Opinion Editorial

A farewell to the chief

By Raymond Bowe, Barrie Examiner

To reverse a quip made by Barrie Police Chief Wayne Frechette when he became the city's top cop a decade ago, Wayne's World is going off the air.

Today is his last day on the job, bringing a 42-year career to an end.

His contract expires Sept. 1, but Frechette says he'll cash in his vacation time now to give incoming chief Mark Neelin a chance to jump headlong into his new role.

"I'm sure he's anxious to get on with his tenure, and I'm just as happy to be off for the summer," Frechette said. "It just made things a little easier. Why hang in for an arbitrary date on Sept. 1?

"That just means no other NHL team can sign me."

The 63-year-old Innisfil resident will wile away the summer playing golf and working on his Dorset cottage with his wife, Catherine. The Barrie natives plan to remain in the area, though, while also spending time up north.

"This is home," he said. "It was never our intention to live (up) there."

In September, Frechette and his wife have a trip planned to Nova Scotia to do some

antiquing and enjoy the odd pint of Samuel Adams, no doubt.

"I have no immediate plans, other than playing some golf, poorly, and just kind of doing whatever retired guys do," he laughed.

As a reporter dealing with Frechette on a semi-regular basis, he wasn't a hard person to get along with, even if he is a Montreal Canadiens fan.

There was an ongoing joke in the newsroom that if you couldn't get a good quote out of Frechette, you weren't cut out for this business. He is well known for his quick wit and sharp tongue, whether the news was good or bad.

Frechette joined the provincial police in 1968 and was first posted to Thessalon in northern Ontario. He moved to OPP headquarters in Toronto -- before it was based in Orillia -- for a few years before doing VIP security, including a stint for then-premier Bill Davis. He also spent time in the homicide, gaming and drug units, as well as undercover, interrogation and polygraph work.

But he never worked in rackets and fraud.

"For a guy that can't run a chequing account, that's probably not a bad thing," he said.

As a detective inspector with the criminal investigation branch -- which Frechette called the highlight of his career -- he played a key role in several major cases.

From the mid-1980s until 1991, Frechette worked as an interrogator, trying to squeeze information out of some of the province's most notorious criminals, mainly murder suspects.

Patience and a genuine interest in talking to people are crucial, he said.

"If you can get someone to talk about just about anything, you can eventually get them to talk about what you're interested in," Frechette said.

A case that has always stuck with Frechette is the murder of two children in Orangeville, which he said was one of the most challenging as an interrogator.

Nine-year-old Monique Babineau and her 11-year-old brother, Daniel, were killed Nov. 4, 1984, at an elementary school. They had been strangled inside the school and their bodies dragged outside.

Their teenaged killer -- an altar boy at their funeral, and a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic -- was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has since been released.

"He was 13 going on 28, extremely bright and intuitive," Frechette said. "The only reason I ultimately prevailed is because I had more experience than he did. Why he did what he did, who knows?"

The double-slaying happened not long after the former Young Offenders Act came into being. Investigators were apprehensive within the new rules.

He's often been asked who the best interrogator was and his answer is: the late broadcaster Peter Gzowski.

"He could talk to people on any level," Frechette said. "People would talk to him, and that's the secret for any interrogator. People think it's harsh lighting, pulling out toenails and that kind of stuff. The courts tend to frown on that sort of stuff."

Frechette says he tried to apply some of Gzowski's interview style to his own work.

"You don't go into an interview and say, 'OK, Ernie, why'd you do it?' You go in and talk about his childhood. You talk about his schooling, his likes and dislikes, interests," he said. "People will talk about that all day, and that often gives you some insights into where they may feel vulnerable, and some insights into how they behave under pressure.

"If you like playing head games, it was a great job."

Frechette was promoted to head inspector within the CIB, but said it was never the same as being on the front line.

"It was OK, but it wasn't the same as being out there," he said. "If you ask any of the old commissioners of the OPP -- Ferguson, O'Grady, any of those people -- what their best time was on the OPP, any who went to the CIB, that was the best time, hands down. And I'm no different."

Frechette first retired in 2000.

"It was time to leave the OPP, for whole bunch of reasons," he said. "There were no dramatic reasons. I didn't have a falling out with anybody, or anything like that, but I'd gone as far as I was going and I knew it. So, it was just time to go.

"The last two years there weren't as fun as the first 30, so it was time to move on," Frechette added. "But if you get 30 out of 32 on a test, you feel pretty good about it."

Three months later, he was Barrie's police chief.

Provincial and municipal police forces have inherent differences.

"Shortly after I got here, I knew everybody by first name," he said. "That's becoming less and less the case as there are more and more of them, and I get older."

The switch from the OPP to city police also meant less travelling.

"I was away from home a lot," he said. "One of the attractions in Barrie was I was home every night. That was kind of a double-edged sword, because my wife and I had not been used to that. That was an adjustment because I was home all the time. Now I'm really going to be home all the time."

During his long and winding career, there have been highs and lows.

The "worst day of his life" came last summer when two young constables were stabbed on Bayfield Street.

"When I got the call, I was three-quarters of the way to the cottage in Dorset," he said. "When I asked if they're going to make it, the answer I got was, 'We don't know'. That was rather chilling. That is every police chief's dread."

Constables Dave Edgar, 26, and Clayton Speers, 29, survived the ordeal. Both have recovered and are back on the beat.

With two grown children of his own, Frechette said there's almost a fatherly quality to being a police chief during such high-profile incidents.

"There are a whole lot of emotions that come into play," he said. "It's almost as parental thing ... and as a career policeman, when a police officer gets killed anywhere, it takes a bite out of you."

Another low point was the "torpedoing of the Barrie navy" last September, when the police department's two boats were severely damaged in a collision on Kempenfelt Bay. The two vessels were worth about $200,000.

"The only real damage, other than to the boats, was to my blood pressure," he said.

The chief thanked Barrie citizens for their support and patience.

"We're no different than anyone else," he said. "There are times we are less than perfect. There are certain times we are significantly less than perfect."

Frechette still pines for a new police station.

"My only disappointment in Barrie ... is that we were not able to nail down a new building, which we are in need of," he said. "It will come in time, but I'm just a little disappointed that I wasn't able to do it."

One thing's for sure, Frechette saw plenty of growth in Barrie and its police force over the last decade.

"It's been quite a ride."

Reporter Raymond Bowe covers the Examiner's police beat

rbowe@thebarrieexaminer.com twitter.com/RaymondBowe

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