His pitch to kids was nothing they hadn't already heard from parents, cops or counselors: Stay off drugs. Abstain from sex. Hit the books. Don't buckle to peer pressure.
But as a felon and former drug user who appeared to have cleaned up his life by becoming a motivational speaker, Russell Simon Jr. had the credibility and tough-talking demeanor that grabbed the attention of thousands of teenagers across the country.
"Ten seconds can change your life forever" was his message. A few thousand dollars was his typical speaking fee.
"He was just no-holds barred," said Marilyn Hupfeld, a former high school counselor who once booked Simon for a speaking engagement in Dike, Iowa. "He was just very vivid and very factual about his life experiences and that was what made him dynamic. That's what made him believable."
Now, in the aftermath of a night of alleged drinking, drug use, gunplay and forced sex last month at a home near Cambridge, Minn., authorities are wondering if it wasn't all just a con.
Simon, 45, sits in the Isanti County jail on charges of attempted murder, sexual assault and wielding a dangerous weapon May 15 at a house he shared with a girlfriend. Authorities said lab tests showed that he had cocaine, methamphetamine and THC in his system that night.
"Obviously, he didn't practice what he was [preaching]," said Chris Janssen, an investigator with the Isanti County Sheriff's Office.
Investigators say that in the weeks since Simon's arrest, several people have told them that Simon had fallen on hard financial times and tried to keep going by taking advantage of women, some of whom he met through personal ads on the Internet.
After boasting of his motivational work to win their trust, he'd manipulate them for money and sex.
Janssen said that one man who met Simon while the two were in prison told him that Simon also sometimes used alcohol and drugs during his years as a public speaker. When Simon once suggested the two men team up on speeches, the friend told him they couldn't because they were both using drugs. Simon allegedly replied, "That's OK, we just won't use them that day," Janssen said, recalling the man's account.
"Whether he believed in what he was saying or not, I don't know," Isanti County Attorney Jeff Edblad said of Simon's motivational work. "But his behavior is very different from what's on his website."
A troubled past
Simon, a high school dropout who lived in Roseville prior to moving to the Cambridge area in the last year, did not return a call to the jail to discuss his case.
His attorney and a former wife also didn't return calls.
Simon's recent troubles are the latest in a history of criminal activity dating back 25 years.
He was convicted of felony burglary in Sherburne County in 1982 and over the next decade, picked up felony convictions for theft, aggravated forgery, assault and burglary in several metro counties. He once served time in prison, where he was charged and later acquitted of attempted murder.
Twice since 1994, he was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault. Court records also show that in 2000, his first wife went to court to obtain a protection order after he threatened to kill her. In 2004, his second wife did the same after he choked her and dragged her by her hair down the stairs.
Wendy Wild, a school social worker in the Twin Cities who has known Simon for about a dozen years and who booked him for motivational talks, said he never held steady work, toiling instead at low-paying jobs after his release from prison in 1993. But she said he was later fired for not disclosing his criminal record. In 1994, he turned to public speaking.
According to his website, www.russellsimon.com, Simon traveled coast to coast delivering speeches to thousands of students. He even wrote two books, one of which documented a deeply troubled life story.
"He was very charismatic," Wild said. "To speak to him, you'd never know there were these demons. And it was just spellbinding for the kids. He just had them hooked."
Beth Thompson, a high school counselor in Reinbeck, Iowa, who hired Simon to speak at her school eight years ago, described him as "a rough-around-the-edges-type of guy. But he spoke from the heart. He seemed sincere."
Hupfeld, the school counselor in Dike, Iowa, agreed.
"When dealing with teenagers, the 'what ifs' don't have much clout," she said. "But because he had done time, he could talk about what it was like. I remember one student who was in deep. And he went right up to [Simon] after he was done speaking and talked to him. If that kid believed him ... that says something about his ability."
At the time of his arrest last month, Simon was unemployed, according to court records. Investigators said his speaking engagements were few and far between.
Wild said that several times recently Simon told her he was worried about the future.
"Financially, he was in crisis," Janssen said.
Earlier this year, Simon moved in with a woman he'd met on the Internet, Janssen said, and redecorated the couple's bedroom with posters of "The Godfather," "Scarface" and "The Sopranos." Edblad said Simon also had a framed newspaper headline that documented the capture of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger.
"He dominated the house," Janssen said.
The night of May 14, Simon and a friend he met in prison returned to the house after drinking at local pubs. According to a criminal complaint:
Simon became intoxicated to the point of vomiting, went upstairs and took off his clothes. He then walked back downstairs naked and began fighting with his friend. Within an hour the fight resumed and Simon picked up a small statue of John Wayne and hit his friend, breaking his nose.
Simon then went upstairs, picked up a handgun and came out shooting.
Simon's friend and girlfriend ran outside. Seconds later, the woman ran back to check on her 9-year-old son, who was in an upstairs bedroom crying. As she consoled the boy, Simon threatened to shoot them both if she didn't perform a sex act.
Police, responding to a "shots fired" call at the house, later arrested Simon.
Since then, Simon's girlfriend and her son have moved. Janssen said Simon wiped out the woman's savings and the house is now being sold.
As Simon sits in jail, the case against him builds. On Friday, investigators filed terroristic threats charges against him after he made "profane, abusive and manipulative" phone calls from jail to an ex-wife and their 9-year-old son, Edblad said.
Authorities also may charge him with identity theft after discovering that he had created and used credit cards in the name of his girlfriend's oldest son, who is in the military.
"When I pulled up his website, it was like tragically ironic," Janssen said. "It just gives you chills. He says on there 'Ten seconds can change your life forever.' Well, he's living that right now."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425