Save me from the gang wars!
Was the "Gazette" Assignment Editor kidding? He wanted to send me to the northern Quebec paper mill town of Mont Joli to cover a motorcycle gang war?
Never mind that it was winter, I also had to endure a bumpy 600-mile flight in an eight-seat, propellor-driven plane. Reports emanating from the town indicated that brawling, leather-jacketed roughnecks had sent half the local police force to hospital and were terrorizing residents.
I checked my life insurance and health care plans before stepping on the plane that cold March day in 1981. What awaited me was a scene straight out of Fox prime time.
The Gazette, Montreal, Saturday, March 14, 1981
Police Chief’s balancing act: A circus and his town
By WARREN PERLEY
of The Gazette
MONT JOLI — Police Chief Albert Bell, surrounded by a sweaty-faced mob, swings into action, arms flailing.
“Women can have nice chests, bellies and legs, but they aren’t in good shape unless they’re firm,” he bellows as 30 scantily-clad women follow him in his exercise routine.
But what about reports that the town has been in terror since a gang brawl sent half the 10-man police force to hospital one night last week?
“Want to see photos of my chorus line?” replies Bell, who has been policed chief since 1957. “I have 50 women enrolled in my exercise school now. I train them as trapeze artists, acrobats and high-wire performers.”
Bell, alias Al Benny circus performer, boxer, photographer and inventor, is in his element — putting his beloved “girls” through their paces in the basement gym at his home.
Bell is looking good this evening, showing none of his 63 years. “I take wheat germ twice a day. Gives me lots of energy,” he told The Gazette.
Framed photos of young, naked women, many of them former pupils, give his gym a homey look, Many of the photos were taken by Bell himself. Who’s the leotard-clad beauty with her body contorted?
“That’s my second wife. After my first wife died in a car accident 24 years ago, I trained three students on the high trapeze. She was the best one, so I married her. She’s 20 years younger than me.”
Great way of life
Bell is getting ready to walk 100 steps on his hands. He does it every night. Good for the trapezius muscles.
The journalists who flew in from Montreal expecting to find a scene out of The Wild Ones will have to be patient. There’s a time and place for discussing motorcycle gangs and other police matters. First the serious business.
“All my trapeze artists are girls,” Bell tells a visitor. “Boys make better jugglers. The circus is a great way of life, but you can’t fill up a circus these days. Every go-go club is packed, but a woman doesn’t need talent to shake her breasts.”
Two journalists from The Gazette and Allo Police have been sent to this snow-covered, remote town 600 miles northeast of Montreal, to flesh out stories about the brawl Monday night. About 30 Quebec Police Force officers from nearby Rimouski were called in to restore order.
Was this a return to the lawlessness which prevailed until a year ago when police finally cleaned out the dangerous Flambeurs motorcycle gang which had terrorized the town for nine years, selling drugs, assaulting citizens and vandalizing stores?
“I can juggle three rackets at a time and still pass one under my leg,” Bell says. “In some towns where my circus plays, I’m Al Benny showman, but in Mont Joli I’m Albert Bell, police chief. I don’t make a living taking my circus to nearby towns on weekends and holidays, but I have loved it since I was a kid.
“You know, I’m 63,” he tells his visitor. “I may not look it, but the years are there.”
Once a week
Aside from the wheat germ, what else does he recommend?
“Sex. It’s good for the body. I have a couple of pupils who are 67. I tell them to do it once a week.”
• • •
“Ah, oui, Bell est formidable,” says Roger Boudreau, editor of the town weekly newspaper, L’Information.
“The brawl has been exaggerated,” Boudreau says as he quaffs a beer in a local bar. “A few years ago we had problems, but there haven’t been any motorcycle gangs in town for at least a year.”
Mont Joli, a bungalow community of 7,500 on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, is a nice, albeit depressed, town with an unemployment rate of 15 per cent. The local hospital, with 600 workers, is the biggest employer. The Price paper mill two miles away employs another few hundred. The rest of the citizens eke out a living on the farms or by fishing.
