Initial response may have hurt chances of capturing Cold Spring cop killerby Conrad Wilson, Minnesota Public Radio
COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — Police missed their best chances to catch the Tom Decker's killer in the minutes, hours and days following the shooting of the Cold Spring police officer, according to several people in the criminal justice system who have watched the case unfold.
Decker was killed three weeks ago while responding to a call about a possibly suicidal man and authorities have no suspects in custody.
At first, the Decker case appeared headed toward a typically quick resolution. A few hours after the shooting, police made an arrest. But they had to release the suspect after five days for lack of evidence.
Since then, authorities have said little. They've ruled out no suspects and are still looking for the .20-gauge shotgun they believe was used to kill Decker. This week, they said they are also looking for a van seen leaving the area around the time of the shooting. They offered a $100,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.
"When they start putting out rewards, it means they're lost. Normally, normally that's the case," said Donovan Mickelson, who was the police chief in the southern Minnesota town of St. James for more than two decades.
Mickelson has no inside knowledge of the Cold Spring investigation. But from the few facts made public, he sees problems from the start with how the case unfolded.
According to one police document, Greg Reiter, the officer who accompanied Decker to the bar, saw his wounded colleague lying on the ground and watched the suspect walk away. Reiter put his squad car into reverse and exited the parking lot. Those initial moments, Mickelson notes, were the first opportunity to capture the suspect.
"If you're an officer, part-time or otherwise, and you've got one of your fellow men shot, you're going to go directly after the person in most cases, unless that person is armed so heavily, like let's say with a semi-automatic rifle or something like that," Mickelson said. "You're going to go after that person instead of backing up and running away."
Even if immediate capture wasn't possible, Mickelson said getting close enough for a good description would have helped in any subsequent search. But Reiter initially reported the suspect — a hooded man in jeans — holding a handgun when it was later determined Decker was killed by a shotgun.
There is also the matter of securing the area.
According to dispatch tapes, it took police 30 minutes to form a secure perimeter. Even in a small town with limited resources, that's too long. Mickelson said.
"By the time these calls come in and you get back up a person on foot could be several blocks away, if you're just on foot," Mickelson said.
"If he's in a van he could, of course, be a mile or two miles down the road by the time you got back up in a small community."
Others observing the lack of progress in the case question whether investigators have responded with enough urgency.
Criminal defense attorney Joe Tamburino said he wonders why it took two weeks for authorities to ask for information about the van seen near the crime scene.
"If this was a suspicious vehicle, boy, we should've had the public information on that immediately. Sort of like an Amber Alert," Tamburino said. "This way everybody's looking for that car immediately. With all the time that's gone by, that car's gone."
Law enforcement officials say there is no evidence the van was involved in the crime. Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall said law enforcement could not discuss it earlier because it was part of the active investigation.
Neither the Stearns County Attorney's Office nor the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would comment on the status of the investigation.
In the days immediately following the shooting, investigators appear to have been focused on Ryan Larson, the potentially suicidal man Decker was checking on. Prosecutors convinced a judge to hold Larson an extra day as they unsuccessfully tried to find enough evidence to bring charges.
Michael Grostyan is a private investigator who has worked in the past for the attorney representing Larson. He said with such a weak case against Larson, investigators should have been looking at other possible scenarios.
"It's cop-killer ambush, interrupted a robbery or accidental fire from his partner," Grostyan said. "I don't know what else it can be.
"It is very unusual that it's dragged on for this long... You've got to believe the man hours they've put into this every day and then we really don't know much more than we did a few days after it happened."
If past cases are any indication, it could be awhile before the investigation is solved, if at all. Decker's death is the first fatal shooting of a Minnesota law enforcement officer since 1970 that was not solved within a few days.
— Follow Conrad Wilson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/conradjwilson
MPR's Madeleine Baran contributed to this report.
- All Things Considered, 12/21/2012, 4:50 p.m.