They call him Supercop, but Cleveland Police Officer Jim Simone doesn't look much like an action figure. He appears the way movie stars do in person -- shorter and more vulnerable. Though he's still physically fit, at 54 he's more like aging fitness guru Jack LaLanne than Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Today, he is speaking to about 70 police academy recruits. In the back of the room, two whirring industrial fans circulate stale air. It feels like the last class on the day before summer vacation, but Simone instantly commands the students' attention.
"I am not Officer Friendly," he barks. "I catch you sleeping, you're gonna have a major fucking problem to deal with."
The recruits sit up a little straighter.
"Some of you people are going to die on this job," he says. "Every academy class gives us one. You look at my face. You see a big dimple in my face? Some asshole shot me in the face."
His tone softens when he slides in a video of a recent DUI arrest. He's like a star running back watching last Sunday's game tape. The video shows a suspect kicking Simone in the balls. He winces for the crowd and says, "It's a good thing my kids are grown."
When it's time for him to go, he turns dead serious again. He looks at the sea of fresh faces who will join him on the front lines. "No matter how bad it is, no matter how horrendous, you can bet I'm coming for you," he says. "But the flip side of the coin is, if I'm hurt, you better come for me."
Simone's bravado has made him a legend. He has appeared on Good Morning America, Eye to Eye With Connie Chung, and Top Cops. A karaoke singer at the Country Club Lounge croons about him Tuesday nights. Seemingly everyone at the Justice Center has a Jim Simone story to tell. "He's probably the most known police officer in our entire region," says Cleveland Municipal Judge Sean Gallagher.
Critics grouse that he's a glory hound, that he sacrifices good judgment to ratchet up arrests. Even his friends say there's little room for moral relativism in Simone's world. "Jim tends to break the world up into black and white, with the gray zone being more narrow than perhaps other people might make it," says Thomas Evans, a psychology professor at John Carroll University and longtime friend of Simone's.
But whatever one thinks of Jim Simone, it's hard to argue with his perseverance. He has been punched, kicked, stabbed, run over, crashed into, and shot. Yet he refuses to give up his squad car for a desk. He rises at 6:30 each morning. Between court appearances, patrol, and preparing for the next day's work, he sometimes doesn't get back to bed until 3 a.m. If the lack of sleep bothers him, it doesn't show.
"One day, you're going to be dead forever," he says. "You're going to sleep for a long time. The object is to keep your eyes open as long as possible."
Simone grew up in turbulent times, when young men across America were weighing the word "duty." It was the middle of the Vietnam War, and Simone's older brother had already joined the Army. So when Simone graduated from Lakewood High School in 1966, there was no question he would enlist. "The word 'Canada' was never spoken in my house," he says.
He went to Army paratrooper school and before long found himself wading through the jungles of Vietnam. He remembers a captain who stepped on a land mine that blew off his legs and one arm. The man begged Simone to find his missing arm, so he could retrieve his watch and wedding ring.
Near the end of his tour, Simone almost died. He had just told a medic to treat an injured soldier when a rocket-propelled grenade landed in back of them. The medic saved Simone's life at the cost of his own: He absorbed the brunt of the blast and was cut to shreds. Simone caught a piece of shrapnel in his throat.
A helicopter airlifted him to safety, and he was transferred to a series of hospitals, ultimately landing in the States. One night after midnight, he ended up on his mother's doorstep. "And I got down and I kissed my mother's feet," Simone says. "And I was crying."
By the time he left the Army in 1969, Simone already knew he wanted to be a cop. There was just one problem: He was too short. At 5 foot 7, he missed minimum height by an inch. But the admissions officer must have been impressed by Simone's close-cropped hair and business suit. He measured him, winked, and said, "You're 5 foot 8. Move on, son."
When Simone embarked on his new career, he was a hopeless idealist. He planned to "fight crime [and] suppress evil, for truth, justice, and the American way." His hope for a hero's welcome soured a week into the job. "We were driving off on Superior, and some kid called me a pig," Simone says. "I was astounded. 'Hey, you don't know me! I'm here to help you.'"
After almost 30 years, anti-cop sentiment no longer surprises him. He wears a fire department cap around the Justice Center, joking that "everybody likes firemen."
Early in his career, Simone distinguished himself by racking up remarkable stats. During a 14-month period in the early 1980s, his misdemeanor arrest rate was 600 percent above the platoon average. He made 550 percent more felony arrests, 800 percent more moving citations, and 900 percent more parking tickets.
Yet numbers don't tell the whole story. Simone had a knack for putting himself in danger. "He was always good at that, disregarding his personal safety and jumping in," says Commander Andres Gonzalez, his former partner.
