An Army of One
Simon Leis strolls easily down the maze of hallways in the 1,400-bed county jail. The taps on his shiny black shoes click with each step he takes, echoing off the concrete walls and metal bars.
He’s leading an entourage of administrators, all dressed like him in dark suits and ties, on a surprise inspection. And he is clearly in charge. Looking for cleanliness, he’s pleased with what he sees, and only once leans over to pick up a tiny scrap of paper. As he strolls, he proudly points out improvements to the showers and takes a moment to greet a gray-and-white striped inmate mopping an already gleaming floor. Leis jokes they knew he was coming.
Corrections officers, their fit physiques dressed in pressed uniforms, snap salutes as he approaches each locked door. Prisoners watch as he goes by. As sheriff of Ohio’s Hamilton County, Leis is the man responsible for putting each one of them where they are—behind bars. He seems unfazed and unafraid.
The sidewalk on Elm Street slants slightly downhill as it approaches
Fourth Street on its path toward the Ohio River. It’s one of
downtown’s least traveled retail corridors. But one store is open,
identified by a distinguished-looking sign with old English
Named after the pornographic magazine and publishing empire that made
founder Larry Flynt rich and infamous, the store is what you’d expect
of Flynt, but not what you’d expect of conservative Cincinnati. But
here it is, in black and white-and red and green and purple and blue.
Cards, candles, boas, body oils, books, magazines and eye-popping
adult toys. A sign above the card rack reads, “Relax. It’s just sex.”
Yet another hanging over shelves of X-rated videos is a
warning-you’re being videotaped. But the material somehow feels
stale. The people shopping here slightly sleazy. The subject matter
shocking, yet laughable. And definitely overpriced.
But the fact that Hustler has an address in downtown Cincinnati is
noteworthy in that it’s all that remains of the 30-year battle waged
by Leis against those who would sell faceless adult-oriented material
in Hamilton County. The proprietors, however, would say Hustler’s
existence is proof they prevailed.
“I have a nice little store that’s very profitable, and I’m leaving
well enough alone,” says Jimmy Flynt, brother of Larry and owner of
the Cincinnati store and another in a neighboring county. “Was it a
victory for us? I think so, because there’s adult products sold in
For years, it wasn’t that way, though. Strip clubs were closed.
Bookstores were banished. Playboy couldn’t be purchased. Over time,
though, the community standards that kept the laws enforced relaxed.
But Leis never did. He tried to prosecute the singer of a rap song
because he thought the lyrics were obscene. When a suburban hotel was
caught dispensing X-rated videos from a vending machine, Leis filed
criminal charges against the owners-a horrified Southern Baptist
Conference-even though conference officials immediately eliminated
the machine and the prosecutor dropped the case.
Such actions caused trouble with many, including all three
prosecutors who succeeded him. Leis, who places a high value on
loyalty, was always mystified when their interpretations of the law
didn’t mesh with his.
“I believe in the Marine Corps credo-semper fi-always faithful,” Leis says.
But he also earned their respect.
“He is so Marine,” says Phil Burress, founder of the anti-porn group
Citizens for Community Values. “The man is Mr. Cincinnati and always
will be, and he’s my hero. The man simply does his job, which is a
rare breed among prosecutors today.”
“I think there’s a lot of porn peddlers who are afraid to come here
because of him,” says
Joe Deters, a former Hamilton County prosecutor and now Ohio
treasurer. “Flynt came in saying he would have a showdown on
obscenity and we went after
him. They agreed never to sell any movie in Hamilton County ever
again. And now he’s gone.
I would suggest to you his Elm Street store is just a matter of pride.”
“What I like about Si is you can actually joke with him,” says Lou
Sirkin, the First Amendment lawyer who has represented the Flynts and
many others against Leis. “He doesn’t get ticked off or take it
personally. In the past, I have subpoenaed him, and he’s never shown
a sense of outrage for me doing that.”
Even Jimmy Flynt, after years of legal fights and lawyers’ fees,
appreciates Leis’ unquestioning belief in the law.
“You could say whatever you want about Simon, but he has been
consistent in the 30 years I’ve known him. He’s very committed in his
views, his values, his morals, and he hasn’t wavered or been caught
up by the press or politics, and I have respect for people who have
opinions and stick with them.”
Then Flynt tosses Leis a zinger.
“I think he’s probably done more for the adult industry than any
single person in America because of the national attention he gave
Larry Flynt. Simon has been more responsible for the success of Larry
Flynt and Hustler than any other person.”
