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Longtime St. Clair County Sheriff Dies At 81

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CAHOKIA, IL (KTVI)-- Condolences were "pouring in" Wednesday  for a legendary St. Louis area lawman, long-time St. Clair County Sheriff, Mearl Justus.  

Justus died Tuesday, one week after he resigned; 30 years after he was first elected.  

People remember him as both a "real character" and one, tough, cop.

He was high school dropout, who ended up with a master's degree.  Hell-bent on catching criminals, he rarely carried a gun because he said it felt bulky and tore up his clothes.  

After more than 20 years as police chief in Cahokia, he became sheriff in St. Clair County.

The sheriff he stayed.

'It`s hard to imagine, life without Mearl Justus,' said Congressman Jerry Costello, (D) Belleville, during a break from congressional meetings in Washington, Wednesday.

He said he attended the criminal justice program at then-Belleville Area College with Justus in the 1960`s.

'I`m going to miss him personally, his laughter, his jokes;  sometimes corny, sometimes off color, but he always had a joke and a smile on his face,' Costello said.  

He also always a bad guy to catch and an innovative way of doing it.

He made a splash with a converted armored car, he called the 'exterminator' in 2010. His idea was to park it, with its bullet-proof glass and surveillance cameras,  in front of drug houses;  as much for effect as gathering evidence.

'It`s not so much to make arrests as it is to get people`s attention that we in law enforcement don`t like what`s going on in front of this house or in this neighborhood,' Justus said at the time.  

He moved wanted posters from the post office to the men`s room after he saw newspapers posted above hotel urinals.

He even opened a bogus sneaker store once, he called 'Nabber Shoes',  to catch drug dealers.

'The 'Nabber Shoe' store, when he sent out notices for people to get free shoes,' St. Clair County Sheriff, Rick Watson, recalled smiling.  'They came in, they would check you out and then you would get arrested if you had a warrant on you.  It only worked one time, but it worked very well.'

He lived above the jail for most of his tenure, sold ads on patrol cars, and relentlessly pushed  sheriff`s auctions to squeeze every last dollar into crime fighting.

He mentored countless young police officers, including Watson, who joined the Cahokia Police Department, in 1979, when Justus was chief.  

Watson was approved as the new sheriff, Monday, the day before Justus died.

'Sheriff Mearl Justus, he was an innovator,' Watson said.  

Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn, released a statement saying, 'Mearl was a special person. He kept the residents of St. Clair county safe and made a major impact on law enforcement across the state.'

'People in law enforcement today learned from M earl  Justus and  Ithink he left his fingerprints on many law enforcement officials for many years to come in the area,' Costello said.

Justus been in poor health since having gall bladder removed a couple of months ago.  He was 81.  

Visitation is from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday and 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at Holy Family Church at in Cahokia. The funeral is also at the church, Saturday morning at 10.  There will be a live simulcast to the Cahokia Knights of Columbus Hall because of the overflow crowd expected.  Justus will be laid to rest at Valhalla Cemetery  in Belleville.

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