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Columnist has nose for crime, and the rest is history

Published on

Cathy Dobson

Phil Egan is in turn awestruck, outraged and amused while describing the notorious criminal cases in his new book.

The Sarnia Journal columnist spent more than two years researching and writing Keeping the Peace: 160 years of policing The Imperial City, schedule for released on March 22.

The book is a history of the Sarnia Police Service and a companion to his previous work on Sarnia’s firefighters.

“When I wrote the fire book a number of police officers said they wanted the same thing,” he said.

His challenge was knowing where to begin. City police have little in the way of archives. And when the minutes of board meetings from 1913 to 1936 were handed over, they were all hand-written.

For a fellow with limited eyesight that was a major hurdle.

So Egan appealed for help and was happy to find local volunteers willing to type out notes and hunt down newspaper articles. High school student Niamh Elwood was especially helpful, he said.

He also learned that Cal Gardner, the city’s emergency co-ordinator, had already begun a history of Sarnia Police by gathering material on the early years and chiefs.

“I relied heavily on Cal’s research for the first three or four chapters, so I give Cal credit,” said Egan, who is chief editor of the Sarnia Historical Society.

In addition to board minutes, news articles and history books, he interviewed about 40 police officials, current and retired.

“I was really happy to have spoken with George Merwin, the oldest retired officer who could recall when the station was at the town hall, and Bert Sheane, an inspector well into his 80s,” said Egan.

“I regret the book didn’t come out before they died.”

He spoke to the sons of legendary officers like Clayton Jones and Donald (Smoke) Monaghan, as well as the family members of crime victims.

Egan, 72, was born and raised in Point Edward and Sarnia. He moved away to work in the travel industry for nearly 40 years, and came home with wife Laurie in 2010.

“I knew enough about the history of our city that I had a good idea about what needed to be covered in the book,” he said. “Then some major crimes jumped out as I did the research, and I realized they had to be included.”

One was the murder of Jessica Nethery and the conviction of her former boyfriend. “Jessica’s story shook me,” said Egan.

Another was Noelle Paquette, a city kindergarten teacher murdered on New Year’s 2013.

“I think (her mother) Lynn is a hero,” said Egan. “She took an unspeakable family tragedy and turned it into a wonderful thing for the community with Noelle’s Gift.”

Why interview victims’ families for a book on police history?

“Because I believe in telling as complete a story as you can,” Egan said. “I also felt I needed their approval for something so close to them.”

Keeping the Peace is not only the story of policing since 1857, when Edward Proctor became the first street inspector, it is also a history of Sarnia. Its 50 chapters reflect the evolution of the community, its policing, courts and criminal investigations.

It includes public hangings, the Holmes Foundry strike and kidnapping of John Labatt, as well the 1951 Polymer explosion, unsolved murders and officers who gave their lives.

Grafiks Marketing is publishing 2,000 copies, with a March 22 book launch planned for the Sarnia Police Station.

Public escorted tours will take place every 20 minutes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and include the gun range and cells, along with a chance to meet the author.

Hardcover ($49.95) and softcover ($39.95) copies are available for pre-order through the Sarnia Historial Society website at www.sarniahistoricalsociety.com/sarnia-police-history-book/, and available for pick up at the book launch.

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