The crusade against immorality actually began with Leis’ father,
Simon Leis Sr., who turned it into a career. He served as a special
prosecutor, traveling with bodyguards around Ohio busting organized
crime. He went on to serve as judge and assistant prosecutor, railing
against dirty magazines and movies, gaining headlines along the way.
A Cincinnati Enquirer headline declares: “Leis Lashes Out At Smut
Sellers.” It could have been today, but it was actually 1958-45 years
The young Simon relished the dinner table conversations about his
father’s exploits, not realizing his own career path was being laid
out for him by his father’s moral warnings and his own Catholic
“He was very much like his dad, a very strong person,” says William
McClain, a former Cincinnati city solicitor who gave the young Leis
his first job. “When you’re a prosecutor or judge, you have to make
difficult decisions, and you cannot be swayed by what public opinion
is but what you think is right, and Si always did what he thought was
right. Si has held to his old-fashioned morality.”
His Marine Corps spit-and-polish boot camp management style, while
efficient, has also caused him problems. He’s sued the national
Democratic and Republican parties over money, fought tooth and nail
with unions and raided a citizens’ computer bulletin board that
sparked a class-action lawsuit. His latest endeavor is to track down
kiddie porn, and for that he gets everyone’s applause.
“He is human, he’s not larger-than-life and is truly a very kind
man,” says Robert Cornwell of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s
Association. “And that’s what many people don’t see-the other side of
That other side of Leis is fed by the memory of the accidental death
of his first child, a boy, at age 2 1/2. Simon III, nicknamed Trey,
stood up in a shopping cart while his dad, his hand on the cart,
looked through the shelves of a grocery store. The toddler fell out,
hit his head and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors drilled
holes in his skull to drain the gathering fluid.
“I said to my dad, ‘If he’s going to be an invalid all his life, I
hope the Lord takes him.’ And the Lord took him,” Leis says.
It’s a side of Simon Leis that is rarely seen, kept close to the
heart and allowed out only at special moments-at the bedside of a
seriously injured deputy, or the funeral of a murdered little girl.
Leis and his wife, Margery, had three more children, all girls. But
the incident had a lasting effect on the young father, contributing
to his zeal to enforce the law.
“He was a beautiful boy,” Leis says. “He had blond hair and blue eyes
and a perfect little body. I totally believe he was born to become an
angel. It had a lot to do with my moral values and my lack of
tolerance of mediocrity. The best way to describe it is when you
recognize the fact that little boy lost his life, and then you see
people who aren’t dedicated to what they should be doing.”
Leis, however, is dedicated. Since his appointment as sheriff in
1987, he has whipped the office into shape-literally and
figuratively-and proved how aggressive drug investigations can
generate a fortune for cash-strapped departments. The way he’s
managed his drug forfeiture fund has earned him a national reputation
with the purchases of helicopters, patrol boats, a motorcycle unit,
an underwater rescue team, an armored personnel carrier, and a drum
and bagpipe corps that plays around the state. Some observers quip
he’s built himself an army. Or a Marine Corps.
“He is very well thought of by other sheriffs in Ohio. He doesn’t
demand respect, he commands it by the way he carries himself and by
the initiatives in place at his office,” Cornwell says, referring to
Leis’s weight and physical fitness standards.
Leis himself stays equally as fit, rising daily at 4:00 a.m. to work out.
Says Leis: “No long hair, no fat boys.”
Lately, local pundits are pondering the future of the sheriff’s
department, and Cincinnati’s moral signature, as Leis, now 68,
approaches retirement. The Republican Party offered a replacement
candidate for next year’s elections, but Leis cut them short when he
announced he intends to run. He will be 74 when that four-year term
“I had thought about retiring, but I’m still in great shape and I
enjoy the job. So why not?”
The question is, will he continue the staunch anti-smut legacy his
father started? Or have more tolerant social attitudes caused him to
mellow? “The problem now is, I can’t get a prosecutor to prosecute
cases. I’d be more vigilant if I could.”
When he was prosecutor, Leis says, he loved the power of being able
to set the level of law enforcement in the county. It was his
favorite job. But, he says, it’s harder to find violators today
because “they’re allowed to sell soft porn.” Still, true to his
convictions, Leis created a regional computer task force that’s busy
sniffing out illegal porn as well as a variety of other high-tech
Could Simon Leis take on Flynt and Hustler again? Could there be a
round three? There’s a good chance, especially if Hustler keeps
selling videos at its downtown store in violation of the 1999 court
“I would absolutely go after Flynt again,” Leis says.
And if reelected in 2004, as he has four times already, there’s a
good chance he will.