By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
As the wife scrambled out the window, Simon and his associate battered the bedroom door as the husband used all his weight to keep it shut.
"Just leave us alone," the man begged, according to court documents. "What do you want?"
"You know what we want," replied Simon. "We want you to shut up about the stolen car!"
Also: See a letter Russell Simon wrote us from prison to accompany the story.
(During trial, the victim testified that his younger brother had been involved in a car theft with Simon and that Simon was seeking retribution for confronting him about it. There was no mention of any stolen drug stash.)
The man managed to escape out the window before his assailants penetrated the door. By this time, his wife had flagged down police officer Duane Svardal. The intruders had stolen $200 in cash and a brown leather jacket. They were nowhere to be found. About two weeks later, authorities arrested Simon and his companion at the Hopkins House Hotel.
The trial hadn't begun before Simon assaulted another victim. Out on $60,000 bail, Simon bashed Minnetonka resident John Steffes between the eyes with a pair of nunchucks in Minnetonka's McKenzie Park.
The police complaint offers no speculation as to his motive, though it notes that Simon demanded Steffes meet him at the park and that, when Steffes refused, Simon "threatened to kill Steffes and his parents and to burn their house down if Steffes failed to meet him."
This deviates sharply from Simon's account. He writes in his book that "[Steffes] was all whacked out on the stuff and tried to rob me. He put a knife to my throat."
On February 5, 1987, Simon was sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison. During his incarceration, he bounced between St. Cloud Reformatory and Oak Park Heights correctional facility in Stillwater.
In his book, Simon describes his initial shock. "After that cell door closed on me for the first time, I felt the aloneness and fear of isolation creep into my body like a violent wave crashing against the rocks of an ocean wall. Absolute helplessness. I didn't like it at all."
On July 1, 1990, during a ceremonial barbeque dinner in the St. Cloud Reformatory day room, Simon confronted a 42-year-old inmate named James Schell as the two returned their meal trays in the cafeteria. It's unclear what instigated the clash—Simon doesn't elaborate on the niceties in his book—but it ended when Simon produced a 10-inch homemade blade and sliced Schell in the face and throat. Schell would later tell the St. Cloud Times he was "drenched in blood." Simon was about to break a pool cue over Schell's head when guards finally restrained him.
Charged with attempted first-degree murder, Simon faced an additional 20 years in prison. He pleaded self-defense and was found not guilty. Soon, he'd be back on the streets.
ON DECEMBER 9, 1993, with $153.97 to his name, Simon, now 30, walked out of prison a free man. He picked up work at Plants and Things, a furniture store/gift shop in Anoka. In May 1994, a casual break-time chat with a teenage co-worker named Dave started him down the road to becoming a motivational speaker.
"He asked about my Theatre of Pain tattoo on my back," remembers Simon. "I told him about my life, about doing time. He didn't freak out or nothin'. He asked if I would come to his school and speak to his class. I said, 'Sure, why not.' I had never spoken to anyone before, but a voice said, 'Do it.'"
A week later, on May 24, Simon showed up at Jerry Sobieck's health class at St. Francis High School, about 40 minutes north of the metro. Wearing freshly pressed khakis and a dress shirt with no tie, Simon propped up an easel displaying two collages of photographs from his childhood and stint in prison. He had the 35 students enraptured from the very first line: "Hi, my name is Russ, and I am a dope fiend and a drunk."
He delivered his presentation to five different groups over five periods, improving steadily each hour.
"He was very much a natural," remembers Sobieck. "He could see through the students' smokescreens. The one thing I said to him was, 'You have a gift.'"
If Simon had a weakness, it was that he'd sometimes get lost in his own story. "Did I say that already?" he'd ask. Between periods, Sobieck handed Simon a stack of 5x7 note cards for him to put together an outline. By the fifth period, he had the story down cold. He bolstered the content with a blunt, no-frills candor that would become his trademark.
Impressed, Sobieck invited Simon back the following semester, and the following year. With each return, Simon appeared more poised, his presence even more commanding.
"He didn't bounce around so much," says Sobieck. "He developed a scope and sequence to his story, and he was more at ease in his movements."
Simon divulged more information with each appearance, and the story grew more and more compelling.
"He started to get really in-depth about his childhood," says Sobieck.
Simon's phone rang nearly constantly with requests for his appearance throughout the state. Word had gotten out. Simon obliged and began touring. Teachers and counselors noticed right away that the guy was a different breed of public speaker.