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'Nothing could be more honorable:' Fallen Minnesota police officers and firefighter mourned in massive ceremony

Reid Forgrave, Star Tribune on

Published in News & Features

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Standing at the podium, Burnsville police Sgt. Adam Medlicott thanked the uniformed crowd inside the massive suburban church for paying tribute to the colleagues who were by his side when they answered their final call.

They were there to honor the men's sacrifice: Badge 183, for police officer Matthew Ruge, a 27-year-old who'd recently joined the department's crisis negotiation team. Badge 83, for firefighter and paramedic Adam Finseth, a 40-year-old Army veteran with a wife and two elementary school-aged kids. And badge 176, for police officer Paul Elmstrand, a 27-year-old who'd yearned to be a cop since his youth, married with two young children.

They were heroes, Medlicott said, cut down in their prime responding to a domestic violence call where seven children's lives were at risk. Medlicott, who also was shot, was there to talk about the virtue of the shared mission that led them to their deadly encounter two Sundays ago:

"Elmstrand, Ruge, Finseth, we were there for seven children," he said. "Nothing could be more honorable. Rest easy, brothers."

More than 10,000 mourners gathered to honor the first responders at both Eden Prairie's Grace Church and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church to the east in Burnsville, where the service was streamed to accommodate overflow crowds. Another 23,000 viewed a livestream. It was perhaps the largest such law enforcement memorial service in state history, followed by an hourslong, 21-mile procession in which community members withstood the frigid weather to honor the fallen.

Among those who turned out to show their support was Laurie Boeser of Burnsville, who had visited the massive and ever-growing memorial at the police station before coming to pay her respects at Prince of Peace. Having a son who is 27, the same age as Elmstrand and Ruge, she lamented how much of their lives were still ahead of them.

"Life's just beginning, and these young families are ruined for no reason," she said. "Tears continue to flow. This is something that our community has never experienced, as far as I can remember."

Even in the best of times, police officers, firefighters and paramedics work in the most stressful professions. In these times — with America's drug and gun epidemics, with COVID having upended society and deepened a mental health crisis, not to mention hostility toward law enforcement since George Floyd's murder — that stress is compounded. A Burnsville police chaplain even used the memorial service to put out a plea for young people to join these professions of public service.

That stress, and the omnipresent fear of danger, makes the fraternity ironclad. Listening to speaker after speaker during the two-hour memorial service, that bond was clear.

"Over the past week we have seen the worst and the best of what the law enforcement calling brings," said Burnsville Police Chief Tanya Schwartz. "The worst began on Feb. 18 with the loss of these heroes. As I struggled to make sense of what happened that morning, I was reminded that Paul, Matt and Adam were doing what they were called to do, which was protecting those in harm's way."

Burnsville Fire Capt. Brandon Johannsen talked of Finseth as "one of the most selfless individuals I have ever had the privilege of knowing," and a man of integrity, honor and kindness in a world of cynicism. "He reminded us all that strength is not found in force or aggression, but the quiet courage to stand up for what is right, even when difficult."

Inside the church, laughter at times briefly relieved the grief but the message remained poignant. Medlicott had supervised both police officers. Once, Elmstrand and Medlicott were responding to a theft in progress at a Macy's. Outside the main entrance was an unoccupied vehicle. "Look!" Elmstrand shouted. "It's the go-away vehicle!"

"It's a getaway car, Paul," Medlicott responded in disbelief.

More recently, he said Elmstrand, a bright and thoughtful officer, considered applying for a sergeant position. He would have made a great one, Medlicott said. In another instance, he was dispatched with Ruge to a call of a young woman who was supposed to start an addiction program that day but refused to leave her closet. Reasoning with the woman was a "disaster," he said.

"After the call, Matt walked up to me and said, 'Thanks, Adam. Man, I really F'd that one up. He used the real word though." He then forwarded to Feb. 18 when he was standing next to Ruge as he negotiated with the man who would eventually take his life.

"You can't reason with evil. You didn't F this one up, Matt," Medlicott said. He acknowledged he didn't know Finseth as well and didn't have any stories to share, "But I saw you run into the line of fire to save me and my guys. You are the bravest guy I have ever known."

 

Burnsville Deputy Police Chief Matt Smith spoke of how Elmstrand had been named to the prestigious state honor guard for fallen police officers weeks before his own death. He highlighted what a joy it was to work with him and his infectious laugh: "It's been said that perhaps the favorite comedian to induce this laugh was … Paul."

Burnsville police officer Pete Mueller, hired at the same time as Ruge, spoke of a young cop who took as many calls as possible. Ruge's calm demeanor and authenticity made him a perfect fit for the crisis negotiation team, which was deployed the morning of Feb. 18 to respond to the explosive domestic violence call: "He was extraordinarily heroic that morning. He negotiated for several hours, which bought us time. In law enforcement, we know time is our friend. The time he delivered brought countless resources to the scene, which protected many of us."

Near the end of the service, bagpipes played "Amazing Grace." Tears flowed freely, especially among officers from western Wisconsin. Three Wisconsin law enforcement officers were killed last year. Gov. Tim Walz and former Gov. Mark Dayton sat amid thousands of police officers and firefighters.

Outside the church, a phalanx of police stood at solemn attention, each clutching a single blue- or red-tipped white rose. A volley of rifle fire broke the frigid silence. In unison, thousands of officers and first responders raised their arms in a final salute before a rendition of Taps.

Outside Pax Christi Catholic Community Church in Eden Prairie, the first people arrived about 10 a.m. to watch the procession set out on its journey to Burnsville. By 2 p.m., nearly two dozen vehicles were in the parking lot and occupied for warmth.

Joe Frandsen of Eden Prairie spoke of three feelings as he waited for the procession: Honor, respect, and anger toward the man responsible for taking the lives of Ruge, Elmstrand and Finseth.

"Honor the fallen, and show respect for police because they don't get the respect they deserve," Frandsen said.

At Burnsville City Hall, onlookers took in the memorial as they waited for the caravan to approach. Under three white tents, two squad cars and a firetruck were piled high with bouquets and Bible verses. There were stuffed animals and children's drawings, notes expressing prayers, love and gratitude, and uniform patches from fellow officers and first responders.

The procession took more than an hour to wind past. There were law enforcement and emergency responder vehicles from every corner of the state: Duluth and Albert Lea, Bemidji and Moorhead. Tribal police joined, and officers from Wisconsin, North Dakota and more.

"The world of law enforcement is unique," said Burnsville police chief Schwartz. "It takes a strong, resilient, selfless person to choose this profession."

"Thank you for putting your uniform on in the most challenging and dangerous times in law enforcement, and doing it every day since our brothers were killed in the line of duty," she said. "Thank you for having our six. We will always have yours."

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(Star Tribune reporters Paul Walsh, Liz Sawyer and Rachel Hutton and staff photographer Aaron Lavinsky contributed to this report.)

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©2024 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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