The man who served as St. Clair County's sheriff for more than 30 years and in law enforcement for nearly 60 years died Tuesday afternoon.
Mearl Justus, 81, died sometime between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Tuesday, said St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson who received word from Justus' family.
"This is a very difficult day for me and the members of the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department. Mearl Justus was a good and fair man. He will be missed," Watson said.
Watson was hired by Justus to work at the Cahokia Police Department in 1979 and Watson considered Justus to be his mentor.
Justus' death occurred one week after he retired as sheriff and a day after the County Board chose Watson to fill the remaining two years of Justus' term. Justus stepped down after a prolonged recovery from gall bladder surgery.
Justus, who was first elected in 1982, served eight terms as sheriff. In a 2009 interview with the News-Democrat, Justus said, "I don't judge people by their age. I judge them by their actions."
Highlights of his career include:
* Began his career in law enforcement in 1953 as a part-time police officer in Cahokia, where he later spent 22 years as police chief before being elected St. Clair County sheriff.
* Served on the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis since it was founded in 1965 and served as the squad's chairman of the board. He also served as president of the Illinois Sheriff's Association.
* He did not finish high school, but obtained his GED. He later earned an associate's degree in criminal justice from what now is Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville and a bachelor's degree in justice administration from Western Illinois University in Macomb. He also attended the FBI National Academy, St. Louis Police Academy and the National Sheriff's Institute in Quantico, Va.
Justus was known for his unusual tactics. He sold ads on his patrol cars to help fund education programs, and he caught fugitives by getting them to respond to bogus notices that they'd won free sneakers. He also wore quirky neckties.
Justus was an advocate for expanding the St. Clair County Jail, which was built in 1970. He championed expansion of the jail in 1993 and again sought another expansion recently. He posted the number of occupants on a sign outside the jail that was updated every day.
In 1998, the Illinois Department of Corrections issued a report saying the jail was overcrowded and that there was not enough staff. In a 2006 interview, Justus called the jail "largely obsolete."
Justus, who was raised by his grandparents, is survived by his wife, Audrey, and three adult stepchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
"We are all saddened by the passing of our Sheriff Mearl Justus. He served our law enforcement community for 60 years," said St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern. "He will forever be known as a lion in St. Clair County."
In a released statement, U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello said Justus was "known throughout the area, state and country in law enforcement circles as a consummate professional and a cop's cop.
"In addition to doing an outstanding job for the people of our area, Mearl was a personal friend," Costello said. "His contributions, leadership and legacy will be remembered for many years to come."
Belleville Police Chief William Clay said his department and the Sheriff's Department worked cooperatively on several projects such as the drug tactical unit and the emergency response team. Justus acted as a source of support and advice, Clay said.
"I'm shocked and in grief," Clay said. "He always supported me in my career. He was always a friend. He was always a mentor. And he will be missed terribly."
Washington Park Police Chief Dave Clark, who previously worked for the Sheriff's Department, choked back emotion as he described being taught and counseled by Justus during a 24-year period.
"There wouldn't be a Dave Clark without Mearl Justus," he said.
For 27 years, JoAnn Reed worked as a clerk in the Sheriff's Department.
"He was more than a boss, he was a true friend," said Reed, who is also the Alorton village clerk. "This is a sad day because St. Clair County has lost a good servant."
Information for this story was provided by reporters Carolyn P. Smith, Beth Hundsdorfer and Jamie Forsythe.