FREEBORN, Minn. — A snowy afternoon in the southern Minnesota city of Freeborn was eerily quiet last week, the only sound breaking through the softness of winter was a man driving a tractor with a snow plow attached, rolling down Main Street.
It moved past the closed Freeborn City and Township Building, where meetings are held only once a month. Freeborn is the kind of place where residents have the personal cellphone numbers of their City Council members, who are also their neighbors.
“It’s a small enough city that pretty much everybody knows everybody,” said Jim Beach, a lifelong Freeborn resident and a member of the City Council. “But, the only ones you maybe don’t know is somebody who just moved to town. Once they get out and around, everybody knows them, too.”
That was how it happened for Arik Matson, 32, when he moved to Freeborn. Matson grew up in Albert Lea, Minn., about 20 minutes southwest on State Hwy. 13, but Freeborn is his wife Megan’s hometown.
Now, years later, he’s a City Council member, and a volunteer firefighter.
That’s how Beach got to know Matson. It was almost immediately apparent, Beach said, that Matson was invested in others — and in the city.
“Arik is a very outgoing person, has a really nice personality,” Beach said. “He interacts with everybody.”
But for a week now, Matson’s absence from this city of 300 has been apparent: He was shot and gravely injured last Monday night while on duty as a Waseca, Minn., police officer, and has been treated at a hospital in the Twin Cities suburbs. Officials at North Memorial Health Hospital said Tuesday he remains in critical condition.
Beach said he was shocked last week when City Clerk Nicole LaFrance told him what had happened.
Investigators say Matson was one of several officers who responded to calls about a suspicious person walking through backyards of a Waseca neighborhood with a flashlight. When police encountered the person who investigators later identified as Tyler Janovsky, 37, they say Janovsky fired his gun and shot Matson in the head. Both Matson and another officer, Sgt. Timothy Schroeder, also fired their guns.
Beach said he was getting phone calls with updates all Monday night: Matson and Janovsky, who was shot twice during the encounter, were airlifted to North Memorial.
Janovsky, in the meantime, has since been released and is being held at the Oak Park Heights prison. He’s been charged with three counts of first-degree attempted murder of a police officer and one count of possessing ammunition or a firearm after conviction of a crime of violence.
Schroeder has been put on administrative leave.
After word spread Monday night, Beach said, supporting Matson and his family was all anyone could talk about.
“We’re all waiting for him to get back into town,” Beach said. “We know it’s going to be a while yet.”
Beach said Matson has been a good partner on the City Council, since he stepped up to fill a vacancy back in 2018. He throws himself fully into the work — and tackling questions that need answers.
“He’s been a big help on the City Council for people when a problem comes up,” he said. “He really looks into it deeply and goes somewhere to find the resources to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it.”
Several rows of freestanding metal lockers are clustered in the back corner of the city’s fire and ambulance center, just next door to city hall. Firefighting gear hangs inside each: jackets, pants, boots. Sitting on top of each locker is a fire helmet with the owner’s name and shield number printed neatly on a label.
Freeborn Fire Chief Steve Seipp stopped to scan the room last week, his gaze lingering on one tag for a second longer than the others: Arik Matson 23. That gear will stay in that locker, at the ready, Seipp said, waiting for Matson’s next call.
“We’re going to have him back in the truck, because he’s a fighter,” Seipp said firmly, “and he’s going to come back and be back with us.”
Matson, he said, is always one of the first to hop into the truck’s back seat when he’s called to an emergency. He’s dependable, loyal and kind, Seipp said, and has a fiery, fighting spirit that shines through during dangerous situations. He’s the one people go to when things get tough.
“Arik is just one of those guys you want to be around,” he said. “Even in bad situations, no matter — on an emergency scene or whatever — he’s the one that stays positive.
“He just jumps in and gets ready to get the work done.”
Hope in Albert Lea
The aftershock of last week’s shooting spread from Waseca to Freeborn — and on to Albert Lea, Matson’s hometown.
Downtown was still decorated for Christmas midweek, with garlands strung across the Broadway Avenue business district.
Tucked away inside an alley off Broadway, the phones of Hope Church rang constantly Wednesday as its pastor, Kaleb Hurley, wrapped up interviews with several news reporters.
Hope Church is still fairly new within the community; it was established about six years ago as an offshoot of the city’s Crossroads Church, which wanted to reach more people.
About three years ago, Hurley said, he met the Matsons — Arik, his wife, Megan, and their two young daughters.
“After we got to know them, we realized that these are genuine people that want to serve,” Hurley said. “They’re people who want to love others and they’re willing to really put their money where their mouth is.”
The family joined the growing congregation, and quickly jumped into the church community. They’re a regular presence at outreach events and on Sunday mornings, greeting church members as they walk through the doors. They quickly became “church family,” Hurley said.
Last Monday night, Megan Matson called Hurley and his wife, Kristy to tell them her husband had been shot. The evening was a blur, Hurley said, but he headed straight for the Twin Cities and North Memorial.
“We spent all night with the family in the hospital waiting room,” Hurley remembered. “After that, we showed up to the office … and immediately began to think about the ways we could serve, rally the community together and ultimately serve the family at the highest and best level that we could.”
So far, the Matson family has declined interview requests with media, but Hurley has been acting as the family’s spokesperson, giving updates on the Hope Church’s Facebook page. The church held a prayer vigil for the family late last week.
Several members of Hope Church also organized fundraisers, selling T-shirts that say “Matson Strong.”
A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $166,000 for the family in the past week.
Abi Gerdes, a friend of the Matsons’, helped to organize one of the T-shirt fundraisers. She said she received more than 500 orders within the first day.
“I have always known Eric to be the guy that takes his shirt off his back,” Gerdes said. “He’s always been very caring and loving … he’s very bubbly. They’re just the people that you can always depend on.”
Nick Schiltz, another of Matson’s friends in Albert Lea, had plans to grab a late lunch with him Thursday afternoon, three days after the shooting.
“We were going to talk about tattoos,” Schiltz wrote on Facebook afterward. “I had wanted to get a few, but I wanted Arik to hold my hand through it.”
Schiltz ended up eating alone that day, he said, but saved a spot and cup for his friend, a fellow CrossFit member who he’d bonded with over firefighting and live music.
“I saved the cup I purchased for you,” he wrote, “and will give it to you soon so you know we kept our deal together. Plus ... you owe me $1.99.”
As Matson recovers — Hurley said he’s “steadily improving”— Freeborn waits.
A blue sign hangs outside the city and township center: “In support of Arik Matson, Freeborn is a blue light community. Show your support by having a blue light on your porch or somewhere else.”
Seipp, a former police officer, said he drives home at night and sees the faint glittering glow of blue breaking the darkness.
He’s been in situations where he wondered if he’d be returning home at night, he said. And it’s those lights that remind him now of the reason he’s spent so much time in public service.
“You watch out for your neighbors,” he said. “And, when one of your neighbors are hurting or bleeding, you know, it affects all of us.”