In October 1977, Simone found himself on the roof of a West Side apartment building, facing a barefoot, shaggy-haired man who had shot at police. The man grew increasingly agitated and said, "You'll never take me alive," according to a witness. Then he raised his pistol.
Simone fired his shotgun first, killing the man. "I went over to the side of the roof and I vomited," Simone says. "I was so physically distraught."
In May 1980, police cornered an arson suspect who had squirmed through a one-foot-wide hole and hidden in a crawlspace under his home. Simone realized only one officer -- a small one -- could fit. He subdued the suspect and brought him out in handcuffs. "I feel that [Officer] Simone should be commended for his devotion to duty, his bravery in going into a closed area after a known felon who might have been armed," Lieutenant Joseph Cullen wrote in a memo.
Four months later, Simone arrived at a house fire. He could have waited for firefighters to arrive -- "They don't go to gun battles, I don't go to fires," he quips -- but five years earlier, his mother had died in a blaze. He kicked in the door and charged into the burning building. The house was empty, but as Simone groped for the exit, he became confused and passed out from smoke inhalation.
He awoke in the hospital, another officer having dragged him to safety. The next day, he was back in action, arresting a man who reportedly shot at his wife. "Policeman, saved from fire, recovers to arrest gunman," the headline read.
Simone's heroics earned him Patrolman of the Year. The following year, he was given the Valor Award from the Ohio Union of Patrolmen and the Rotary Club's gold medal for heroism.
The awards were nice, but Simone wanted to spread his name on the streets. He and his partner, David Sumskis, fancied themselves a dynamic duo and went by the name "Crime Catchers Inc." They had pens printed with their name and the slogan "You never get away from 213A" -- a reference to their patrol car number. When they handed out tickets, they told recipients, "Keep the pen."
Yet it was a random traffic stop that vaulted Simone to stardom. James Neff, a Plain Dealer reporter, got pulled over by Patrolman Ronald Tomasch. "You heard of Jimmy Simone, the No. 1 cop?" Tomasch asked. "Well, I'm No. 2 behind him in arrests. I need every one I can get."
Intrigued, Neff made Simone the subject of a flattering profile. While reporting the piece, Neff accompanied Simone to the Second District station on Fulton Road, where fellow officers good-naturedly ribbed him.
"It's Supercop," one said.
"Lookit -- T.J. Simone."
"Hey, top cop in the West."
The legend was born.
On a rainy November morning in 1983, Simone descended into a church basement in search of an armed robber. The room was decorated with cutout Thanksgiving turkeys and appeared empty, but there was a closet that needed checking. Backed by Patrolmen John Thomas and Brian Miller, Simone knelt down and turned the doorknob.
Suddenly, the door flew open. "The first thing I remember was the gun coming out of the darkness and the barrel of the gun just touching my face," Simone says.
The bullet tore through his cheekbone, ripped through the inside of his face, and blew out under his left ear. He collapsed in pain, his face spurting blood. Thomas and Miller ran for cover, but were each shot. Then the suspect fired twice more at Simone, missing each time.
"I reared back off the floor like a coiled snake and put the gun in front of me and started firing," says Simone, who owns a gift for dramatic storytelling. He fired five times, though he didn't know whether he hit the man. Simone crawled out of the room to reload.
Lieutenant Gregory Baeppler charged into the basement and dragged Simone to safety. "Jimmy was passing in and out of consciousness," says Baeppler. "I'll always remember he wanted me to tell his daughters what happened down there. And I didn't want to do that duty, so I told him he was going to do it himself."
Sure enough, Simone was the first of the injured officers to check out of the hospital. The suspect wasn't so fortunate. Mennis Workman, the 31-year-old owner of a failing body shop, was pronounced dead from a chest wound. One of Simone's bullets had found its mark.
At home, Simone endured a painful recovery. Three times a day, he held his head over a sink as girlfriend Lynne Stachowiak poured peroxide into his gaping wound. Most men would take getting shot in the face as a sign to pursue less violent work. Simone was determined to remain a cop.
"I lied to Lynne," he says. "I promised her that would be it. Then I got better. And I went, 'Well, maybe I could do something . . . The better I got, the more stubborn I became."
Within eight weeks, he rejoined the force, albeit not actively. He spent three months in the gym, working out and answering questions from a psychiatrist, before being approved for duty. Even then, his superiors didn't want him back on his beat, where he had racked up more than his share of shootings. He agreed to transfer to homicide, where he had worked several years earlier.
