Tom Avila's Big Story
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 Times into 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.
The news director looks a little like Fred Flintstone would as a television weatherman, with dark hair, caterpillar eyebrows, and large features. His gaze is skewed by a slight lazy eye, and he develops a facial tic that pulsates next to his cheekbone when he talks about his past.
Avila claims his career in broadcasting began at 16, at the radio station his father ran in California; in fact, he does come from a family of noted journalists. He has always used Avila, his grandmother's maiden name, professionally; Simon is his legal given name. Simon's older brother, Jim Avila, now of 20/20, is an award-winning former correspondent for NBC Nightly News. Younger brother Jaie Avila is a television news anchor in San Antonio and Chris Simon, another brother, is a journalist in the Soviet Union.
Their father, Jim Simon, was a pioneer of talk radio who began his career in Texas in the '40s, then moved his family to Illinois and California, where he became vice president of CBS in the '60s.
(Avila says he and his family are not particularly close, which was confirmed in an e-mail from brother Jaie.)
Tom Avila says broadcasting is in his blood. "The first memory I have in my life is trying to figure out how my Dad got in that little box in the kitchen," he says. "I've been a journalist for 20 years, except, well, uh, those times in between."
In mid-March, New Times contacted Avila to ask about his true identity and recent arrests. He originally feigned ignorance, then called back a week later, ready to talk.
He slips out of his office on a recent Thursday and slides behind the wheel of the station car, a PT Cruiser with KFNX call letters and logos splashed all over it. As he pilots the vehicle down the street to a nearby shopping mall, he smashes into a pigeon in mid-flight. "Poor thing," he comments blandly, "That's the second time that's happened this week."
Avila pulls into a bagel shop and buys an orange juice, chatting up the cashier before he heads outside to a sidewalk table. Although Avila won't talk about either his criminal past or the charges against him now, he doesn't deny them, either. And, as he swelters in afternoon sun, his eyes squinting behind light blue sunglasses, he admits he didn't inform his employer of his past. Earlier experience obviously taught him it's not so easy for a guy with a past to find work as a journalist.
Once he was released from jail in California Avila says, he needed an income and fell back on his pre-prison career. It was all he had, he explains.
"I'm trained as a journalist, a newscaster, that's how I pay my bills. I cannot simply just stand by as this goes through the courts and sit home and eat Cheetos."
Avila maintains that despite trouble in his personal life, his professional record as a journalist is unsullied. (New Times could find no evidence of the contrary.) "The charges have absolutely nothing to do with my work. I've never been accused, in my entire life, of not following ethical boundaries as it relates to covering the news." He's hoping that will mean something to his employer, his listeners, and ultimately a judge.
In a letter about the Lewis prison hostage crisis printed in the Arizona Republic on February 7, he writes, "In the end, journalists are seekers of truth, but the final question remains: What good does knowing the truth do, if we fail to tell it?"
Fittingly, the letter is signed Tom Avila, not Tom Simon.
And now, you're really up to date.
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