'Today was a bad day': Fargo police grieve loss of lieutenant who killed himself
By Archie Ingersoll / The Forum
FARGO – The gunshot suicide of Lt. Jeff Skuza on Tuesday morning left Fargo police grieving the loss of a veteran officer remembered as a consummate professional.
“Today was a bad day for the Fargo Police Department,” Chief Keith Ternes said, as tears welled in his eyes. “Tomorrow won’t be easier. I suspect in the coming days we will have some real challenges to confront.”
Skuza’s death was preceded by a call he made to emergency dispatchers at about 4:30 a.m., asking them to send police officers to Holy Cross Cemetery, south of the Wal-Mart at 3757 55th Ave. S., just outside city limits. Skuza was not on duty at the time, authorities said.
“When officers arrived, they located Jeff lying on the ground with what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head,” Ternes said during an afternoon news conference at City Hall.
Paramedics were called to the cemetery, but they were unable to save Skuza, who died at the scene, Ternes said.
“Jeff was a respected friend, co-worker and colleague, and he’ll be missed by everyone who knew him,” the chief said.
Because the shooting happened outside the city, the Cass County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the case. A sheriff’s department spokeswoman, Sgt. Tara Morris, said that while detectives are still conducting interviews and following up on leads, they are confident Skuza’s death was a suicide.
“We don’t suspect any foul play” she said, adding that a handgun was found near Skuza.
Morris declined to release other details, including whether Skuza left behind a suicide note. Nor was she able to say what may have motivated the shooting.
“Your guess is as good as ours,” Morris said. “We won’t ever know the whole story.”
Skuza, 47, is survived by his wife and two teenage children.
‘A very positive guy’
Skuza, who grew up in Becker, Minn., graduated from Becker High School in 1984 and received a criminal justice degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1988, according to city records.
He joined the Fargo Police Department as a patrol officer in October 1991 and was promoted to sergeant in January 2001. As a sergeant, he worked in the patrol, investigative and training divisions.
Skuza, who did a stint as the department’s media spokesman, was made a lieutenant in March 2011 and took charge of patrolling a district that included downtown and the north side. In that position, he worked closely with downtown businesses and residents to improve the area’s quality of life, Ternes said.
Skuza played a public role in the push to install surveillance cameras downtown, which went live in 2012. That’s how Norm Robinson, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said he got to know the lieutenant.
“He was always really good asking for opinions of downtown leadership, especially on the commercial side,” Robinson said of Skuza. “I always enjoyed working with Jeff. He was always a very positive guy.”
Thad Thorsness, general manager of the Old Broadway bar, said he first met Skuza some 20 years ago when Skuza was a patrol officer.
“He was a guy that was dedicated and wanted to keep people safe,” Thorsness said.
Thorsness remembered Skuza as a friendly, approachable officer who made himself accessible by giving out his cellphone number and email address.
“There was pretty open communications if you needed something or needed to talk with him,” Thorsness said.
Skuza’s personnel file brimmed with positive comments about his work. In a mostly glowing job review from 2013, Skuza’s superior, Deputy Chief Dave Todd, offered some advice to the hardworking lieutenant.
“You’re highly engaged in your work; Sometimes to the point of me telling you to go home. Although I’ve noticed you’ve gotten better about taking some time this year to spend with your family or go fishing. I think that’s great, because you need to keep a healthy balance and not let work completely dominate your life,” Todd wrote.
Ternes described Skuza as a valuable member of the force and said he was instrumental in starting the department’s peer-assistance crisis team, which helps officers deal with stressful events.
“It was through his vision and his leadership that we recognized that police officers are human,” Ternes said, “and they need support from time to time when they’re confronted with tragic situations.”
The same crisis team has offered its services to the officers dispatched to the cemetery Tuesday morning, the chief said.