TU THANH HA
The Globe and Mail
For six years in the 1970s, Robert Ménard led a double life, pretending to be an electrician living in a flat that he rented from the acting boss of the Montreal Mafia.
Mr. Ménard was actually an undercover police officer. Despite the suspicions of his landlord, the Mafia don Paolo Violi, who challenged him to do some repairs, Mr. Ménard was never unmasked and helped record a trove of wiretap evidence that contributed to the mob boss’s demise.
Mr. Ménard, a one-time young delinquent who went on to become one of the hardiest among the hard-boiled detectives of his time, died on Aug. 16 after a heart attack. He was 82.
He died just as a French-language documentary television series about his life was broadcast on the Historia network.
Mr. Ménard had not one but two tough-guy nicknames: Crazy Bob, for the risks he took while undercover, and Shotgun Ménard, for the 12-gauge pump-action firearm he favoured when facing robbers.
He boasted that he had nine workers’ compensation files – meaning he had been injured nine times while on duty. He needed a cane after he was shot in the leg. He got a bullet in the chest. He suffered hearing loss after blasting his shotgun at a getaway car while still inside his own vehicle.
“He was like a terrier going after a rabbit. When he saw that someone had been wronged, he was relentless,” his former partner in the homicide and robbery squad, André Kourie, said in an interview.
Mr. Kourie remembered arriving at the scene of unfolding heists and Mr. Ménard jumping out before their car had stopped because he was so eager to catch robbers.
Mr. Ménard was also a resourceful man, improvising on the job. Once, the two detectives were casing out a bus station locker where a suspect had stashed guns. Mr. Kourie said his partner suddenly went to see the maintenance crew, then came back dressed in coveralls and mopping the floor near the locker.
Mr. Kourie also remembered Mr. Ménard showing him costumes and fake ID cards he had kept from his undercover operations, including a firefighter helmet, a Bell hard hat and even a cassock.
Mr. Ménard’s crime fighting stopped abruptly in 1985 when he was shot by a pair of bank robbers. It was an unlikely fate for a man who had started as a wannabe bank robber.
The oldest of the two sons of Hector Ménard and Cécile Robidas, he was born on June 10, 1934, in Sherbrooke, 150 kilometres east of Montreal. The family lived nearby, in the small town of Cookshire.
As he recalled in the Historia documentary series, titled Shotgun Ménard, he grew up poor and making trouble.
His father, a Royal Canadian Navy sailor, died in the Second World War. While his mother juggled several jobs in Montreal to make ends meet, young Robert became a rebellious child.
He recalled firing a pellet gun at passing cars and breaking into the local church to drink the communion wine, pee in the holy water and ring the bells at night.
At age 12, he and a friend plotted to rob a branch of the Bank of Montreal. His grandmother overheard them and alerted the police. He was taken away in handcuffs and sentenced to four years at a reform school run by priests.
There, he said, the Catholic brothers’ tough love and occasional use of the strap instilled in him an appreciation for discipline and structure. “You had the choice of either remaining a little punk or shaping up. I chose to shape up,” he recalled in his TV series.
Afterwards, he did a stint in the Canadian Forces then worked as a locomotive driver for CN. By his mid-20s, he decided to join the Montreal police, drawn as much by the prestige of the uniform as the prospect of a steady salary, health plan and pension.
His application was rejected because of his earlier brush with the law. He turned to his reform-school teacher, one Brother Julien.
In a sign of the influence of the church in Quebec at the time, Brother Julien got a meeting with Hilaire Beauregard, the head of the provincial police, who agreed to expunge Mr. Ménard’s record and to put in a word with Albert Langlois, the Montreal police chief.
With that help, Mr. Ménard was able to join the Montreal police and graduated from training in the spring of 1959.
He was first assigned to Station 14, then covering the west end neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
As a rookie, he was expected not to make waves but on his first shift, assigned to keep watch outside a concert at Loyola College, he spotted two car thieves in action, chased them and knocked them out with his stick.
His eagerness, resourcefulness and street savvy led him within a year to the intelligence section, working undercover missions.
For his first assignment, he was sent to infiltrate an illegal gambling den. On other occasions, he was a taxi driver or a sailor. For eight months he pretended to be an underfed wannabe poet with a downtown flat as he infiltrated leftist activist circles, looking for information on the Front de libération du Québec.
Then in 1970, he saw a For Rent sign on a window above an ice cream store in the Saint-Léonard district of Montreal. The police knew that the store, Gelateria Violi, was owned by the mob boss Mr. Violi, who usually held court next door at the Reggio Bar.
In their book Mafia Inc., André Cédilot and André Noël noted that Mr. Violi, whose crime family made money from many rackets, wasn’t above trying to make an additional $125 a month by renting the flat above his ice-cream shop. It would be his undoing.
