Tricounty News

Communities mourn death of slain police officer Tom Decker

WHEN COLD SPRING-RICHMOND police officer Tom Decker was shot and killed in an alley behind a bar last Thursday night, the repercussions could be felt across the state.

In small Central Minnesota communities–including Kimball and Watkins, where Decker served as an officer–the tragedy was devastating.

In Kimball, where Decker served as an officer from 2004-06, the news hit hard. Decker continued to work with the Kimball department as a training officer, and it was in Kimball where Decker narrowly escaped death after he pulled over a suspected drunk driver in February 2005.

Kimball Mayor Tammy Konz said the town’s police officers took the news very hard. “I was sick when I heard the news. And yesterday I had grieving officers. It was not a pretty day.”Konz and those officers knew Decker and worked with him closely as the communities of Kimball and Cold Spring have a special bond by helping each other out for special occasions and events.W-aaDecker-965-TomAlicia

Decker was Kimball’s school liaison officer and touched the lives of many young people, Konz said. “In a small town like Kimball, a police officer is an integral part of the community. Tom was able to establish a relationship with young people and earned their respect.”

Because of that respect, many young people would probably think twice about doing something wrong because they wouldn’t want to disappoint Officer Decker.

Konz said that many people do not realize the dangers small-town police officers face. “They do stuff for little old ladies, but it’s more than patrolling,” she said in reference to the dangers of the job, which include responding to domestic calls and welfare checks. It was exactly that, a welfare check, the led to Decker’s death. He was responding to a call about a potentially suicidal man. It is believed that man later ambushed Decker and shot him.

“People don’t have a clue what these officers are faced with,” Konz said.

“Our officers knew him,” Konz said, adding that Decker taught a shooting class in Kimball for officers. “Tom was unbelievable.”

One of her fondest memories of Decker was seeing him and his squad car at his grandmother Clara Stein’s house, who was a neighbor of Konz.

“He was there all the time,” Konz said, adding that Decker would often take his grandmother out to lunch. “That’s what I respected about him the most,” Konz said. Many people talk about taking time to visit their grandparents but never get around to it. “Tom did it.”

At a press conference after the shooting, Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones commented on Decker’s wonderful sense of humor. Konz saw that first hand the year she and her husband, Dan, held a holiday gathering for city employees. Decker came with a white elephant gift, a “funny little book,” that reminds Konz of Decker every time she sees it. “The kids thought it was hilarious. He was the life of the party.”

Tom Decker’s younger brother, Joe, saw his older sibling the night he was killed. Joe was working at Subway in Cold Spring when Tom pulled up to get some food. Joe did not get a chance to speak to Tom.

“I thought I’d get to see him later,” Joe said, his voice trailing off.

“I think most of us are in shock,” Joe said in an interview two days later. “I think we are waiting for him to pull down the driveway.”

Being three years older than Joe, Tom was his brother’s protector. Joe idolized his older brother and would sometimes ride along with him during his shift. Tom realized the job he did could be dangerous, but he loved people.

“He loved when he worked in Kimball and when he worked in Watkins,” Joe said.

Lynn Hokanson, the city administrator in Watkins at the time Decker served there, remembers interviewing Decker for the job.

“When we hired him our feelings were he was that type of person who understood small towns. An officer in a small town has different tasks than an officer in a larger city. You have to understand small-town mentality and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. We saw in him that he understood small towns and how they worked. It seemed to me that his goal was to help people and that he had a very strong work ethic.”

Joe told one story of his brother’s heroism that occurred during his time on the Kimball force. He was called to a rollover accident involving a van in a swamp. The van was upside down in the water and Tom went in the water in his uniform and pulled the passengers to safety.

Growing up on their parents’ St. Nicholas farm, Joe and Tom worked side-by-side. Sometimes they would squabble, as brothers do, but they would always regret it and make up, Joe said.

