Crown Attorney Tim Power will never forget the late police officer Ian Matthews — especially because of a morning outside the courthouse in downtown Hamilton, some years ago.

Matthews was outside having a smoke when Power said hello and asked him if he was part of a trial that day.

He wasn’t. Matthews was waiting for a convicted man to be sentenced so he could drive him to prison. The man had specifically asked for the Hamilton officer to be the one to help him make that trek to the Kingston Penitentiary.

“That was the kind of guy he was,” Power told CBC Hamilton. “Even the people he investigated and charged came to respect him.”

'Ian was unbelievable. I used to introduce him as the Wayne Gretzky of investigators.'— Ken Bond, retired police superintendent

Matthews shot himself at Hamilton police headquarters just after 1 p.m. Tuesday. The former staff sergeant died in hospital at about 10 p.m. that night, roughly nine hours later.

Halton Regional Police have been brought in to conduct a non-criminal investigation into the incident, which Hamilton police are calling a "sudden death."

The death of a well-respected Hamilton police officer has shocked law enforcement officials all over the city.

“The whole thing is really incomprehensible,” Power said. “I know it’s a cliché, but nobody saw this coming. He was a happy, positive soul.”

“Everyone over here at the office is just so saddened.”

A relentless pursuit of the truth

Matthews was a 25-year veteran of the Hamilton Police Service who came to Hamilton from Ireland, where he was also a police officer. He worked on a host of serious and complex cases with the service and was the initial leader of the innovative and pioneering BEAR (break and enter, auto theft and robbery) unit. Matthews had an extended stint in the homicide and major crimes unit and at the time of his death was the Central D Squad staff sergeant.  

He had worked on the Michael Swistak killing, the case of 36-year-old man who was gunned down in the playground near Cathy Wever Elementary School in 2012. He investigated the death of Noah Keizer, the two-year-old who was murdered in Hamilton the same year.

Book of condolence

In remembrance of Staff Sgt. Ian Matthews, a book of condolence has been opened by the Hamilton Police Service at Central Police Station, 155 King William St., for police officers and members of the public to sign. 

The book will be available until 10 p.m. on Dec. 20 and will then be given to the family of Matthews.

Matthews was also part of the team that tracked down Brandon Musgrave’s killers after the 18-year-old was shot at a party in 2010.

Power said Matthews was such a fixture for so many cases in Hamilton that it’s almost impossible to pin down highlights from his extensive body of work.

Ken Bond, a retired police superintendent with Hamilton police, worked with Matthews for 25 years. “Ian was unbelievable. I used to introduce him as the Wayne Gretzky of investigators,” he said.

Matthews and Bond were two of the initial investigators who helped form the BEAR unit, which was created because of Hamilton’s lacklustre break-in arrest record in 2000. It took an innovative approach of targeted enforcement and pursuit of criminals. 

At the time, Hamilton had about 5,000 break-ins a year and another 5,000 or so car thefts, Bond said. Those numbers were quickly halved, in large part because of Matthew’s tireless efforts. In 2000, he had a 100 per cent conviction rate for bank robberies, something that’s “unheard of in that field,” Bond said.

“The thing that struck me about Ian was his relentless pursuit of the truth,” Power said. “He would go above the call of duty many, many times.”

A commitment to truth

Retired police chief Brian Mullen told CBC News in Hamilton that Matthews was an exceptional police officer beloved by nearly everyone. “He was steadfast in his commitment to ascertaining the truth,” he said. “He was the type of guy that if you did something wrong, you didn’t want him to be your investigator.”

In many ways, the BEAR unit approach was the first of its kind, and many police forces across the country used it as a model. As one of the first leaders of the unit, Matthews was instrumental in its success, Mullen says.

“We were forging new ground at the time, and it was almost an instant decision that he should lead the unit,” he said.

Ward 8 Coun. Terry Whitehead told CBC News that he’d known Matthews for years and felt shock, anguish and disappointment when he heard his friend was dead.

“There’s too many words to describe this individual in terms of what he brought to the table, not just to police services but what he brought as a human being,” Whitehead said. “He had a larger than life ability to talk about his experience."

Matthews genuinely related to people of all walks of life, Power said.

“I was always amazed by how much compassion he would show to homicide victims’ families,” Power said. “He just related to people very well. It was an innate gift.”

Turning on the charm

Matthews’s thick Irish accent belied a charm that was also used to obtain confessions, Bond said. “If you saw him in an interview, he’d swear as much as they would, but they’d talk to him,” he laughed. Matthews once had to bring a suspect back to Hamilton from Western Canada, Bond said, and by the time the plane landed, he had a taped confession in hand.

“He respected them and he could turn on the charm at any time,” he said.

Ron Hazell told CBC News that Matthews was one of the only officers he’d ever seen who could bridge the gap between private security and police. Hazell runs Blue Knight Security and worked with Matthews when he was in the BEAR unit.

The death hit him hard. “It stopped me in my tracks,” he said from his home in Florida. “I’m one off from tears.”

Hazell said he’ll never forget the officer that treated him and his men as equals, even though private security and law enforcement often find themselves at odds.

“He was a common bridge. He had this infectious smile,” Hazell said. “You were mesmerized by the accent. We’re just so sad in shock.”

“He was remarkable. I’ve never met anyone like him.”