SOUDERTON — More than 46 years after starting his career as a police officer in Montgomery County, Souderton Borough Police Department Chief James P. Leary is retiring.
For the third time.
In September of 1974, he started with the Abington Township Police Department, where he served in various positions before retiring 30 years later as a lieutenant. From there he went to the neighboring Rockledge Borough Police Department where he was chief for five years before again retiring. The initial plan with the Souderton Borough Police Department was that he would be interim chief for two-and-a-half years, but his contract was later extended leading to a more than 10-year stay in the job from which he is now retiring, he said.
When asked if this will be his final retirement, Leary laughed.
"This is the third retirement and I promise you it's the last," he said.
So what will he be doing in retirement?
"I intend to do some work around the home. I intend to spend time playing golf. I intend to spend a lot of time with my four grandchildren, and I intend to take my family to Disneyworld," Leary said.
His wife, Martha, who died in July of 2019 of ALS, sometimes referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, was "remarkably patient" with the demands on his career, Leary said.
"She was the perfect wife for a chief of police. She couldn't have been a more supportive partner," he said.
"She agreed that we would live in Abington until I completed my career in Abington and Rockledge," Leary said, "and then I promised her that she could buy any home that she wanted and I would happily, happily move to that home."
Soon after he became chief in Souderton, they moved to a home in the borough that Martha fell in love with the first time they saw it and they immediately bought, Leary said. Other family members also live in Souderton or nearby, he said.
"Unfortunately, the house in which I now live is much, much too big for one person and so eventually I'll sell that house and probably move to a much smaller home," Leary said.
He expects to continue living in the area, though, he said.
Two particular cases come to mind during his time as Souderton's chief, Leary said.
One is the "horrific murder" of Skyler Kauffman in May of 2011.
The 9-year-old third grader at E. Merton Crouthamel Elementary School went outside her home to play and never came back. A task force of more than 125 officers responded to help with the search, then, after her body was found wrapped in a comforter in a trash bin, with maintaining the scene and completing the investigation, Leary said.
"That was a terrible, terrible atrocious crime, but within a few hours of that crime having been committed, we had the perpetrator in our cell," Leary said.
James Lee Troutman, who lived in the same apartment complex as Kauffman, pleaded guilty to the murder and other crimes and was sentenced to life in jail.
Kauffman's name was listed in absentia with the graduating members of Souderton Area High School's class of 2020.
In another case that shocked the community in December of 2014, Nicole Stone, of Lower Salford; her sister, brother-in-law and niece, Trisha, Aaron and 14-year-old Nina Flick, of Souderton; and Stone's mother and grandmother, Joanne Gilbert and Patricia Hill, of Lansdale, were killed at their homes in three separate attacks at each of their homes. Bradley Stone, Nicole Stone's ex-husband, killed all six before committing suicide the next day, investigators said.
Anthony Flick, at the time a student at Souderton Area High School and North Montco Technical Career Center, was also wounded in the Souderton attack in which his sister and parents were killed.
At the time, Leary was president of the Souderton-Telford Rotary Club, which spearheaded fundraising that brought in $341,000 for the four people — Flick and Stone's three children — left orphaned, Leary said.
"That money was placed in a very, very, very carefully worded trust so that those children will have many of their basic needs met for years to come," he said.
The murders were a low point of his career, but the response from the community was a high point, Leary said.
"To have seen an entire family slaughtered is surely horrific to witness, but to be a part of the team that helped those four orphans was clearly an enlightening experience," he said.
During his time as chief of the Souderton department, he has been privileged to work with several individuals and organizations, Leary said.
That includes elected officials such as Mayor John Reynolds, Souderton Borough Council President Brian Goshow and Souderton Borough Council Public Safety Committee Chair Julie Munden, as well as other council members, Leary said.
"I am really impressed with how they have been engaged, how they have stayed informed, how knowledgeable they are and how they consistently work with the best interests of Souderton Borough in their hearts and in their minds," he said.
He also noted Borough Manager Mike Coll, Public Works Director Steve Coll, Code Enforcement Officer Steve Toy and the borough office staff, as well as Perserverance Volunteer Fire Company and Souderton Community Ambulance.
The Souderton department has a mutual aid agreement with every police department in Montgomery County, but works most closely with two neighboring ones, he said.
"You always work with the police departments that are closest to you, and we work side by side, shoulder to shoulder, car to car, person to person, every day with the Telford Police Department and with the Franconia Police Department," Leary said. "As I leave my career, I can tell you, I'm going to very much miss that partnership."
It's also been a pleasure to work with the business people and service-oriented organizations, he said.
"They are the people who create the entrepreneurship, who create the business that allows our downtown to exist, that allows our tax base to be stable, that allows our employment to be excellent," along with providing support to the police department and the community, he said.
"Souderton is very much a faith-based community," Leary said. "The churches in our community add stability, they add support, and our churches offer faith, hope and charity, and I gotta tell you, Souderton is blessed to have them."
He also said he was privileged to serve with the Souderton Borough Police Department members.
"They are professional, they are dedicated, they're committed to serve and loyal to our community," Leary said. "These officers and staff are constantly seeking opportunities to keep our citizens safe and they are constantly seeking to support our efforts as a community-oriented police department."
Several community events are also generally held in Souderton, although not in 2020 because of the pandemic, Leary said.
One of the things he likes about the Community Night Out is that it epitomizes teamwork, he said.
All of the police department members play a part in the event, which is held in Souderton Community Park and features a display of public safety vehicles and personnel, car show, police dogs, armored vehicles, raffles, a dunk tank, food and a disc jockey, Leary said.
The event brings thousands of people to town and showcases the community, he said.
The emergency services vehicles and personnel taking part also shows something else, he said.
"It demonstrates just how strong our mutual aid and our partnerships are," Leary said.
Other events include parades and additional car shows, he said.
In 2018, when the first ecumenical religious service was held as part of a celebration weekend in the borough, five congregations took part and more than 700 people were in attendance, he said. In 2019, that grew to seven congregations and more than 800 in attendance, he said. Both years also included a food drive for Keystone Opportunity Center's food pantry that brought in a "huge quantity of food," and more than $3,000 in cash each year, he said.
"As a practicing Christian, this is one of the high points of my career," Leary said. "To be able to have our faith-based community unite with our general community and to have them unite so positively and so constructively is truly one of the highlights of my service here in Souderton."
The celebration weekend also includes the fireworks display in the park. Thousands of people, some in the park and some watching from nearby vantage points, come out for the fireworks which were started as part of the borough's 125th anniversary celebrations in 2012, Leary said.
The fireworks also celebrate his granddaughter Bella's birthday, he said.
Contributions from individuals, families and businesses fund the fireworks display, he said.
It's hard to encapsulate more than 10 years of work into a half hour interview, Leary said as a recent interview came to its close.
He said he's "very, very, very glad to be retiring," but "very, very sorry" to have his on-the-job relationships ending.
"It has been my privilege to serve," Leary said.