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By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
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By Weston Phippen
Tom Avila prides himself on getting the scoop.
Early this year, Valley talk radio listeners became acquainted with the 45-year-old's distinctive nasal voice, as he delivered the day's "Big Story News" on KFNX (1100 AM). Avila worked for two months as the station's news director, signing off each newscast with his dramatic catchphrase, "You're up to date!"
Tom Avila is the member of a decorated journalism family; his brother, Jim, is an award-winning network news guy who just joined the ABC news magazine 20/20. But Tom's also a career criminal. He's been arrested on several felony charges over the past 20 years, including assault, bank fraud and grand theft. And last November -- just two months before he was hired at KFNX -- Avila was busted by Phoenix police for allegedly buying digital cameras with forged checks and then selling the pilfered equipment at local pawnshops.
Avila might miss a morning or two of drive time, since he's set to stand trial in early April on 17 forgery charges stemming from that arrest.
In any case, he was no longer appearing on the air, as of Tuesday, March 30. Avila tells New Times he resigned earlier this week as news director and has accepted a new position as executive producer. KFNX did not return repeated phone calls for comment on this story.
To hear him deliver his rsum, Avila was a perfect candidate for the news director job at KFNX, a former CBS and Fox TV managing editor. (Efforts by New Times to confirm his employment claims were thwarted by employee privacy policies.)
Even if the station had bothered to look into his past they wouldn't have found anything. Tom Avila's real name is Tom Simon, and Simon's the one with the checkered past.
Tom Simon's been breaking laws for two decades -- about as long as his alter ego Tom Avila has been delivering the news. Simon's known criminal record began in 1983 when police sources say he was first arrested for forgery. He was picked up for alleged obstruction of justice in 1984 and theft in 1986 and 1987. He's done two stints in prison in Los Angeles County for Assault on a Peace Officer and Grand Theft, and was paroled on his most recent charge on June 19, 2003. (According to police records, he is currently being investigated for an ebay scam in California involving the sale of Palm Pilots; no charges have been filed.)
Just weeks out of prison, Simon says, he came to Arizona and met Beth Johnston, who worked for America West Airlines at the time and currently is employed by the Arizona Republic. He and Johnston started dating, fell in love, and soon thereafter Simon moved to Arizona, violating a condition of his parole.
After a quick courtship, Johnston and Simon were married on September 12, 2003.
Simon wasn't working as a journalist last fall. Instead, Phoenix police allege he was forging checks and visiting pawn shops, bilking local computer stores out of an estimated $20,000 in merchandise over the next two months until police caught up to him in November and eventually charged him with 14 felony forgery counts.
Police say Simon created fictitious businesses and printed up phony checks with routing numbers from a Bank One branch in Denver, using nonexistent account numbers. He cashed the checks with identification from California and Illinois, calling himself Tom Simon, Simon Michael or Michael Simon. He would use the checks to purchase mainly digital cameras, which he would then either sell on ebay as "phoenixcameralady" or at local pawnshops.
Police tried to arrest Simon on November 5 at his home just after 9 a.m. According to police records, Simon fled in his vehicle, running red lights and even driving through a residential yard nearly striking a woman. With police in pursuit, Simon ran the red light at the intersection of 40th Street and Thomas, was hit by a truck pulling a trailer and drove his car into a traffic signal pole, knocking it to the ground. Simon was transported to John C. Lincoln Hospital and treated for a punctured lung and several fractured ribs. He was taken to Madison Street Jail the next day, where he remained until posting a $66,000 bond in early December, charged with 14 felony counts of forgery, as well as felony counts of fraud, theft and trafficking in stolen goods.
Search warrants conducted in Simon's residence and the vehicle he was driving during his flight from arrest revealed more than a dozen fraudulent checks, computer equipment, blank check stock, and pawn tickets for digital cameras.
Two months ago, Tom Avila was hired as news director at KFNX.
Tom Avila graciously invited New Timesinto the KFNX newsroom last week, to watch him in action.
He begins work well before dawn and doesn't leave the office until after sunset. He works at a feverish pace, racing back and forth from his office to the studio down the hall, dialing up police department flacks and Sheriff Joe Arpaio for on air interviews, and chatting with local and national politicians.
"Avila," as he calls himself when he's in the KFNX newsroom in Phoenix, wears dress shirts and suits over his stocky frame and a half-dozen press credentials dangle from his neck. He's learned how to schmooze and spin in his two parallel careers, and in person Avila's both ingratiating and creepy. He substitutes swear words with euphemisms like "son of a biscuit" and "fudge." In person and on the radio he calls women "Miss," whether they like it or not. Even National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice becomes "Miss Condy" in Avila's newscast.