‘Answered their final call’: Mourners honor fallen Burnsville first responders

Published 6:31 am Thursday, February 29, 2024

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By Sarah Thamer, Jon Collins and Nicole Ki, Minnesota Public Radio News

Friends, family, community leaders and a legion of law enforcement on Wednesday honored fallen Burnsville police officers Matthew Ruge and Paul Elmstrand and firefighter-paramedic Adam Finseth in a service filled with tears, humor, heartfelt stories and a solemn final ceremony reserved for those who pin on a badge of public service.

At a public memorial at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, the three were remembered warmly as men who came naturally to the ethos of helping others. They were shot and killed Feb. 18 while responding to a call for help involving a man armed and barricaded in a home with seven children inside.

‘Rest easy, brothers’

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In a moving tribute, Sgt. Adam Medlicott, a Burnsville officer wounded in the incident, said he watched the two officers grow over the years from rookies to professionals. He’d supervised both during night shifts and they’d come a long way.

Drawing a laugh in the somber church, he recalled Elmstrand once trying to alert him on a call that he’d seen a car suspected in a theft. But the new guy couldn’t find the right words. “He said, ‘Look, it’s the go-away vehicle!’” Medlicott said. “I looked at him in disbelief for a moment before saying, it’s ‘getaway car,’ Paul.”

Elmstrand, he said, was fond of busting into his office to talk over stuff and had expressed interest in an opening for sergeant, asking him what it was like. “Chief, I think Paul would have made an excellent sergeant,” Medlicott said to Tanya Schwartz, the Burnsville chief, adding, “I’ll miss our midnight talks, Paul.”

He told a story of Ruge early in his career having no luck negotiating with a person who wouldn’t leave her closet to make a rehab treatment appointment. Since then, he had become a seasoned crisis negotiator who was doing his best the night of the shooting to end the crisis safely.

“I was fortunate enough to watch both of these officers go full circle, from two wide-eyed excited new cops, to an officer who knew the job so well he was ready to promote, to another who had just taken over a scene for multiple hours as a crisis negotiator,” he added.

Ruge, he said, was “amazing” the night of the killings, but “you can’t reason with evil.”

Medlicott called Finseth the bravest he’d ever known as the SWAT paramedic went into the line of fire to aid the wounded officers. “We were there for seven children,” the sergeant said. “Nothing could be more honorable. Rest easy brothers.”

Schwartz noted the blue line on the badges of mourning officers, calling it a symbol of courage and sacrifice. “As I struggled to make sense of what happened that morning,” she said, “I was reminded Paul, Matt and Adam were doing what they’re called to do, which is protecting people in harm’s way.”

Burnsville Fire Department Capt. Brandon Johannsen said Finseth’s courage and sacrifice would not be forgotten. To Finseth’s wife and two children, Johannsen said it was OK to feel sad but that Finseth would live on in their hearts. “You were the best of us,” he said of the fallen firefighter. “We love you. We miss you. We promise to take care of the family and each other. Your legacy and impact will go on forever.”

In a solemn ceremony following the speakers, an honor guard rang a large brass bell on stage for each man, a last alarm for the first responders. Then came the bagpipes of the Minnesota Police Pipe Band and a mournful “Amazing Grace” as the honor guard carefully folded flags for each.

Finally, in the quiet, came the final call, a police ceremony where a fallen first responder’s badge number is called out seeking them.

“Empire to 45-183. Empire to 45-176. Empire to firefighter badge number 83,” came the dispatch call over the loudspeaker. Then again — “Empire calling 45-183, 45-176 and firefighter badge number 83.”

No answer. And then the finality.

“All units. Officer Matthew Ruge, badge 45-183, officer Paul Elmstrand, badge 45-176 and firefighter Adam Finseth, badge number 83, have answered their final call. These men responded together, laid down their lives for one another, and died doing what they were called to do. The citizens of Burnsville will forever be in their debt. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten … May you forever rest in peace.”

Outside Grace Church, first responders stood at attention as their fallen comrades were honored with a 21-gun salute and a flyover by Minnesota State Patrol helicopters.

More than 10,000 attend

Organizers said all 7,600 seats at Grace Church were filled before the service Wednesday with Gov. Tim Walz among the mourners. Officers and firefighters walked into the church sanctuary carrying red-tipped roses and blue-tipped roses. Large photos of the men were hung on stage beside flag-draped caskets for Elmstrand and Ruge, and Finseth’s firefighter gear.

Thousands of first responders from Minnesota and across the United States and Canada filled the church. At least 8,500 law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics were believed to have come to the south Twin Cities metro to pay tribute.

Hundreds more people lined the streets during a procession back to Burnsville and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, where the service was livestreamed. An estimated 10,000 saw the service in the churches and some 20,000 more watched online, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Fletcher Montgomery Blaschko, who watched the procession from outside the Burnsville Police Department, said he grew up with Ruge and they played golf together.

“He was the sort of person that had a larger-than-life impact on those around him,” he said. “He was just a very special person that I think anyone who was able to meet him knew that he left a lasting impression and it was always a positive one no matter who it was.”

Theresa Battle, the superintendent of Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191, said she canceled school Wednesday to honor the fallen and she was there with students from her district.