The seeds of the brawl, according to Boudreau and almost every other Mont Joli resident except Bell, were planted when two policemen answered a call to brewak up a bar fight involving three local toughs last Friday night. None belongs to a motorcycle gang.
Several other Mont Joli officers and the QPF were also called in to stop the fight. No real damage.
QPF settled matters
But that’s not the end of the story. The sequel occurred Monday night when the two officers who broke up the fight the previous Friday were stopped outside the bar by about 15 friends and relatives of the men involved in the first fight.
There was a melee. The rest of the 10-man Mont Joli force had to be brought in, but that didn’t help matters much because three of them are more than 60 years old and some of the others don’t weigh much more than 150 pounds.
Eventually, about 30 QPF officers were called in. When the dust had cleared, five policemen and several punks had been sent to hospital with assorted cuts and broken bones. One of the young men was shot in the shoulder.
Six of them were arrested and charged with assaulting police officers. They facetrial in May.
But what about Bell’s version that a trap had been deliberately set for his boys, the result of a long-standing feud between the cops and what he calls the “anti-police gang?”
“Ah, Bell is exaggerating,” Boudreau says. “He’s nuts about publicity. He has a sense of showbiz.”
The Bar Mousquet on rue de la Gare is the watering hole for the local toughs and the spot where the brawl erupted. But beefy Gaston Caron, the 300-pound owner of the bar, says that things are no worse there than elsewhere.
The rock music is blaring out of the jukebox while six young men and a tough-looking blonde woman in black leather jackets loll against the bar, suspiciously eyeing the stranger in town. They fit Bell’s description of the “anti-police gang.”
“We have maybe one brawl a year,” one of the group hisses. “This is all crap.”
Jean-Marie Dufours, owner of the Hotel La Gare and bar next door, agrees. “All this publicity is ridiculous,” he said. “The real problem here is the police. The teenagers laugh at them. How come when the QPF arrives, the trouble always disappears?”
The mayor, Dr. Jean-Louis Desrosiers, doesn’t like journalists, especially one from The Gazette trying to report on problems in Mont Joli.
“You should go skiing,” he says, pointing at nearby Mont Joli. “We have snow there until the end of May. People should know about that, rather than about a good brawl.” The mayor says he is “very satisfied” with his police force.
More official now
But one long-time resident, who didn’t want to be identified, says Bell “is admired but there are many who feel we need a younger chief with new ideas and fewer outside interests.”
• • •
Bell is looking more official now, dressed in a uniform and seated behind his police desk. But he is a bit irate with these reporters who keep pressing him about the brawl. Doesn’t anybody want to talk about his stint with Barnum and Bailey circus?
How about his boxing career? Fought 27 matches as a professional lightweight. Never knocked down, he says, proudly displaying a photo from a bout he fought when he was police chief in Asbestos from 1945 to 1958.
He loves to tell about the time during the bloody three-month Asbestos miners’ strike in 1949 when he collared a young firebrand intellectual named Pierre Trudeau who was inciting the strikers to fight the big multinational asbestos company. Bell told him to tone it down or he’d have to run him out of town.
Those medals on the wall are for bravery in saving two children from a fire in Sherbrooke in August, 1940.
“My police aren’t scared,” Bell says. “They know the dangers of being police officers. Morale is good.”
But the qualifications of many of the officers aren’t so good. The Quebec Police Commission did a study two years ago which showed seven of nine Mont Joli officers had not gone beyond Grade 10.
The police commission was also critical there was no firing range where police could practise their marksmanship. It noted that no Mont Joli police officer had fired his gun in the three-year period between 1975 and 1978.
Which might explain why one of Bell’s men shot him in the leg while aiming at the tire of a get-away car a few years ago.
But Bell has the town under control now. He has eliminated the motorcycle gangs, he says, which leaves just the “anti-police gang” which beat up his men and the “quiet gang” which sells drugs in the bars on Rue de LaGare.
“It’s the same in all towns in Quebec,” he says. “Why do the media do more stories on our problems?”
Anyway, his problems will be over next year when he retires and works full-time on his circus, Bell says.