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Questions remain about shooting of Iowa coach

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Associated Press
June 26, 2009
— In the years after Mark Becker graduated from high school, friends say he drifted from the community where he played football for the town’s beloved coach.

There were failed attempts at college, minor dustups with the law and trouble with drugs and alcohol. At 24, he was a cook at a Cedar Falls pizza restaurant and no longer the friendly “cute guy” from his days at Aplington-Parkersburg High.


“He wasn’t the same guy,” said Sara Madsen, a friend who graduated with Becker. “He was way more quieter. He just wouldn’t say much. I said to him, ’What’s going on? We never see you anymore.’ ’’


Madsen never got an answer, and like the rest of Parkersburg is left wondering what could have compelled Becker to allegedly unload several shots from a handgun into his former coach, Ed Thomas, during an offseason team workout Wednesday morning. Becker was arrested a short time later in his parents’ driveway and charged with first-degree murder.


So far, detectives are refusing to answer questions about Becker’s possible motive. His attorney, Susan Flander, declined to discuss the case Thursday, and none of the 20-or-so players who were in the weight room have spoken publicly about what they saw, apparently told not to speak to reporters by school officials.


Becker, in isolation in Cerro Gordo County jail 40 miles away, isn’t talking either.


He’s “just quiet, just stone-faced quiet,” jail administrator Shad Stoeffler said. “I think he’s still just trying to soak everything in.”


Investigators said they would pore over every last detail of Becker’s past — including an incident last weekend in which police say he took a baseball bat to a home in nearby Cedar Falls and rammed his car through the home’s garage door. They haven’t said if they know why he targeted Thomas, the NFL’s 2005 high school coach of the year who guided several players to the NFL, including Green Bay Packers linebacker Aaron Kampman, Jacksonville Jaguars center Brad Meester, Detroit Lions defensive end Jared DeVries, and Denver Broncos center Casey Wiegmann.


In high school, Becker was popular and friendly with everyone, said Madsen, who had gathered with friends at a Parkersburg bar to discuss the killing.


“We loved him,” she said. “He was the cute guy in school.”


After graduating in 2004, Becker enrolled at Wartburg College, a private Lutheran school with about 1,800 students in nearby Waverly. He briefly played football on the junior varsity team before dropping out after one semester, said Wartburg spokesman Saul Shapiro.


He enrolled in Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo in fall 2006, but again lasted only one semester.


Most recently, Becker had been working as a cook at an Old Chicago restaurant in Cedar Falls.


“We never had any problems with him,” said bar manager Shaun Decker. “He was a good worker.”


Madsen said she didn’t see Becker much after 2006 because he had moved out of the area and would appear only randomly in Parkersburg. At one point, she talked with friends about trying to help him.


“I said, I think we need to step in because he’s losing himself,” Madsen said.


But they couldn’t figure out how to help since they saw him so rarely.


Becker has had several brushes with the law in the last five years, including a fine for underage possession of alcohol in 2004, a drunken driving conviction in 2005 and a fine and conviction earlier this year for possession of drug paraphernalia, criminal mischief and assault causing bodily injury.


“More or less, he got with the wrong crowd and kind of fell,” said Taylor Schrange, who graduated from Aplington-Parkersburg High School in 2003, a year before Becker.


The Becker and Thomas families both attended the First Congregational Church, and one of Thomas’ sons, Todd Thomas, said Thursday his father and other church members tried to counsel Becker. He declined to specify how his father tried to help Becker but said the shooting hasn’t changed the Thomas family’s view of the Beckers.


“Mark is a very good person,” Thomas said. “The whole family are good people.”


Things seemed to escalate Saturday night with the high-speed chase, when sheriff’s deputies arrested Becker and took him to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, police said.


He was released Tuesday without police being notified, and spent the night at his parents’ place before confronting his former coach the following morning, authorities said.


Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo said in a statement Thursday that its staff was not asked to notify authorities before releasing Becker.


Butler County Sheriff Jason Johnson said in a statement that the county’s “Central Point Coordinator of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities” was informed of Becker’s situation and was asked to contact the sheriff if Becker was to be released. A central point coordinator is responsible for the administration and funding of mental health services in the county. It wasn’t clear who that person is in Butler County and messages left for county officials were not immediately returned.


Thomas’ funeral is planned for Monday morning at First Congregational Church.


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Associated Press writers Michael J. Crumb, Melanie S. Welte and Luke Meredith in Des Moines contributed to this report.



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