“The first responders, police and fire have always supported us valiantly so I am here to show my support on behalf of the students, staff and families,” she said. “They read to my students in school, they serve pancake at the annual breakfast for the senior center. They just serve us in so many ways.”

Burnsville resident Deanna Lewis was wrapped in a blanket to watch the procession as temperatures were in the teens with wind chill making it even colder.

“It’s horrific, it’s sad to see. On the other note, it’s amazing to see how much the community has come together and the support from everywhere and all the different stations. It’s amazing to see. There’s good in the world still,” she said.

Mourners at Prince of Peace

Earlier Wednesday morning, people across the south Twin Cities suburbs were readying to pay their respects.

In Burnsville, people gathered in the morning waiting to enter Prince of Peace Lutheran Church to watch a livestream of the service. Outside the church, 21-year-old Joshua John said he was pursuing a career in law enforcement and that the deaths of Ruge, Elmstrand and Finseth made him “want to push harder to get through school to do what I want to do and help people.”

He said he was in the military and so understood the risks and sacrifices required of life in the line of duty. “I think we need more people that have the right mindset and are willing to make those sacrifices for the people they serve.”

Jennifer Struck stopped by the Burnsville police station before the memorial.  She grew up in Burnsville, and her father served in the police department back in the 1980s.

“This is so close to home, I remember growing up and, you know, learning that there is the knock, as the community calls it,” she said. “It breaks my heart that these families, at this time of their life, got the knock.”

Struck brought cards with messages of support for the department and their families.

After watching the service later at Prince of Peace, a tearful Molly Kinnamon said she’d driven in from Taylors Falls, Minn., to show support. Her husband is a police officer but was on duty and so couldn’t come, so she brought her mother.

“It’s really hard, to express sometimes to the public how every day when your husband or wife or whomever leaves your house just thinking it could be the last time you see them, and they don’t get a lot of support anymore, I think, the way they used to,” she said.

Charlotte Weinand came from Milaca, Minn. She said she came because her son-in-law is a deputy, “and I just feel like, you know, it could have been him … And I just, I don’t know, makes me wonder what this world’s coming to, you know, that they had to die on a Sunday morning, going out to save seven children.”

‘Loyal, kind, heroic’

As they grappled with their loss, friends and family of the three first responders shared stories this week of the selflessness, humor and dedication of each.

Ruge, 27, grew up near Wabasha and graduated from the Wabasha-Kellogg public schools in 2015.

“He’s one of those friends where no matter what problem you were having, he would drop everything to come and help you,” said Ty Gaedtke, a high school friend. Asked for a few words that come to mind when he thought of Ruge, he said, “loyal, kind, heroic, obviously.”

Ruge joined the Burnsville Police Department in April 2020 and was part of the department’s crisis negotiations team as well as a physical evidence officer. He earned a degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato where he graduated in 2018.

“Matthew was the light of our lives,” Ruge’s family said in a statement. “From the time he was born, he showed signs of ‘perfecting the art of kindness’ and was a joy to everyone around him. He never hesitated to drop what he was doing to help a neighbor or friend in need. He was the ‘glue guy’ who made everyone around him better.

“From the earliest age, Matt wanted to help and protect people.”

Elmstrand, 27, grew up near Cambridge and married his high school sweetheart, Cindy. They have two children together.

Elmstrand was class president at Cambridge-Isanti High School and graduated with a criminal justice degree from the University of Northwestern-St. Paul in 2018.

His wife Cindy called him “the most generous, loving, patient person I’ve ever known with the biggest smile. He had a servant’s heart and would drop everything to help someone who was in need.”

Elmstrand joined the Burnsville Police Department in August 2017 as a Community Service Officer. He was promoted to officer in July 2019 and was part of the department’s mobile command staff, peer team, Honor Guard and field training unit.

“Paul was always a light in hard times, using his gifts to lift up those around him,” close friend Mike Seafolk said in a statement. Paul was truly the best of us.”

Finseth, 40, grew up in Rochester, attended John Marshall High School and graduated from Rochester Community and Technical College. Childhood friend Matt Arnold described him as a genuine and compassionate friend.

“He sacrificed his life, you know, because that was his duty, but also like, he was always that guy that was there for everyone else,” Arnold said.

Finseth served as a Burnsville firefighter and paramedic since February of 2019 and was part of the public safety team’s SWAT unit and a member of Burnsville’s Health & Wellness Committee. He served in the U.S. Army and completed two tours in Iraq. He’s a father of two children.

In a statement, Finseth’s wife Tara said, “although our forever hero is no longer with us, his soul will live on through me, his children, family, friends and community.”

Elmstrand, Ruge and Finseth were part of the response to a report of a domestic situation in a house just before 2 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18 in Burnsville. Seven children, ages 2 to 15, were in the house.

According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, when police arrived, they spoke with 38-year-old Shannon Gooden who refused to leave the home but said he was unarmed and had children inside.

A previously released warrant said Gooden at one point “retreated into a bedroom and barricaded himself.”

The BCA says at about 5:26 a.m. Gooden opened fire on the officers inside the home without warning, firing more than 100 rifle rounds.

Elmstrand, Ruge and Finseth were killed during the response. Finseth was shot while trying to aid the officers. Sgt. Adam Medlicott was wounded and survived.

Families of the three first responders have planned private funerals.

MPR News reporters Matt Sepic and Estelle Timar-Wilcox contributed to this story.