Mr. Ménard signed the lease, posing as Bob Wilson, an electrician from Ontario. He picked that trade because his brother, Patrice, was an electrical contractor who could help him with his cover.
To distract Mr. Violi when he signed the lease, Mr. Ménard arrived accompanied by an attractive woman – actually the girlfriend of another officer.
After establishing that Mr. Violi and his henchmen weren’t around at night, the police installed a series of hidden microphones. “Violi couldn’t go anywhere in the building without us hearing what he said,” Mr. Ménard said in a 2006 issue of the police brotherhood magazine.
Mr. Ménard was needed at the scene because the wiretap system required bulky batteries that needed to be maintained regularly. Part of the hardware was concealed in a wooden dresser in the apartment.
One day, Mr. Violi tested Mr. Ménard by asking him to check the wiring and fix a malfunctioning light in the bar.
Mr. Ménard stalled, saying he was busy, then called his brother for a crash course on electrical installation.
The next day, Mr. Ménard had to inspect the light as Mr. Violi stood by the ladder.
“They’re all standing there. And I can see Paolo with his brown eyes staring at me – nobody is saying a word and I am sweating bullets,” Mr. Ménard recalled in a 2005 Montreal Gazette interview.
Nothing he did seemed to make it function until he remembered his brother telling him to try a new lightbulb as a last resort. It worked.
After six years as a tenant, Mr. Ménard was suddenly pulled away in 1976, when his superiors said the operation was ended because Mr. Violi had been subpoenaed to testify at the Commission d’enquête sur le crime organisé (CECO), a public inquiry into organized crime.
Mr. Violi refused to answer questions before the inquiry and received a one-year sentence for contempt. Relying on the wiretaps from Mr. Ménard, the inquiry disclosed the extent of the Montreal Mafia’s rackets, from extorting merchants to selling tainted meat.
The mob boss wouldn’t recover from that exposure. “The Mafia would never forgive him for being so stupidly careless as to let a cop bug his place of business,” the Mafia Inc. book said.
His authority weakened as the rival Rizzuto family vied for his throne, Mr. Violi was murdered in 1978.
The book also noted that the recordings were also useful to Italian magistrates in the 1980s, helping them corroborate their cases against Sicilian mobsters and their connections to North America.
Mr. Ménard meanwhile had transferred to the night patrol, a squad whose rough tactics suited his personality.
At the time, he explained in the documentary, police had no qualms about meting out violence when dealing with career criminals. He recalled clearing outlaw bikers from a bar by approaching the leader and smashing his flashlight on the man’s face.
On another occasion, he and another detective made headlines after a 4 a.m. punching brawl in an alley with two men, one of them Normand Dubois, one of a clan of nine mobster brothers.
Mr. Ménard was later accepted into the homicide and armed robbery squad.
Mr. Kourie recalled that when Mr. Ménard started with the squad, the unit commander took him to a scene of an ongoing bank heist, where the new man was supposed to stay on the sidelines and observe how his colleagues operated.
They saw the robber leave the bank and run across a parking lot. Mr. Kourie knew that officers posted on the other side would catch the suspect. Mr. Ménard, however, didn’t wait and took off in pursuit, firing at the suspect until he caught him.
“He couldn’t help himself. Each time he saw a bad guy he had to run after him. It was tiring for us,” Mr. Kourie said.
The last six months of Mr. Ménard’s career were punctuated by three serious shootouts.
In September of 1984, he and Mr. Kourie stopped two gunmen leaving a downtown bank heist. Mr. Ménard fired his shotgun through his windshield, injuring one suspect.
On Jan. 31, 1985, Mr. Ménard shot dead a man who had robbed an east-end Steinberg supermarket. A coroner’s inquest cleared Mr. Ménard, because the suspect had aimed a sawed-off rifle at the officer.
Three months later, Mr. Ménard was part of an operation against two robbers who had struck a bank in the southwest neighbourhood of LaSalle. Mr. Ménard and one suspect fired at each other.
The robber had a bulletproof vest. Mr. Ménard didn’t. He was hit in the chest and legs.
“It felt like I was hit by a baseball bat. I saw the blood come out like a fountain,” he recalled in the TV documentary.
Hampered by his injuries and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he had to retire.
Around the same time, his son, Marc, died.
Marc wanted to become a police officer too. He had joined the RCMP and was about to report for training when he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
In the documentary, Mr. Ménard said that after he was shot, he had to be resuscitated twice. Hinting that he had a near-death experience, he said he had not shared with anyone what he saw, except with his ailing son, to give him solace as Marc neared death.
“I regret nothing. I am not afraid of dying,” Mr. Ménard said.
Mr. Ménard is survived by his daughter, Joelle; his grandchildren, Hanna and Marcus; and his ex-wife, Carolyn Galloway. He was predeceased by his son and his brother.