‘It means the world to me’

Published 3:10 pm Monday, December 5, 2022

Family and friends of Alicia Wehner hold surprise 10-year remembrance for her late husband, Cold Spring Police officer Tom Decker

 

The silence that accompanied Alicia Wehner Saturday afternoon was unlike any other silence, still heavy with 10 years of emotion.

Led into the production area of Angry Hog by her wife Chelsie Wehner, the widow of Cold Spring Police officer Tom Decker was met by friends and family who were there to honor her late husband.

It was a surprise punctuated by an outpouring of grief, but also of support for a moment in time that is still raw a decade later.

“Anniversaries are always going to be hard,” Alicia said afterwards. Alicia and Chelsie have been living in Austin since 2015. “But when you are surrounded by people like this, it just makes it a little less hard.”

Decker was shot and killed on Nov. 29, 2012, when getting out of his squad car while responding to a welfare check.

A year later, it was announced that investigators suspected 31-year-old Eric Thomes, however, Thomes shot and killed himself in January of 2013. The case was finally closed more than five years after Decker’s death in 2018.

On Nov. 27th of this year, a ceremony was held in Cold Spring honoring Decker’s sacrifice, but for Alicia, the memories stirred even after all these years later was simply too much.

“I couldn’t bring myself to go to Cold Spring where everything happened,” Alicia said. “Doing something here, where I felt safe and comfortable is just a blessing.”

Moments after Alicia was led to the awaiting group, a small ceremony was held, which included a laying of a wreath at a small shrine dedicated to Decker. The ceremony also included speeches by those who knew and worked with Decker followed by a candlelit ceremony and a toast to Decker’s memory.

Several officers — both current and former — made the long trip down to Austin for the ceremony, including current Cold Spring Police Chief Jason Blum, who joined the small community force just one year after Decker did.

“He was a guy you went to with questions,” Blum said. “He took the time to help you when you had questions and he was the one who trained me in.”

Honoring the passing of Decker is nothing new for Alicia. Each year an event is organized — small and intimate — to commemorate his memory, but this year needed to be something more.

But Chelsie knew her wife wouldn’t have felt comfortable making the trip to Cold Spring.

“This came about because up in Cold Spring they were going to do a memorial get-together for Tommy and other fallen officers,” Chelsie said. “Alicia, she doesn’t like being up there. It’s not comfortable for her. I figured her community is here now, let’s rally around her.”

Despite the harshness of some of the memories, Chelsie also knew just how strong Alicia has been and is, and while the moment did raise biting remembrances, it also has a benefit.

“She’s so strong, she really is,” Chelsie said. “I think this stuff, it helps her. I wanted it to be perfect for her. She had no idea the officers were coming. She hadn’t seen those guys for a long time. She needs to have good memories.”

It was a moment that wasn’t lost on Alicia.

“It means the world to me,” she said to have the officers there. “I wouldn’t have expected it out of them or anyone really. I was just in awe. (Cold Spring) is three hours away. I’m grateful and thankful for all of them for taking their time to come here and celebrate his life with me.”

Loss felt everywhere

By all accounts, Decker’s death affected all that knew him. In a town of just over 4,500, those on the Cold Spring Police Department are known to most everybody.

Decker’s passing was a blow and was felt throughout the community.

“It was tough,” Blum said. “We’re from a small town. I grew up there. It’s a place you didn’t expect something like that to happen. The shock of that happening there and happening to Tommy was just gut-wrenching.”

For a large chunk of his time with the Cold Spring Police Department, Ruben Zayas worked closely with Decker and was a part of Decker and Alicia’s wedding party. Decker’s death was like a light going out in the world to Zayas.

“The night Tommy died was the night police work kind of ended for me,” he said. “I kept going for another 10 years, but it was never the same enthusiasm.”

While the town of Cold Spring was shaken to its core that night, it also sent reverberations throughout the state of Minnesota.

Officers at the Austin Police Department were among those who felt the aftershocks of the incident, including current Police Chief David McKichan, who was at Saturday’s ceremony with other members of APD.

“The law enforcement community is still pretty small, all things considered,” McKichan said of the state. “I certainly remember when this happened even though it was half a state away. It is just so heart wrenching. Ten years moves on for some, but I think for those that are touched by those losses, it’s like it was yesterday.”

Those memories of a man who touched so many, remain crystal clear for Alicia, who still holds a place in her heart for Decker.

“I carry all of them,” she said of their memories together. “He was just a silly guy. I remember our ride-alongs. A lot of times that was our time together.”

Tommy’s memory remains

The Angry Hog was busy Saturday, filled with not only its regular customers, but all of those that came to support Alicia and remember Decker.

In one room there were tables filled with memorabilia and items related to Decker’s service. On a wall were strings of photographs featuring a good-natured man who loved life and loved those closest to him.

In the production room, where the memorial was held, more items related to Decker’s time on the police force were displayed and in one of the ceremony’s more poignant moments, a recording of dispatch’ final ceremonial call to Decker echoed through the silence; each moment without Decker’s reply passing heavier than the last until the dispatcher finally announced Decker’s end of watch.

Though it was only a recording, the emotion it conjured was just as powerful Saturday as it was the first time it was sounded.

“I gave the speech and I made (Alicia) a promise and I couldn’t keep that promise,” Zayas said, thinking back to the couple’s wedding day. “I told her that as long as we worked together I would always make sure he would come back to you.”

Those that rallied to the ceremony Saturday were a source of inspiration, not only to Alicia but to Chelsie and everyone who knew Decker. 

“The people I picked to be here and asked to be here, no questions asked,” Chelsie said. “‘I’ll be there.’ There was no question about being here.”

As painful as the memories of Decker’s passing remain, so too do the good ones and Alicia is determined to carry him with her wherever she goes. The lasting touch of Decker on her life continues through her relationships to this day.

It’s a memory of love.

“He gave me the best gift anyone could ask for and that was love,” Alicia said. “He taught and showed me what real love was and if it wasn’t for him I would never have experienced a love like that and like what I have.”

“Just always say your ‘I love you’s,’” she added. “Life is too short.”