COLD SPRING, MINN. - The bartender on her way to empty the trash late last Thursday initially thought officer Tom Decker was using his flashlight to look under a small bus parked behind the bar, but she quickly realized the horrible truth.
Seeing that Decker was dead, she hurried back inside Winners Bar, where a regular customer called police, helping launch the search for Decker's killer and the 20-gauge shotgun used to shoot him.
Investigators are still looking.
Jeff and LaRae Scoles, who own Winners, said Thursday that Decker's body was found behind the adjacent Cold Spring Lanes, next to a bus the bar owns and a trash dumpster.
"Our bartender who was working that night said she came out and saw he had his flashlight on, and she [thought] he was looking under the bus," LaRae Scoles said.
Although few details of that night have been released, police already may have known of the shooting, because a second officer had gone with Decker to check on a possibly suicidal man who lived above the bar. Archived emergency radio transmissions indicate that an "officer down" report went over the radio at 10:47 p.m., quickly followed by an unidentified officer reporting "I have no idea where the suspect went."
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, through which all information is being routed, declined to answer questions Thursday about the shooting, including a specific query about the whereabouts of the second officer when Decker was killed and how that officer responded.
"We cannot speak about any active and ongoing investigation pursuant to Minnesota law," said spokeswoman Jill Oliveira.
After the shooting, police who had searched the area arrested Ryan Michael Larson, whose family had asked police to check on him because they thought he might be suicidal.
Man still a suspect
Larson, who has told news outlets he was asleep at the time of the shooting and didn't know about it until police found him lying on his bed, the gun he has a permit to carry beside him. He was released from jail Tuesday after the Stearns County prosecutor said there wasn't enough evidence to charge him with a crime. Oliveira said earlier this week that he remains a suspect.
The Scoles family said that Larson hasn't been back to his apartment since he was released and that Cold Spring Police Chief Phil Jones had asked him to stay away for his own safety. They said Jones offered to provide police security if Larson returns for his belongings.
Jeff Scoles said Larson worked as a part-time bartender at the family's second Winners location in Sartell, a bar run by their son, Jeff Jr.
Jeff Scoles Sr. said Larson "was the strictest [bartender] we've had. He wouldn't let anyone drink after hours, and customers couldn't get away with anything."
He said "we're all wondering" why police think a 20-gauge shotgun was used, though he speculated wadding expended with the shot might tell experts the gauge. The criminal apprehension department declined Thursday to discuss the clues that pointed to that particular gun.
"We wish they would find it; that's the key," he said. "It's scary. We've asked many times for information so we can get some closure. Why would someone do this in our parking lot? We don't want to have any speculation."
Suspect knew victim
The Scoles family said Larson told them he bought Decker and his wife, Alicia, a drink last year because Decker had helped with a bar scuffle.
LaRae Scoles said she believes the killer waited for Decker and shot him by the van, which she noted is under a bright light. The couple indicated where a half-dozen floral bouquets have been left on the blood-stained asphalt.
"I can't imagine what [Decker's] family is going through," her husband said. "Who would shoot a cop with another cop nearby under these bright lights? Everybody is on edge. We're all in the dark. We don't know what's going on."
The couple, who have owned the bar nearly a decade, said they fear business will be hurt, though he added: "It's the safest bar in the world now; nobody will do anything stupid here again."
They said the only previous trouble was a fight when some outsiders came to town for a festival in July. That was the same month 16 pounds of cocaine estimated to be worth $700,000 were found hidden in a wooden pallet that had been at several Cold Spring area businesses before the pallet was accidentally damaged and the drugs discovered.
That discovery has led some townspeople to speculate that Decker might have interrupted a drug deal.
A week after the fatal shots, an eerie sense of routine was returning at Winners on Thursday, with a bingo caller yelling out "B-6!" and other numbers at the weekly bingo night.
About 30 patrons were there, eating cheeseburgers and sharing laughs. At one point the bar fell quiet as they turned to the big-screen TVs to watch news reports on the shooting, including video of the bar in which they were sitting.