Despite the drama implicit in the name, homicide isn't the most action-oriented police work. Detectives have been known to forget their guns in the office, because they so often show up after the bad guys have left. Yet Simone wasn't going to let other officers have all the fun. "When I was in homicide, if I got an arrest warrant, I served it," he says.
One year after the church shooting, he found himself searching for another suspect and confronted by another closet door. "I was looking at that closet door like it was molten steel; if I put my hand on it, I was going to get burned," Simone says. Yet if he couldn't open it, he would have to resign.
He summoned his courage, took a deep breath, and threw it open. The closet was empty.
"But I had passed that point," Simone says. "And it was on to being 'All right, let's go get 'em!'"
Simone sits in his quaint, well-lit dining room at his house in Sheffield Village, flipping through photos of dead bodies.
One shows a bloated, naked corpse with a pool cue stuck through it. "140th and Lorain. It's like eight o'clock at night. He's robbed, stripped naked, and murdered," Simone says.
Another shows a body rotting on a bed, surrounded by small black specks. "The rats ate him," Simone says. "You look on the bed, this is all rat droppings. They were eating the soft flesh off him."
A third looks like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. "That's what three days in the water will do to you," Simone says. "Like a fish, huh?"
They're photos from his homicide cases. He's saving the pictures for when he finally writes his memoirs. Then again, he's always brought home work. Stachowiak remembers him waking in the middle of the night, convinced he'd found a clue in his dreams. "He would keep a pen by the side of the bed," she says. "He'd think of how he could check something to pin the murder to who he thought it was."
Asked to name his biggest case, Simone says they were all big. "Somebody died. Somebody's momma is crying." But one of the most personal was the 1985 murder of Luis Gonzalez, the brother of Andres Gonzalez, Simone's former partner.
Luis was shot in the back during a fight over a woman at the corner of Fulton Road and Bridge Avenue. Police suspected a Cuban émigré named Juan Cordova, but had little to go on except a photo of him with another woman. Andres remembers Simone working seven days straight, stealing catnaps when he could.
After getting a tip that Cordova was in Boardman, about 80 miles southeast of Cleveland, Simone went from hotel to hotel, showing the photo to clerks. Most shrugged, but one recognized the woman. Simone searched her vacated room and found a schedule for a bus bound for Florida.
Police ordered the bus stopped in North Carolina. They found Cordova, who later pleaded guilty to murder. "I can sit here and tell you today that the reason that case was solved was because Jimmy was on that case," says Andres Gonzalez.
Simone didn't get to bask in his victory. He fell into a deep sleep and the next morning never really woke up. For two days, he suffered the shakes. Finally, Stachowiak convinced him to go to the hospital.
Doctors diagnosed him with hepatitis. Simone says he must have been infected by fluids from a dead body. It took him six weeks to recover.
"That was it," says Stachowiak. "We never let him go back to homicide."
Simone went back to patrolling the Second District. It wasn't as prestigious as homicide, but he took to it with his trademark zeal. For a while, he managed to avoid injury. Then came the day in 1988 when he pulled over a DUI suspect in Tremont.
As Simone was loading the suspect into the backseat of the patrol car, he sensed something was wrong. He glanced up and saw a car barreling at him. As he turned to dive away, it plowed into him. "As soon as he hit me, I knew he broke my leg," Simone says.
The break was so bad, doctors told him he might never walk again. He remembers thinking, "Fuck you. Who are you to tell me that?" He had trained for a marathon that year. Now he would need to train to fetch a soda from the fridge.
He hit the gym as soon as the cast came off. "I had to go back and start working out like a maniac," he says. But simply getting his old job back wouldn't be enough, he decided. He wanted to prove he could make SWAT, the most physically demanding job on the force.
Fellow officers greeted his announcement with skepticism. To make the team, he would have to run three miles in less than 18 minutes and do enough sit-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups to make an iron man puke. And the 40-year-old Simone would be competing against officers in their 20s and 30s. Colleagues joked that he was having a midlife crisis.
The ribbing did nothing to deter him. "If you tell Jimmy he can't do something, he'll do whatever it takes to prove you wrong," says Andres Gonzalez.
Simone passed the tryout, but soon tired of the work. There was too much downtime, too much waiting for a beeper to go off. "I'm the classic type A personality," Simone says. He quit and went back to the Second District.
At first glance, Simone's career arc looks like that of a man of limited ability. Today, he's doing essentially the same job he did 30 years ago. But his bosses know that's by choice.
"He's had an opportunity to be promoted," says Second District Commander Hector Cuevas. "He could very well be a sergeant, which he turned down several times. He might even be a lieutenant or a captain. He's one example of a man -- of officers -- who find their niche, grow to love their duties in that particular position, and want to do nothing but that. And that's OK."
