A Law Enforcement Odyssey
Steeped In Local History
Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Ciarán St. Amand
“The sounds of a jail brawl are unique in nature…” So begins, Gas of Tank: A Law Enforcement Odyssey 1979–2019, the book I wrote chronicling the law enforcement career of Todd Ternovan.
As my friend, and next-door neighbour for sixteen years, I knew Todd as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police, a proficient grill master and groundskeeper who kept his property immaculate. When I learned that his original career ambition was to be a daycare teacher, I had to ask, “How does someone go from working with kids to becoming a cop?”
“Well, that’s an interesting story.”
The book begins with Todd’s remembrance of a brawl between Windsor Jail guards and motorcycle gang members in 1979. Todd was an eighteen-year-old part-time corrections officer at the jail. At the center of the brawl were the perpetrators of the notorious “Moy Avenue Murders”, which occurred in January 1976. The murderers had been arrested, tried and convicted. When the Windsor court decided to hear their appeal three years later, they were transferred from federal custody to Windsor Jail. Unhappy with their accommodations in the Segregation Unit at Windsor Jail, the murderers fought the guards. And lost. They also lost their appeal.
What simply looked like an interesting story to me was, for Todd, a journey through trauma-tinged memory. As he wrote in the book’s preface: “Throughout my career, I witnessed the horrors of motor vehicle collisions, suicide, death by misadventure, the plight of the poor, and the myriad issues surrounding mental illness, poverty, violence, treachery, drug and alcohol addictions.”
It was that and more.
The first thing to understand is that Todd believed in keeping things simple: Marrying his college sweetheart, studying Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University and spending his professional life as a daycare teacher.
It was a reasonable plan, except for one thing: Man plans and the gods laugh.
By September 1990, Todd was a constable in the OPP. His first post was in illustrious Merlin, Ontario.
There, he learned that small-town policing wasn’t just rescuing cats from trees and performing wellness checks. In those first years, Todd dealt with a naked machete-wielding man who claimed to be Jesus Christ, armed American fugitives, decades-old sexual assaults, harrowing traffic accidents, violent home invasions, and even spent a year “Uncle Charlie” (undercover) investigating drug traffickers.
Other cases Todd worked on have been featured on TV news magazines and in various books. Sol Littman, CBC journalist and bona fide Nazi hunter, interviewed him for his book War Criminal on Trial: Rauca of Kaunas (JewishGen, 1983) about Todd’s experience guarding Nazi war criminal, Helmut Rauca, at Toronto’s Don Jail before Rauca’s deportation to West Germany to face trial in the deaths of 10,500 Lithuanians. A case Todd worked in Essex County, involving sex abuse and hockey hazing, was featured in two segments of The Fifth Estate in the late ’90s. It was also a chapter in Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport (McClelland & Stewart, 1998) by CBC journalist, Laura Robertson. Todd’s unique and effective interrogation techniques are described in Convicting the Guilty by attorney Steve Sherriff (1998).
If there is a consistent theme in Todd’s story, it’s his uncanny ability to police with his wits. An entertaining example of this occurred during an investigation into a smash-and-grab robbery at a Chatham jewelry store. Through his network of confidential informants, Todd had an idea who committed the crime, but not enough evidence to arrest him. So, Todd invited the suspect for an interview at the police detachment. Incredibly, the suspect agreed. Although he was free to leave at any time, the suspect stayed for hours. Even after the conversation hemmed the suspect in until his guilt was undeniable, Todd continued in a friendly tone: “All you have to do is write an apology letter,” Todd advised.
“Tell the court you’re sorry for what you did. It demonstrates remorse.”
The suspect wrote a detailed “apology letter,” which was entered into evidence at his trial. He was found guilty of the robbery. The judge was amused and asked the accused if the police forced him to write the letter.
“No, I wrote it on my own. The police were nice.”
The book’s title comes from a motorcycle gang member who demonstrated his disdain for police by pulling a “wheelie” on his motorcycle following a traffic stop. The biker was charged with stunt driving. In his defense in court, the biker said, in a thick French accent: “That’s not possible. I had a full gas of tank!”
“Gas of Tank” embodies, for Todd, all the surreal, upside-down, unbelievable, description-defying experiences police face daily.
Since being published in February, book reviews have poured into Amazon.ca and personal messages to Todd: “Funny, disturbing, absurd and heartwarming.” wrote one Amazon reviewer. A text message read: “Great Book Todd! Couldn’t put it down, first book I read in almost 40 years.”
There have been tearful phone calls. Another Amazon reviewer wrote: “What a ride! This one takes you through all the highs and lows of policing, with a great comedic finish. Highly entertaining and a
solid recommend for anyone who loves a good cop story, which is everyone. St. Amand always brings the comedy, even from the darkest of tales. Nicely done!”
Regarding the process of committing his experiences to a book, Todd says, “With Matt’s encouragement and his witty writ-ing style, I was able to convey my story, day by day… As the book progressed, I became increasingly comfortable telling Matt a variety of disturbing, humorous, sad and weird stories.”
Like many aspects of daily life, citizens see police out doing their job, and think they know what the job is all about. Digging beneath the surface, however, revealed a strange and fascinating netherworld in Essex County, hidden in plain sight from most going about their day.
Signed copies of Gas of Tank: A Law Enforcement Odyssey 1979–2019 are available at Juniper Books and Storytellers Bookstore on Ottawa Street and River Bookshop in Amherstburg, as well as on Amazon.ca.