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(Updated 28/01/04)
63 years later, Navan’s only murder still intrigues
By Fred Sherwin
Orleans Online

It's been more than 60 years since the village of Navan experienced its one and only murder on June 20, 1940 and Eric Smith can still remember the circumstances of that early summer morning as if they happened only yesterday.

The original news report of Cst. Harold Dent’s shooting published in the Ottawa Citizen on June 20, 1940 quoted his dying words as ‘That foreigner shot me. I am done.’ File Photo

“I was working in the front yard with my father when the call came,” recalls Smith who was 19 years old at the time. “My mother came running out of the house yelling that Bill Heinz had just called saying that Harold Dent had been shot at the train station and asking whether or not we could see the guy that did it.”

Harold Dent was Cst. Harold Dent, an OPP officer who had been stationed in Rockland with a wife and six-week-old baby boy. Heinz was the station master. In those days the train station was located near the rail crossing on Smith Road. The Smith farm was on the west side of Milton Road just a stone’s throw away from the station.

As his mother was relaying the news from the train station, Smith and his father looked up to see a figure walking quickly through a field behind the station and moving in a southerly direction. Rather than follow the figure, Smith and his father drove over to the train station.

“We didn’t even get out of the car. As soon as we got there, Heinz came out waving his arms yelling at us to go get Dr. Irwin,” says Smith.

Smith and his father pulled out of the train station and started up the hill on Smith Road when they ran into the doctor who was already heading to the scene.

“Dad told the doctor that Harold had just been shot and we did a U-turn to go back down to the station,” says Smith.

By the time they got to the station, help had already arrived in the form of Allan Stringer, an OPP sergeant who just happened to be on holidays at the time.

“Stringer was married to one of the Findlay sisters who ran the telephone exchange out of their home in town. Apparently he had overheard some of the phone conversation and headed over to the station,” says Smith.

When Smith and his father walked into the waiting room with Dr. Irvine and Sgt. Stringer, Dent was being tended to on the floor by “Middi” Huneault and his wife Peggy who lived near the end of the railway platform. The popular constable had been shot twice, once in the abdomen and once in the arm.

“I can recall everything vividly. The doctor had Dent’s shirt open and you could see the mark where the bullet went in, but there was no blood,” says Smith.

It would come out at an inquest several weeks later, that the shooter was John Miki a 54-year-old Finn who had robbed a country club in Gatineau the night before. That morning he had taken the ferry across to Cumberland and started to walk toward Trim Road. At some point he was approached and questioned by Norman Edwards, a local farmer who would later become Reeve of Cumberland Township.

“He stopped Norman and asked how to get to the local train station. I guess Norman thought he was a little funny. Here was this stranger with a thick accent, carrying a large pack. You have to remember the war was going on at this time and people were suspicious of anything different,” says Smith.

Navan resident Eric Smith holds up a news clipping showing a photo of his father George Smith taken during the inquest into the 1940 murder of Cst. Harold Dent and subsequent shooting of his assailant. Fred Sherwin/Photo

After talking to Miki, Edwards immediately called Dent and alerted him to the suspicious stranger heading to the Navan train station. At about the same time Edlow Lancaster, who owned a feed store in Navan, picked Miki up on Trim Road and gave him a ride into town.

When Miki arrived at the train station shortly after 10 a.m. he bought a ticket for the 11:18 a.m. train to Montreal and sat on a bench in the waiting room. That’s where Dent found him when Miki pulled out a .45 automatic pistol and shot the OPP constable twice before fleeing out the door.

According to an Ottawa Citizen report of the incident published that evening, Dent told the station master's wife and their daughter Gladys that he had been shot by a “foreigner”.

“I am done. He shot me twice. He shot me through the stomach. That foreigner shot me,” the story reports Dent to have said as he lay dying.

While Smith doesn’t know what Dent said before he and his father arrived on the scene, he does remember what he told Sgt. Stringer.

“He said, ‘My gun’s under the bench. Go get him.’,” recalls Smith.

Stringer grabbed Dent’s standard issue .38 revolver and started after the assailant along with Smith’s father George.

“Stringer took off in the car with my dad and he told me to stick around at the station and wait for help coming from Ottawa. He wanted me to show them where they went,” says Smith.

What happened next was told to Smith by his father after the fact. Believing Miki was still heading south, Stringer and Smith’s father headed down Milton Road to see if they could spot him. About a mile down they saw him heading toward a wood thicket about 600 yards away known as Spears Bush.

“Stringer told my dad to just keep driving past the edge of the bush. About halfway down, he jumped out and told my dad to drive to the end to make sure Miki didn't slip out the other side and then he went into the bush,” recalls Smith.

Back at the train station, help had finally arrived.

“One of the officers said, ‘Who knows where they went.’ I said, ‘I did.’ Then he said, ‘Okay, come with me.’,” says Smith, who would later learn the officer’s name was Cst. Stoneman. “We drove down Milton and found my dad. When Stoneman asked him if anything happened, my dad said he had heard three shots. At that point the two of them headed into the bush and Stoneman asked me to take the cruiser back to the train station to get more help.”

Several minutes later, Smith returned with two police officers who had arrived from Ottawa. The three men walked into the bush where they eventually found Smith’s father, Cst. Stoneman, Sgt. Stringer and a dead John Miki. He had been shot once through the head.