The national media discovered Supercop in the late 1980s. It all started with Good Morning America. Reporter David Hartman was traveling the country doing ride-alongs with cops. Cleveland brass referred him to Simone. Hartman was so impressed, he put Simone on back-to-back shows and paid $3,500 to option his life story for a possible movie. The contract included provisions for a spin-off television show and action figures, but a script never materialized.
Next was an episode of Top Cops re-creating the church shooting. Simone consulted on the filming and had the eerie experience of watching himself getting shot in the face over and over again.
Then came Eye to Eye With Connie Chung. As part of a feature on people who drive without a license, the show visited Ohio, where an unlicensed teenage driver had recently killed five Amish children. Simone's charisma and outsized traffic stats ensured he'd be prominently featured.
There was even talk of a book. Robert Becker, a former Plain Dealer reporter, envisioned an as-told-to thriller titled Night Patrol: The Life of a Cop, which would explore "the ethical and moral decisions that must guide police work." But it got only as far as a 19-page proposal.
The spotlight was so focused on Simone, other officers sometimes felt excluded. Andres Gonzalez made a hobby of clipping newspaper articles containing lines like "Patrol Officer Simone and his partner," because the press so often failed to mention Gonzalez's name.
But just as Simone's fame was rising, the mayor stopped the presses. "Hero cop" headlines became a casualty of Michael White's increasingly fractious relationship with the police department, Simone says. "We were muzzled. We couldn't talk to anybody about anything. There was no public recognition for any police officer."
At about that time, Simone took the decidedly unglamorous job of head traffic cop in the Second District. "It's hard being a traffic policeman," says Baeppler. "It's parallel to being a dentist, 'cause nobody wants to see you." Yet Simone performed his duty as if national security depended on it. "How did Timothy McVeigh get caught, the most horrific killer in our history?" he asks. Answer: a routine traffic stop.
Simone tricked out his squad car with so many cameras and microphones that there's no room for a passenger in the front seat. Taping his arrests helps him with convictions in court, but it also provides him material for his highlight reel.
In his first year as head traffic cop, Simone racked up more DUI arrests than any cop in the city, winning an award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It's a prize he's claimed annually ever since.
Simone never had much sympathy for drunk drivers, but if he needed extra motivation, a drunk gave it to him one night in December 1998. He was running radar on the shoulder of I-90 West when he got a mysterious reading. It said a car was speeding at 78 miles per hour, though Simone couldn't see the car. Then he glanced in the rearview mirror. A car with its headlights off was heading right at him.
The impact crushed Simone's squad car like an aluminum can. When he tried to extricate himself from the wreckage, he couldn't lift himself from the seat. "I had no feeling below the waist."
Emergency rescue personnel peeled back the car's roof and rushed him to the hospital. There, he learned the man who hit him was intoxicated. "Now I'm really fucking pissed," Simone says. "I mean, shithead didn't fall asleep. He's drunk. This guy's crippled me."
Early the next morning, Simone felt a tingle in his toes -- his first sign that he would be able to walk again. He checked out of the hospital and went home to recover.
By all rights, his career should have ended that night. He already had enough years to retire with a pension. But he wasn't going to let a drunk take him out of the game, he says. "I want to leave on my own terms."
On a Sunday in April, Simone walks to the front of the Old Stone Church on Public Square and receives his annual DUI award from MADD. "Last time I was at a church, somebody shot me," he jokes. He accepts the award with his left hand; the right is still swollen from breaking a suspect's nose two nights earlier.
After Simone returns to his pew, another officer taps him on the shoulder. "Hi, I'm Steve Paulick, from Westlake," the man says. "I've heard about you. You're a dynamo, from what I hear."
"An old dynamo," Simone responds.
Simone knows the odds are increasingly against him. In his first year on the force, most of the suspects he arrested were between 18 and 25, "because that's when you're stupidest," he says. Today, the suspects are the same age, but he's 30 years older. He has survived knives, bullets, and car crashes, but he won't be able to beat old age.
"When you're 25 years old, you can do anything," he says. "You're invincible. When you're 54 years old and you've had a lot of broken bones, a lot of gunshot wounds, a lot of injuries -- sometimes in the morning, on those cold damn mornings, you really can't get out of bed.
"I hurt a lot. My back hurts sometimes. My legs hurt. My hands hurt. I've broken every bone in both hands. Over the years, arthritis sets in. You don't move as quickly . . ."
He pauses, as if realizing such whining isn't befitting Supercop. Then he fixes a reporter with the Simone Stare, his brown eyes like tractor beams. "But I can still catch you."