ROCHESTER, Minn. — “Overthinking isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s how answers come,” Brad Nelson said Thursday, his last as a detective with the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office.

Over the past 29 years in law enforcement — the last 18 as a detective — he admits he’s done “a lot of thinking at home, in bed at night. I do take it home; I can’t shut it off. I’m sure it’s left an impression on how I handle things in my own life,” Nelson told the Post-Bulletin ( ). “And it’s probably a part of what’s helping me make this decision” to retire.

“I’ve seen a lot of tragedy in people’s lives.”

He was hired by Olmsted County in 1988, right out of college, as a patrol deputy. He was promoted to patrol sergeant in 1996, then moved to investigations in 1998.

“I felt that was my niche, where my interest was, and what I was better at,” Nelson said. “But I’m not the military-tactical guy, I’m more the ‘sit down and tell me what’s going on, help me out here’ guy.”

While acknowledging that “technology keeps cases alive,” he said it’s also his weakness in investigations.

“My strength is old school. You’ve got to get out and talk to people,” he said. “I like to find the weak link in the case — a good, law-abiding citizen — and make a connection with them. You have to share a little bit to get a little bit, put on the game face and build some trust.

“I’m dealing with people’s tragedies,” Nelson said. “It’s big to them. I haven’t lost the ability to understand it’s important to them.”

For the past three years, he’s been working in the Olmsted County Attorney’s office for Mark Ostrem and his staff.

“Brad’s been an exceptional addition to our office,” Ostrem said Thursday. “Our relationship, and his sense of urgency, have made our work so much easier. It changed the work we did, really. His commitment to us has been outstanding.”

It was a pair of tragedies early in his career that made him a better cop:

A couple came home to discover their teenage daughter had died in the garage of carbon monoxide poisoning. The gas had seeped one floor up, into the bedroom of a younger sibling who also died; Nelson did CPR “even though she was obviously deceased.”

It was uncertain if the older girl’s death was accidental or intentional, Nelson said, until he spotted something.

“(The teenager) had a pet rabbit that lived in a cage in the garage,” he said. “She’d taken the cage outside — but ended up taking her little sister, too.”

In another incident as a young deputy, Nelson had to notify a set of parents about their son’s death in a traffic crash. He “took a deep breath, and tried to do the notification as gently as I could. As soon as I gave it, I heard a blood-curdling scream.”

It came from the couple’s teenage daughter, who had overheard the news from another room.

“Those were the tough ones that seasoned me, I guess, to deal with other things” that came along, Nelson said.

As a detective, he’s handled more than 900 cases, all of them entered into a logbook by hand.

Investigations Sgt. Kirby Long said Nelson isn’t his senior detective “just because of his years of service, but the way he talks to people. He’s driven, takes pride in his work and is so knowledgeable.”

Scott Behrns, captain of the investigations division, spoke of Nelson’s tenacity.

“He never gave up on a case; he never quit,” Behrns said. “Obviously, I’ll miss his friendship, but also his presence in the briefing room. His ability to speak with anyone made him a great detective.”

“If we have a hard case, Brad’s is the first name to come up,” Long said. “His work behind the scene, working with families for weeks, months — some of that can play with your psyche.”

So it’s time, Nelson said, for a couple of reasons.

“I’m going to miss some of the people, but some are part of my frustration,” he said. He’ll also miss “the challenge of bringing control to chaos. I like to think I can bring calm and focus,” and treat victims and families with dignity.

“What I’ve done for people who are in pain… I didn’t do this for any of the five sheriffs I’ve worked for,” Nelson said. “I did it for those people.”

He’s hung on to the cards and letters he’s received throughout the years from grateful families, including one woman who brings him baked goods every year on the anniversary of her son’s death death as a thank you for Nelson’s compassion in the investigation.

“I’m going to miss that,” he said of those connections, because his next job will keep him mostly behind the scenes: Nelson has accepted a job with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety as the ignition interlock coordinator for the Third Judicial District, which includes Olmsted County.

The part-time job will leave him more time to dedicate to his role as coordinator and coach of the Mayo Youth Wrestling program.

“It’s my new passion outside of law enforcement,” Nelson said. “It’s my outlet.”

He recently told a new officer that it’s the ability to adapt to any person and any situation that brings many cases to resolution.

“I’ve gotten to where I can get a confession — and they thank me when they leave the room,” he smiled.

Information from: Post-Bulletin,

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Post-Bulletin.