William Mathews was the kind of police officer who cared deeply about keeping people safe — right up to the moment when one of those people killed him.
In the week since the 47-year-old husband and father was struck and killed on a Wayzata highway, the people of this western suburb have been honoring him by lowering the flags in their front yards to half-staff. Store attendants where Mathews shopped talk about the latest developments in the case and hang signs that say, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Even construction workers have come to Mathews' fellow officers with condolences and fond tales of the officer protecting them by patrolling outside highway projects with his radar gun to slow traffic.
"He was a very friendly guy," said Mike Kokesh, owner of True Value hardware store, who said Mathews frequented his business on and off duty, and would always wave to him when their cars passed on the street. "He always had a smile on his face. Just a nice, genuine person."
Since Mathews' death, Kokesh, an officer for the Minnetrista Police Department, has given away about 700 blue porch lights to community members, which now light up the town after dark in Mathews' memory.
Mathews was fatally struck by a car as he cleaned up debris on Hwy. 12 around 12:30 p.m. last Friday. He was pronounced dead later that day. Beth Freeman, 54, of Mound, has been charged with vehicular homicide, and prosecutors say she was talking on her cellphone and under the influence of drugs at the time.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mathews' widow, Shawn, and 7-year-old son, Wyatt, were escorted into his visitation at Wayzata Free Church in Plymouth by Mathews' fellow officers from the department where he worked for nine years. From civilians to police officers and emergency service workers, dozens lined up to pay their respects, many of them in tears.
"How you doing?" a red-eyed Hennepin County EMS worker asked a woman in line. "One day at a time," he said comforting with a hug.
Inside, Mathews lay in uniform in his casket surrounded by photos and flowers while his family stood by. Inside, "I love U" was spelled out in Play-Doh, with a heart representing the word "love."
Rogers Police Chief Jeff Beahen, president of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association, said that Mathews indicated in department paperwork that he wanted a full-honor funeral if he were killed in the line of duty. They're doing just that, with thousands of officers coming from as far as New York, Chicago and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
"I think this hits home to every law enforcement officer that this can happen quickly and without being shot or shot at."
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said Mathews' death highlights the perils police officers face on the job every day. "When they talk about going out on a typical cop's job and wondering if they're going to return at night — it brings a reality to that, something as seemingly simple as cleaning a highway," said Cornish, a former law enforcement officer who planned to attend Mathews' funeral Thursday. Mathews patrolled Wayzata and the adjacent Long Lake community where people knew him simply as "Bill."
"There was not a single day Bill complained about going to work," said his wife, Shawn, in a statement to the public. "He was there early and stayed late."
He graduated from Pine Island High School in southeastern Minnesota. Friends and family say he viewed law enforcement as his life's calling. After attending Rochester Community College, he earned a bachelor's degree in law enforcement from Winona State University. He worked as a reserve officer for the Winona Police Department and as an intern for the Rochester Police Department before officially becoming a licensed peace officer in 1998.
Mathews later worked for the Zumbrota Police Department and part-time with the Olmsted and Goodhue county sheriff's offices, and in 2008 he joined the Wayzata department.
Over nearly a decade with Wayzata police, Mathews developed close relationships with his fellow officers, who remember him as a "happy-go-lucky, smiling professional."
"If he wasn't one of the most loved members of our department, he was the most loved member of our department. Just a great guy," said Wayzata Police Chief Michael Risvold, holding back tears. "This loss is a terrible loss for our department, our community and our entire law enforcement community."
Risvold said the department has banded together in the wake of the tragedy. The officers have set up a memorial fund for Mathews at Wells Fargo in Wayzata, and local businesses have displayed signs asking for donations.
Risvold attended Freeman's first court appearance Tuesday. Asked about his thoughts on the criminal case, he said he hasn't had the mental bandwidth to pay it much thought.
"For me that's been compartmentalized," he said. "I haven't spent any time on that. This week's about honoring Bill."
Along with his wife and son, Mathews is survived by his father, stepmother, and a large family of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and extended family. Gov. Mark Dayton, who will attend the funeral, ordered that flags be flown at half-staff statewide Thursday in honor of Mathews and issued a proclamation offering gratitude on behalf of the state of Minnesota for his service.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036