One of those dangerous situations for Decker occurred while he was a Kimball police officer. Decker was in Kimball’s brand-new squad car when a chain-reaction pile-up occurred on Minnesota Highway 15 south of town.

Decker had stopped a driver who was weaving and possibly had been drinking. The driver said he was having a heart attack and fire and rescue personnel were called.

One of the first to respond was Mark Dockery who was with the Kimball Fire and Rescue Department. Dockery and Kimball Fire Chief Tom Ehlinger arrived and pulled up behind Decker’s squad. Then the ambulance, driven by Dave Traurig, arrived and parked behind them. Soon, the Kimball gas rig was called to offer support with traffic control. In it were Bill Thell and Butch Stelten.

There were five vehicles in a row at the scene when a driver in an SUV came up over a crest in the hill followed by a semi. The SUV veered into the ditch slamming into various rescue personnel including Dockery who suffered the worst physical injuries. (He spent 10 days in the hospital with a collapsed lung, six broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, three broken vertebrae, and a shattered pelvis. And part of his ear was sliced off.) His recovery lasted more than a month and he suffered permanent nerve damage in his left wrist.

“I was kneeling in the road ditch (leaning into the vehicle that had been pulled over) trying to get the gentleman’s arm out of his leather jacket to take his blood pressure,” Dockery said. That is the last thing he remembers of the accident.

The semi, which also could not stop, hit the back of the gas rig, which in turn slammed into the ambulance, which then hit the squad car.

Moments before the collision Decker was standing behind his squad and in front of the ambulance filling out paperwork on his trunk. For some reason, Dockery said, Decker decided to crawl into his squad car to do the work. Dockery is certain that Decker would have been killed had he not moved inside of the squad car.

Dockery, who now lives in Sartell and works in Watkins, said experiencing incidents such as that forms a bond between those who serve together on small town law enforcement and fire and rescue departments. That was why hearing the news of Decker’s death hit him so hard.

“When I heard I kind of went into shock,” Dockery said. “I was flooded with memories of Tom. He was always so positive. As a cop, he always gave people the benefit of the doubt. He was always there for people and a genuinely nice person who wanted to help. My memories of Tom will always be that he was an incredibly nice guy.”

After learning of the news, Dockery posted this on Facebook: “In 2005, Tom and I looked death in the face and together said ‘Not today.’ Now, seven years later, another tragedy and this time we lose a great man. My deepest sympathies to Tom’s family and all who knew him. You will be missed Tom Decker!”

Jim Frilstad, Kimball’s chief of police, said that the department would retire Decker’s badge number 6803. It will be the first time a number has been retired in Kimball.

“Tommy was a wonderful friend. He is what everyone has been saying about him,” Frilstad said.

“He was my training officer and he worked a few times a year here. He helped us with range qualifying and use-of-force training. He was well liked by everybody.”

Frilstad, who attended the funeral for Brian Klinefelter in 1996, said Decker’s service on Wednesday would be very emotional.

“This one will be really emotional because he was a good friend and a colleague.

Besides retiring his badge number, there will be one other reminder of Decker in Kimball. Decker designed the patch that officers wear on their uniforms, Frilstad said.

Decker’s designs can be found in some other Central Minnesota law enforcement patches as well, Frilstad said.

Memorial funds establishedW-aaDecker-982-TomAlicia

Memorial funds for Decker’s family have been set up at three banks in Cold Spring: The First National Bank of Cold Spring, the Cold Spring branch of the Central Minnesota Credit Union, and the State Bank of Cold Spring are collecting donations.

Residents can drop off checks at the buildings.

Checks can be mailed to State Bank of Cold Spring, P.O. Box 415, Cold Spring MN 56320; First National Bank at P.O. Box 416, Cold Spring MN, 56320; and Central Minnesota Credit Union, 202 Red River Ave. S, Cold Spring MN 56320.

Donations to the Tom Decker Memorial Fund also are being accepted at all Wells Fargo Bank locations.