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Saturday December 1, 2012

Montreal tough guy was a hard-boiled cop from a bygone era

Lawman stalked the city with a submachine gun, was staked out by a famous killer and was steered by a strict moral compass

Special to The Globe and Mail

Albert Lisacek was 19 and working as a bouncer at an east-end Montreal nightclub when he was set upon by a gang of thugs and beaten within an inch of his life. Then and there, he decided to get the upper hand by becoming a law-enforcement officer. During his 25 years with the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, his questionable crime-fighting tactics, especially during the October Crisis in 1970, earned him a reputation as the toughest cop in the country. He had little regard for the loopholes in the law and operated on the principle that if hardened criminals didn't play by the rules, police shouldn't have to.

"I only whack the people who deserve it," he used to boast. "There are a lot of bad people out there. I was good at getting rid of bad people."

Det. Sgt. Lisacek, who died of cancer in Montreal on Nov. 20 at age 79, was part of an elite team of provincial police officers who crossed paths with a number of high-profile habitual criminals in the 1960s and 70s, including the terrorists who kidnapped and murdered Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte.

Lisacek cut an intimidating figure, at 6 feet 2 inches with a shaved head. Known either as "Little Albert," or "Kojak," Lisacek enhanced his image by walking around with what he called his "Chicago typewriter," a Thompson submachine gun.

He was on the scene when Pierre Laporte's body was found and later closed in on three of the Front de libération du Québec kidnappers, including Francis Simard and brothers Paul and Jacques Rose, who were discovered hiding in a farmhouse basement. If Lisacek had had his way, he said, he would have preferred to flood the basement and drown them on the spot rather than allow them to surrender.

Albert Lisacek was born in Montreal on July 13, 1933, the eldest of four boys in a Slovak immigrant family. His father, who had been a strongman in a European circus, worked in a steel mill in Canada. Lisacek grew up in a rough downtown Montreal neighbourhood near The Main and said he was bullied as a boy because of his ethnicity. In his teens, he trained to become a professional wrestler and was working as as a bouncer when he was outnumbered by his assailants and attacked on the street. He vowed never again to be caught off guard. He became a private detective for a couple of years and then joined the provincial police force in 1956. He was made a detective in 1961, became a member of the holdup squad in 1963, and was promoted to sergeant in 1967.

That was the year he came face to face with Machine Gun Molly, a suspect in more than 20 bank holdups. She pulled a gun on him during a high-speed chase moments before she was shot and killed. Lisacek was off-duty at the time, a mere bystander in the shootout.

"Lisacek carried a Tommy gun and liked to think of himself as trigger-happy, but the only time he actually shot anyone, it was by accident," said retired Montreal police reporter Eddie Collister. "He was certainly rough on suspects in the interrogation room. Rumour had it that he'd slap people around and wasn't afraid to use the brass knuckles. He wasn't much of a team player. He made it clear to his partners that he trusted his wife more than he did any of the guys on the squad. Whenever there was a raid, his partners were happy to let Big Al kick down the doors and let him go in first. Lisacek liked to be the hero, and his fellow officers were more than happy to let him play the role."

He was so feared that the internationally known killer Jacques Mesrine staked out the restaurant where Lisacek ate and planned to kill him. The plan failed when Lisacek broke his routine and failed to show up as usual.

Lisacek made the front cover of a national magazine in 1972 when he was profiled by Tom Alderman as "a man suited to the rough and tumble of the holdup squad ... when Albert speaks his superiors can only duck. It's very doubtful he will rise much higher through the ranks."

It was a prescient piece of journalism. During his career, Lisacek had often arrested and sparred with a bad-to-the-bone holdup artist known as Richard (The Cat) Blass. Blass had a number of jailbreaks to his credit and was known for his nine lives. Lisacek grudgingly admired his street smarts. Then in 1975, Blass again broke out of jail and this time went on a deadly rampage. He shot and killed four people before locking another 12 in a storage space in the Gargantua Bar and setting fire to the place, fuelling the flames with cognac as his victims burned alive. While on the run, Blass taunted Lisacek, sending a note to a local newspaper describing his "old pal" Lisacek as a "French poodle."

Lisacek found Blass three days later hiding out at a chalet north of Montreal. During the raid, Blass was gunned down. Although no one really knows what happened, it would appear Blass was not given a chance to surrender. Lisacek told a CTV news reporter at the time that when he broke into the chalet he found Blass in bed with his girlfriend and he agreed to give Blass time to put his pants on before taking him into custody. But when Blass emerged from the bedroom wielding a gun, Lisacek said, his partners opened fire and shot him 27 times. Other reports suggested that the "gun" was actually a black sock.

The shooting occurred just as the federal government was introducing correctional reforms, putting the emphasis on the rights of the accused. Blass's death proved embarrassing to authorities. Lisacek's superiors suggested that "Little Al" transfer to an Arctic outpost. When he refused, he was given a desk job shuffling papers. He quit the force in 1981. A TV miniseries based on his exploits, October, 1970, aired in 2006. Lisacek dismissed all TV detective shows, including the miniseries, as "phony," and preferred instead to immerse himself in Western novels.

"He was a police officer from a bygone era, one who was motivated to do what was right, not what was expedient, who put his life on the line to protect ordinary law-abiding citizens," writes former police reporter Warren Perley, now the editor of the online magazine Beststory.ca. Perley, who was with him hours before he died, says Lisacek "wouldn't last a single day on the job on the 21st-century world of police bureaucracy and political correctness."

Lisacek's first wife, whom he married in 1962, died in 1999. He leaves his second wife, Jacqueline Richer. One of his brothers, William, who was on the Montreal police force, died last year.

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