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By Madeleine Baran, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published December 21 2012

Elusion rare for Minnesota police killers

COLD SPRING, Minn. – The killing of police Officer Thomas Decker here last month is the first fatal shooting of a Minnesota law enforcement officer since 1970 that was not solved within a few days, an MPR News analysis has found.

When a law enforcement officer in Minnesota is shot and killed, it rarely takes more than a day for investigators to find the killer. Often it takes only a few hours, or the suspect is killed at the scene.

The last time police faced a prolonged investigation with no shooter dead or in custody within four days was in 1970, when Officer James Sackett, of St. Paul, was killed. That case took 35 years to solve.

Early on, it looked like the Decker case would fall into the category of typical, with a suspect in custody within hours of the Nov. 29 shooting outside Winner’s Sport Bar and Grill in Cold Spring. However, that suspect was released without charges after five days for lack of evidence.

Now the question is whether the case will play out like the Sackett investigation or something in between.

Nearly three weeks after Decker’s murder, investigators appear to have made little outward progress toward solving the crime. There are no suspects in custody and the murder weapon has not been found.

Cases solved quickly

From 1970 to 2012, 38 law enforcement officers in Minnesota were killed by gunfire. The number includes Decker, as well as officers shot while off-duty.

Once an officer is shot, the response is nearly always intense and sometimes violent. Dozens or even hundreds of officers often respond to the scene. In six of the 38 Minnesota cases, the suspect was killed by a law enforcement officer. Five suspects committed suicide.

Many suspects are arrested at the scene, sometimes after a lengthy standoff. Some suspects even take hostages in an attempt to bargain with police.

Others are caught because police immediately set up a secure perimeter around the murder scene.

That’s how the police solved the murder of St. Joseph Officer Brian Klinefelter in 1996. Klinefelter was killed while trying to arrest three people suspected of robbing a liquor store. One of the suspects shot the officer, and all three suspects fled. After officers set up a perimeter, shooter Thomas Kantor broke into a home, took a man hostage and forced him to drive around police road blocks. Kantor then shoved the man into the trunk of the car and sped away.

After a deputy spotted the car, Kantor pulled over and pointed a gun at his own head. When Kantor refused to drop the gun, the deputy shot and killed him.

In contrast, police who responded to Officer Decker’s killing failed to set up a secure perimeter for more than 30 minutes, according to dispatch recordings.

Same-day arrests

About two-thirds of the remaining cases ended with at least one of the killers arrested the same day. (Some cases involve more than one shooter, or a shooter and an accomplice.)

In almost every case, when a suspect flees the scene, the manhunt begins immediately and does not end until the killer is found.

Among the examples:

• Two brothers who killed Claremont Officer Gregory Lange in 1988 fled to Missouri, where they were caught the same day by a trooper on Interstate 35-W.

• When Roseville Officer Bruce Russell was killed in 1982 during a stolen vehicle chase, police found the suspect after an intense three-hour manhunt across Roseville and St. Paul.

Police also use dogs to track suspects. One example:

St. Paul Officer Ronald Ryan Jr. was killed in August 1994 when he stopped to check on a man who appeared to be sleeping in his car. The man, later identified as Guy Baker, was hiding a gun under a blanket. As Officer Ryan walked back to his patrol car to check the man’s ID, Baker took out the gun and shot Ryan from behind. As Baker fled in his car, a witness in a nearby building opened fire and shattered one of the car’s windows.

Within hours, another police officer, Timothy Jones, used a police dog to track the suspect’s scent. It led Jones and the dog, Laser, to an ice fishing shack. When Jones and the dog got closer, Baker opened fire and killed Jones. Laser tried to attack Baker but was shot and killed. Baker fled and hid under a pile of lumber and trash in a nearby yard, where he was arrested a short while later.

It’s rare for a manhunt to last more than one day. There are only two cases in which the killer was arrested the day after the murder. In one case, the killer was arrested three days later, and in two cases, the killer was arrested four days later. (One case in public databases of police killings lacks enough information to say whether the arrest occurred the same day or the day after the shooting.)

Difficult cases solved

The murder of Minneapolis Police Officer Jerome Haaf in 1992 is among the most notorious killings in recent decades. It’s remembered as a difficult case to solve, in part because it involved intimidation of witnesses by Vice Lords gang members who carried out the murder. However, even that case had two of the suspects in custody the same day. The last remaining suspect was arrested a month later.

Sometimes police arrest more than one suspect and then must determine which suspect was the killer and which was the accomplice.

That’s how the investigation of the killing of St. Paul Police Sgt. Gerald Vick in 2005 unfolded. Vick was shot while chasing two men in a dark alley. Both were arrested within hours, but then investigators had to find out who pulled the trigger. When one of the men, Antonio Kelly, told police that the other suspect, Harry Evans, committed the murder, prosecutors charged Evans with the crime.

The Sackett case

Among these rapid resolutions of police shootings, the 1970 murder of St. Paul Officer James Sackett stands out.

It is the only investigation that stretched on for years, in part, police have said, because witnesses refused to help police.

Sackett was killed in an ambush while responding to an emergency call. Police later found the call was designed to lure the officer to the scene. An 18-year-old woman was tried in 1972 for first-degree murder for placing the phony call. She was acquitted but served a 30-day sentence for refusing to divulge who told her to call police.

The case was finally closed 35 years later when Ronald Reed and Larry Clark were convicted of murder. Prosecutors built the case against the men largely through testimony of people who came forward years later with information.

Conflicting stories

No matter where the investigation of Officer Decker’s death leads, the investigation already stands as one of the most difficult police murder cases in decades.

Authorities have offered conflicting stories of what happened the night Decker died.

Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner has said Decker was shot twice by an “armed individual” who confronted the officer after he pulled up outside Winner’s bar on the evening of Nov. 29 to check on a possibly suicidal man living upstairs.

According to a document filed Dec. 1 by the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, the murder was witnessed by part-time Cold Spring Officer Greg Reiter, who told authorities that he remained in his squad car during the murder and then put his car in reverse, left the parking lot and watched the suspect walk away. Reiter said the killer pointed a handgun at Decker, but authorities later said the murder weapon was a .20 gauge shotgun.

Police arrested Ryan Larson, the man living above the bar, about an hour after the shooting. Larson was held in jail for five days. He denied killing Decker and was released because the prosecutor did not have probable cause to file charges.

Investigators now say they are pursuing other leads and are not ruling out anyone as a suspect, including Larson or Officer Reiter. Reiter has not answered his door and has not returned several phone messages seeking comment.

Private investigator Michael Grostyan said Reiter’s actions do not appear to make much sense. “His actions are very suspicious in my opinion, and his explanation isn’t very plausible,” said Grostyan, who has worked in the past for the attorney representing Larson. “Everyone knows that. It’s not a secret.”

He said it’s possible Reiter “froze” when he saw Decker shot, but he said many of the other details don’t add up.

Unlike previous police murders, Grostyan said, there has been remarkably little information provided to the public. Law enforcement officers have held only two news conferences about the investigation and have declined to provide much specific information. Earlier this week, they said they are looking for a van that left the area around the time of the shooting.

“The silence tells me a lot, that they’re struggling with, ‘How are we going to handle this?' " Grostyan said.

Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner, and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension spokesperson Bruce Gordon declined to comment on the case or how it compares to previous investigations of fatal shootings of law enforcement officers.