arrested the night of the shooting but later released without being charged, has asked for an apology and to have his name cleared. Will you do that?
A: With the information that law enforcement had at the time, sufficient probable cause existed to arrest Mr. Larson. As the investigation continued, the evidence gathered did not support a formal charge. Thus, Mr. Larson was released from custody, providing proof that the checks and balances built into our criminal justice system do, in fact, work. Although not perfect, I believe that the criminal justice system that we have in place in the United States is the best in the world. And for that, I will not apologize.
Q: Has anyone from your office talked to him and told him that he's been ruled out as a suspect in the case?
Q: Looking back at the night this happened to today, is there anything you or your department would do differently?
A: Self-critique is something that law enforcement does routinely, and this case was certainly no exception. We look at our initial response, we look at crime scene preservation, including the public and officer safety aspects, we look at evidence identification and collection, just to name a few of the things we go back and check ourselves on. Did we do it as good as we could have done it? Are there things we could have done better? And in this case, with the information that we had at the time and when we had it, I don't know if there's anything we could have done or should have done differently.
Q: What is the impact of an event like this on the community and on law enforcement?
A: When a police officer is killed in the line of duty, the community as a whole feels a sense of vulnerability, as the police are the first line of defense in preserving the public's safety. The community of first responders are struck by the loss of a fallen friend and partner. And of course the family, both immediate and extended, grieve the loss of a loved one. When violent crimes such as this occur, it's not uncommon to question our faith in mankind. But that question is answered and our faith is quickly restored as we witness an overwhelming outpouring of community support, caring and compassion.
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