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At Lake City officer’s funeral, everyone feels like family

This news story was published on January 9, 2012.
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Kelly Smith, Star Tribune, Minneapolis –

LAKE CITY, MINN. – As a sea of 2,000 law enforcement officers clad in blue, black or tan piled into a long line of squad cars bound for slain officer Shawn Schneider’s gravesite, Lake City resident Tim Petersen broke down.

His 11-year-old son, Timmy, reached up and set his arm on his father’s shoulder.

Lake City “will never be the same” in the wake of its native son’s killing, the elder Petersen said of his southeastern Minnesota hometown of 5,000 people. “It’s just made the world a lot more real.”

Saturday’s funeral for Schneider, mortally wounded after helping a 17-year-old girl escape from her armed former boyfriend, was heartbreaking not only for the 32-year-old officer’s townsfolk, but also for 2,000 law enforcement officers who traveled to Lake City from across Minnesota, from Fargo, N.D., from Waterloo, Iowa, and from as far away as Chicago and Las Vegas. Family members, friends and first responders filled First Lutheran Church, while more than 1,000 law officers and others packed two heated tents outside, where the service was shown on video screens.

And hundreds of citizen mourners lined the streets of Lake City for the procession that followed, all paying tribute to a man many had never met.

Tim Leonhardt, who had left his New Hope home around 5 a.m., lined the church’s driveway as mourners arrived with about 100 other members of the Minnesota Patriot Guard.

At 5:30 a.m., Rich Miller stopped at a store near his Kasson, Minn., home to buy a 3-by-5-foot flag to wave along Lake City’s streets.

And at 9 a.m., four hours before the funeral began, Petersen arrived with his son to help organize parking for thousands of squad cars, wanting to help as his wife, an EMT, joined the ranks of law officers in the church.

“This is not supposed to happen here,” said Petersen, who moved to Lake City from Minneapolis seven years ago, trading big-city life for that in a smaller town.

In “a split moment of agony and pain, a trigger is pulled, an officer goes down, and lives are changed together,” the Rev. Darren Paulson said in his eulogy at First Lutheran, just blocks from the house on Lyon Avenue where Schneider was fatally wounded Dec. 19. “It is senseless, random and tragic.”

Schneider, a nine-year veteran of the Lake City Police Department who was married and had three small children, was shot in the head while responding to a domestic dispute. He died Dec. 30 at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester.

Alan Sylte Jr., 25, of Hager City, Wis., shot Schneider as the officer was helping Sylte’s ex-girlfriend flee the house. After a several-hour standoff and a lockdown of Lake City schools that lasted into midevening, Sylte was found dead in the house of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Everyone felt like family

Before and after the service, 1,000 white and red roses painted blue were given out by Backing the Blue, a group of spouses of metro-area police officers. A tag on each rose read “Heroes live forever/208/never forgotten,” a reference to Schneider’s police badge, No. 208.

Schneider was last in the church the night before he was shot, watching his children perform a Christmas program, Paulson said. “Today is for you, Shawn, for this story and this gut-wrenching tribute,” he said.

Minnesota State Patrol trooper Malachy McCarthy told mourners that Schneider had an infectious laugh and smile and was hugely proud of his wife, Brittany, and their children, Lillijuana, Collin and Alex — as proof, his computer screensavers were always fresh photos of his kids, he said. Communities, he added, need officers like Schneider who go the extra mile.

A few blocks away, outside the now-boarded-up house where Schneider was shot, a discarded Christmas tree stood near the road, decked with a blue star, tiny U.S. flags and a sign that read, “God is with us.”

Nearby, Tammy Moyer, 38, a lifelong resident of Lake City, watched the procession with a sign that read: “God Bless the Schneider Family.” She said she didn’t know Schneider, but that his death has touched the lives of everyone in town, creating an extended bereaved family.

The day of the shooting, her daughter, along with all other Lake City students, was confined to her elementary school during a nine-hour lockdown.

“It was the most emotional, draining thing I’ve ever been through,” Moyer said. “We’ve never had anything like this happen. But I’ve seen a new side of the community — everyone has come together to support the Schneider family. He’s a hero.”

Along the procession route, mourners held blue balloons, tied blue ribbons to trees and held signs. One store sign read: “208 will be in Lake City’s Hearts Forever.”

During the silent, solemn 4-mile procession around the city, hundreds of squad cars preceded a black horse-drawn hearse bearing Schneider’s casket.

It was a sight for which Sharon Webb of Rochester wasn’t prepared. “I won’t forget this one,” she sai tearfully.

The hearse carried Schneider’s casket to its final resting place at Lakewood Cemetery, near the church.

As Leonhardt and his fellow Patriot Guards lined the entrance of the cemetery, he said, “We’re just here to show Shawn and his family we appreciate everything he’s given. Unfortunately, he gave it all.”

Like most of the officers at the funeral, Hudson, Wis., police officer Jeremy Johnson didn’t know Schneider, but he said he felt like he did. As a young father of two with a third child on the way, he said he felt an affinity with Schneider. Johnson and two other Hudson officers drove an hour to be at the funeral, the third law enforcement funeral he’s been to in his 3 1/2 years in the job.

“It’s scary — I go home and I bring these home to my wife,” he said, holding up the funeral bulletin. But he was glad to be there, he said. “I’m always surprised to see how many officers come out. It makes me proud to be a police officer. We’re like family.”

Sun sets on a sad town

Officers, civilians, townspeople and friends — they were all family on Saturday. At 4:05 p.m., a solemn announcement came over all law personnel scanners in Minnesota: “To all squads: Officer Shawn Schneider, badge 208, is out of service. 208 is out of service.”

As the service ended, the sun began to set on the cemetery, flanked by tree-covered sandstone bluffs. Hundreds of officers climbed back into their squad cars and left for their cities across the state.

But Leonhardt stood, six hours since the start of his day, waiting for each squad car to drive off, still holding his silent, solemn tribute.

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