Just before 11 p.m. on Nov. 29, 2012, someone shot Cold Spring Police Officer Tom Decker and left him to die in a parking lot near Winners Sports Bar and Grill. Decker had been on his way to check on Ryan Larson, who lived in an apartment above the bar, at the request of Larson's mother. Later that night, officers from the Stearns County Sheriff's Office and other departments roused Larson from his bed with rifles and took him in handcuffs to the Stearns County Law Enforcement Center.
He was questioned by investigators, held in jail for five days and then released without being charged. Although the Sheriff's Office has yet to close the case officially, Larson was cleared in August 2013 by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. A BCA spokesperson said another man, who hanged himself after fleeing the police, was the likely killer.
Larson was born in 1978 in Wisconsin but moved to Stearns County as a young child. At the time of Jacob Wetterling's abduction in October 1989, he and his family had recently moved to St. Joseph, Minn. Larson was 11, the same age as Jacob. Today, he remembers that less than five hours after the kidnapping, about 2 a.m., three sheriff's deputies knocked at the door of his family's home as part of the neighborhood hunt for Jacob, asking for permission to search. "My parents granted them permission," Larson said. "They were in and out in five minutes. And that was about all that really happened that night. They told us that a boy had gone missing.
"Growing up in a small town, we were always taught to trust law enforcement," Larson said. "They were on our sides. They were to look out for us. So I've never had any bad experiences with them prior to 2012." His Minnesota arrest record shows a handful of traffic infractions, a disorderly conduct charge from 2009, and a stalking charge, related to a former girlfriend, from 2013.
Before Officer Decker was killed, Larson was living in Cold Spring and had been working in construction, specializing in heating and air conditioning. But, he had grown "tired of the roller coaster paychecks," he said. "Basically, your paycheck depends on weather or the economy." He went back to school for machining. "It's something I like, just the precision, measurements, and the stuff you could make," he said. "Hunting and shooting were always something I was big into. So I was leaning more toward the gunsmithing aspect of machining." In 2012, Larson was starting his second year of school.
But his life was upended in the aftermath of the shooting. While Larson was in custody, investigators pointed to him as a suspect. News media outlets publicized his name and photograph and some claimed he had been charged in the crime. One of the first calls he made from jail was to a local newspaper to proclaim his innocence. Upon release, he was told that he couldn't go back to his apartment, which had been ransacked by investigators, without an escort, for his own safety. "And that was probably the first time I realized how much my life is about change."
"I lost my home," he said. "I lost the town that I lived in. I lost my education, my job. I lost everything." He's been retaking machining classes. "I'm just getting around to graduating now. The events from that night and everything I went through will be a part of me for the rest of my life."
Larson filed suits against a handful of media organizations, some of which have reportedly settled with him. He also sought an apology from the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, which has declined to close the case or to clear Larson's name. "(The way) I grew up, I was taught you say you're sorry when you're wrong," Larson said.
Sheriff John Sanner said that arresting Larson was the right move at the time. "Looking back on it, if we were presented with the same circumstances we were presented with then, absolutely he would be arrested," Sanner said. "We did everything we should've done. ... No, I have no regrets that way. I was just thinking about the fact that he does get released from jail, because we don't have enough evidence to hold him. So, the system worked exactly how the system should have worked."
As for clearing Larson in the shooting, Sanner said, "I don't know if he was involved or not. I can't say that."
Larson has become a vocal critic of the investigation methods of the Sheriff's Office. "What's going on down there?" he asked. "Why can't anybody solve crimes? Why is everything such a secret? Why do you only ask for the public's help on some things?