What follows is the Ottawa Citizen account of the gun battle that had taken place between Stringer and Miki.

“Sgt. Stringer was one of the first on the scene and alone, went into the bush seeking the man who had murdered one of his best friends.

“With his friend’s gun ready for instant action, he searched the bush and when halfway through it sighted him. Apparently the slayer saw the officer at the same time and opened fire. The battle was short as it required only one shot to down the fugitive.”

A short while after Smith arrived on the scene with the two additional police officers, the doctor showed up.

“The one thing that sticks in my mind is the doctor broke a small branch off a tree and stuck it through the man’s head from temple to temple to show the path of the bullet,” says Smith who helped the other men carry Miki’s body out of the bush and onto the back of a waiting hydro truck.

“By then a lot of people had come down to see what was going on,” says Smith. “We drove back to the station in several cars and everyone was cheering on the side of the road.”

By the time the party returned to the train station Dent had already been pronounced dead as a result of internal bleeding caused by the stomach wound.

A coroner’s jury later found that Dent died as a result of gun shot wounds suffered at the hand of John Miki and that Stringer’s killing of Miki in Spears Bush was “justifiable homicide”. Stringer would later receive the King’s Medal for valour for his actions.

During the inquest it was also revealed that Miki had stolen four bottles of liquor, upwards of 300 packs of cigarettes, several boxes of cigars and $80 in cash from the Tecumseh Country Club in Gatineau the night before the shooting. The items were all found in the pack Miki had left behind in the train station.

In the months and years that followed, a number of questions arose over the number of shots that were fired in the bush and how Stringer was able to shoot Miki through his head from temple to temple from 30 feet away.
Smith remembers Stringer as being a crack shot.

“He used to get his wife to hold up a buttercup and he would shoot the top off,” recalls Smith.

In 1949, the circumstances surrounding Miki’s death were part of an inquest into allegations of improper conduct against a crown attorney and nine OPP officers including Sgt. Stringer.

Stringer’s accuser was Cst. Ernest Keays who was one of the officers present when Miki's body was brought back to the train station. At the time he was known as Cst. Ernest Soubliére. (He changed his name in the intervening years.)

Keays believed that Miki had shot himself in the head and that Stringer had taken credit for an act he did not carry out. His theory was based on information that only one chamber in the revolver Stringer had borrowed from Dent had been fired.

During the inquiry Stringer testified that he had fired three shots in his duel with Miki, the first one having found its mark and the other two were fired after the assailant had already fallen dead. Only one chamber was powdered, he said, because he had reloaded after each shot.

There are those who might still question the validity of Stringer’s account of what took place. For one thing, Smith still remembers his father telling Cst. Stoneman that he had only heard three shots that day. For another, it’s rare that in a gun battle a police officer or anyone else would take the time to reload after every shot, especially if the assailant had already been killed by the first shot.

Finally, despite the fact that Stringer was a crack shot, it's a stretch to believe that he could shoot Miki through the side of the head from 30 feet in thick bush.

At the time of the shooting and during the inquest that followed on July 9, 1940, Stringer was hailed as a hero. He was also married to a member of a prominent local family. It didn't occur to anyone that his account of what happened in Spears Bush may not have been entirely accurate.

The existence of conflicting reports does not help either. For instance, according to the evidence and Stringer’s testimony, Miki fired six shots, three in the train station and three in the bush. But in a report filed by Keays, he states that 10 rounds were found in the gun recovered from the dead assailant – nine in the magazine and one in the chamber.

The gun was of the type and model that could only hold a maximum of 11 shells – 10 in the magazine and one in the chamber, which would mean that Miki only fired one shot during the entire incident. Stringer’s explanation is that Miki must have reloaded while he was trying to make his escape.

Even if Stringer’s theory was true, it would still mean that Miki only fired one shot during the gun battle in the bush and not three shots as Stringer had claimed, lending credence to George Smith’s claim that he only heard three shots.

The other problem in trying to figure out what happen is the fact that there was never a clear accounting of the number of shots fired. Incredibly, separate reports filed by OPP Insp. Thomas Cousans and a Deputy Commissioner McCready in the aftermath of the incident failed to account for any shells from either Miki's gun or the weapon Stringer had borrowed from Dent.

Sixty-three years later, Eric Smith doesn’t much care how many shots were fired or by whom. The important thing he says, is that Dent’s assailant met justice.

“It doesn’t matter to me. I never really thought about it. I just thought it was neat that Miki was killed by the gun of the man he himself had killed,” says Smith.

Keays’ theories were never substantiated and he was drummed out of the provincial police force shortly after the inquiry in 1949 cleared the accused of all charges.

Sgt. James Allan Stringer remained in the OPP until he retired. He later died in 1967 at the age of 66.

The Cumberland Township Historical Society is hoping to turn the story of Cst. Harold Dent’s murder and the subsequent shooting of John Miki by Sgt. Stringer into an on-line exhibit to be part of the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Community Memories Program.

An outline of the proposed exhibit has already been submitted to the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). If it is selected for the Community Memories Program, the Historical Society will receive a $5,000 bursary to aid in the develop.m.ent of the actual exhibit using text, pictures and audio interviews with people who have first or second-hand knowledge of the event.

The Society is hoping to hear from CHIN within the next several weeks.

(This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our local business partners.)

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