Thursday, October 7, 2010

The case of the misplaced service medal

Constable Jonathan Sheldan of the Victoria (B.C.) police department tracked down Rob Squires, a retired senior constable of the Victoria (Australia) Police, to return a 10-year service medal. Deddeda Stemler photograph for The Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 7, 2010


A blue, hand-sized presentation case found its way into a Canada Post sorting facility.

It had no packaging. Couldn’t be delivered.

A worker flipped opened the lid. Inside, nestled in felt, was a silver medal.

The obverse bore a legend in embossed lettering: DILIGENT AND ETHICAL SERVICE.

It also read: VICTORIA POLICE.

So, the post office sent the case to the Victoria Police Department, where it wound up on the desk of Constable Jonathan Sheldan.

The 18-year veteran is a forensics expert. At a crime scene, he is a “front-line examiner” whose responsibility it is to gather evidence, whether fingerprints, or DNA samples, or digital photography of the still or video variety.

It is not as glamorous a specialty as portrayed on the CSI television series. A crime is not solved in 44 minutes (or an hour, counting commercials).

A history buff, Mr. Sheldan has become the police department’s go-to guy for questions about the past. He has solved more than one historical mystery.

Sometimes, you have to do detective work even when there’s been no crime.

Many promising clues were on hand in the Case of the Misplaced Medal Case.

Mr. Sheldan examined the case. It included the medal, a miniature medal, and a ribbon to be worn on non-ceremonial occasions.

Mr. Sheldan, not unfamiliar with police honours, immediately recognized the item as a service medal.

He held the medal in his hand. He noted the royal crown. He also noted five stars.

He knew this medal was not from Victoria, British Columbia.

Where from then?

Crown? A member of the Commonwealth.

The five stars? The constellation of the Southern Cross, which appears on the national flag of Australia.

The medal was from the state of Victoria.

On the reverse was a name: ROBERT MILES SQUIRES.

The constable had plenty with which to work.

“I just started hunting this fellow right away,” he said.

He tracked down a last-known email address, as well as a membership in a private pilots club.

He learned Mr. Squires had moved to Canada.

The search was proving more fruitful than some of his earlier efforts. Eight years ago, he came across a reference in a book to the murder of a native police constable in 1864.

A warrant had been issued to search for alcohol aboard an American ship in the waters off Metlakatla. The bootleggers wounded three constables, while a fourth went overboard and was lost. The body was never recovered and his name was unknown.

With the invaluable assistance of staff at the B.C. Archives, the hunt for the fallen officer began. One possibility was eliminated when a document was found indicating the person had been issued equipment after the date of death. After five years of research, baptismal and widow’s pension records eventually led to the naming of Reuben Cowallah/Cowaltah Onslow. (Two spelling variants of his native name existed in official records.) He was added to the Bastion monument on the lawns of the Legislature in Victoria, a permanent memorial to fallen officers. Earlier this year, his name was added to a national monument in Ottawa.

Of his many criminal cases, Mr. Sheldan is most proud of having been the lead forensic officer handling the 2006 knifing death of a man whose body was found on the grounds of Central Middle School. To this day, he thinks of the victim every time he drives past the school, which is sandwiched between two busy streets.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Sheldan’s contacts in the immigration department solved the current case.

He called a telephone number in Quispamsis, a town on the Kennebecasis River in New Brunswick, near Saint John.

“I can’t believe it,” said Mr. Squires, 49, an airplane mechanic who married a Canadian woman last June. “I had no idea what had happened to it.”

The retired senior constable guesses the medal fell out of his bag, or was left in a hotel room, one of his travels between Canada and Australia.

“I think it might qualify for frequent flyer points,” he quipped.

He will be watching the mailbox for the medal’s arrival later this week. Here’s hoping it makes the journey.

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