By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Russell Simon didn't look like a thrice-convicted felon. With his gelled, spiked hair, hardy build, and cocksure cadence, he more closely resembled a high school football coach. On a slushy early spring day in 2002, his coal eyes peered at the 14 or so slack-jawed high schoolers assembled before him. There was no podium to lean on, no microphone or prop for his hands to fidget with. Perched on a three-foot-high stool, the tanned and toned 39-year-old was totally exposed—a fitting pose for a man whose emotional vulnerability and raw, candid delivery had made him one of the most dynamic anti-drug motivational speakers in the country.
For the next 30 minutes, the reformed ex-con dazzled the room with tales of slinging kilos of cocaine up from Miami and dealing it on the streets of Minneapolis, of busting a guy's forehead open with a pair of nunchucks, of shooting up a house with an AR-15 machine gun in a fruitless attempt to kill the thieves who had jacked his dope. He waxed poetic on his stint in prison where he slit a guy's throat with a 10-inch homemade blade.
He wasn't proud of it—no, sir—but that was life in the joint, man. He had no excuses to offer. Just a lifetime of regrets.
Also: See a letter Russell Simon wrote us from prison to accompany the story.
"Ten seconds can change your life forever," he told the class. "Either for good or bad. I made some messed-up decisions in my life. I tell you these stories because I don't want you guys going down the wrong path and end up like I did."
He then launched into a tale about smoking weed with his buddies on a trip to the zoo and how that one puff of a joint set off a chain of events that led to his eventual incarceration in a federal prison.
Thanks to his time behind bars, he said, he'd managed to turn his life around.
With 10 minutes left until lunchtime, he opened up the floor for questions. A hand shot up near the front. Simon called on a lanky kid sporting a crew cut.
"Don't you think treatment would be more effective in treating drug addicts?" the boy asked. "Because, uh, some studies have shown that it's more effective. And cheaper...than jail, I mean."
"Nah," dismissed Simon. "If we suddenly said, 'Hey, doing drugs is okay,' more people would start using 'em."
"But what about the Netherlands?" asked the student. "Since decriminalizing pot, their rate of marijuana use decreased and is actually lower than ours."
"We're not the Netherlands," Simon replied coldly. "We're much more diverse and need stricter laws."
Dejected and blushing, the student wilted in his desk.
The memory of this otherwise trivial exchange came roaring back to me in June when I came across a story that jolted me out of my chair.
"Motivational Speaker's Life a Mixed Message," read the headline. According to the article, Russell Simon was accused of smashing his friend's face with a small plaster statue of John Wayne, unloading a .380 handgun in the direction of his girlfriend and battered friend, and forcing his girlfriend to perform oral sex on him at gunpoint. What's more, his urinalysis tested positive for alcohol, THC, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
I read and reread the story three times, all the while thinking back to the first time I had met Simon, and that brief conversation. What, exactly, had happened to the man?
THE COLORS OF THE 12-INCH CLOSED-circuit monitor are smeared together like a wet pastel painting, but there's no mistaking the man. Two weeks before his August 4 trial date, Russell Simon sits in the Isanti County Jail, a phone receiver pressed snugly to his ear. From the other side of the wall, 10 feet away, he tells me he needs to get "the truth" out there, that the allegations printed in the newspapers amount to "propaganda."
"I didn't try to kill anybody," he blurts suddenly. "I didn't try to do anything funny to my girl. It's just not true."
When talk turns to his childhood, Simon hesitates.
"I don't really remember much of anything before the age of 15," he says. "But I do remember the violence. And being scared. My dad would run around outside shooting his gun. My brothers and sisters and I would run into the cornfield or hide under the truck. I'm sure there was some good times in there somewhere. But I don't remember."
The Simon family moved often, traversing small towns in central Minnesota from Shoreview to Montgomery, from Elk River to Zimmerman. All told, he lived in seven different locales before starting high school. Simon's father drove a truck while his mother stayed at home with him and his seven younger siblings. The fridge usually lay barren, says Simon, save for milk, cheese, and meat. Summertime back-to-school shopping consisted of sifting through garage sales searching for the appropriate sizes.
For a man who remembers little from his childhood, he's well versed in the gory details. During his lectures, he would often launch into savagely colorful anecdotes about his youth. He'd speak of being beaten by his dad with a horsewhip or the buckle end of a belt, of his dad pinning his mom against the wall with a butcher knife to her throat as he and his siblings looked on crying, of once taking a flower vase and smashing it over his father's head to stop him from beating his mother.