Jeff Jardine

Ray Simon’s Cold War memories foster lasting distrust of Putin, motives

If you grew up in the United States during the Cold War era, you simply knew the Soviet Union, and now Russia, was not and is not America’s friend. That hasn’t changed, which is why the Russians are thrilled whenever they can jab Americans into social and political frenzies.

Ray Simon remembers the Cold War period well. He didn’t like the Russians then and doesn’t like them now. How, the staunch and lifelong Republican wonders, could former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, President Trump or anyone else trust the Russians and Vladimir Putin?

“It bothers me, if it’s true,” the 85-year-old former Stanislaus County supervisor told me Monday, just hours before Flynn’s resignation for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his communication with Russia’s ambassador before Trump took office.

Simon knows better than to trust the “Russkies,” based upon his dealings with them as a CIA agent fresh out of UC Berkeley’s criminology program in 1958. The state of Washington had passed legislation prohibiting Communists from voting, holding public office or teaching in the schools. So the CIA formed an alliance with the FBI and a school district in Seattle to root them out.

The operation emerged from the “Red Scare” that ramped up during the early 1950s when Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee claimed 205 Communists were working in the State Department. The Senate eventually censured the grandstanding McCarthy, but not until he’d upended the lives, reputations and careers of hundreds of people accused, accurately or errantly, of being Communists.

The CIA chose Simon because he had military experience in the Air Force, a degree in criminology, could keep a secret and, because at 27 years old, he maintained youthful looks and could still pass for a high-school kid. He went undercover as a student so that he could attend meetings where teachers signed up to belong to Communist cells. His received his paychecks from the school district, and only the district superintendent knew he was a CIA agent.

Simon routinely met with another agent at a prescribed place to hand over notes and information.

“The crab shack at the University of Washington,” Simon said.

The Seattle operation resulted in scores of convictions, though most were overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the Washington law unconstitutional. But in talking to students, Simon also learned the Russians, led by a thug named Sergei, were running a child pornography ring through the Port of Seattle. Arrested, convicted and sent to prison, Sergei one day asked to see Simon.

“I got called to a federal prison,” he said.

The conversation became very intense.

“He told me from across the table, ‘You’re a dead man, Simon,’ ” he said. “ ‘We know where your wife works, what she looks like – all about her.’ ”

When he reported the incident to his supervisor at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., they already knew and had begun making plans.

“They said, ‘We’re moving you,’ ” Simon said. “They said, ‘We’re going to put you in the Navy and ship her back to Modesto.’ They were going to send me to Indonesia for a year, and I could never tell her where I was or what I was doing, ever. I said, ‘I can’t do that. I just got married. I can’t do that do her.’ ”

So he left the CIA after just 16 months and returned to Modesto.

“They advised me to stay visible, that the Russians don’t like it (to go after public figures, locally or on a grander scale),” he said.

He became a member of the city’s planning commission, served two terms on the Modesto City Council and, in 1975 – the same year Congress dissolved the House Un-American Activities Committee – was sworn in as a Stanislaus County supervisor. He held the seat for the next 30 years, all the while owning Pegasus Risk Management and other investigations companies in Modesto.

Wife Joan? She didn’t learn for at least two decades that her husband had been a spy. Watching a TV news magazine show about an operative one night, she remarked that the subject “doesn’t look like a CIA agent.”

“Well what does a CIA agent look like?” her husband quizzed. Then he told her, “I was a CIA agent.”

“I said, ‘You were not!’ ” Joan Simon said. “But then he said, ‘Remember this, that and that… ,’ and I realized he was serious.”

Like the time a man pounded on the couple’s front door at 3 a.m., with .45-caliber pistols in hand and pleading to crash on their sofa for a couple of hours. It was another CIA agent trying to shake his Russian pursuers.

“I found out that we were a safe house,” she said.

And why he wore shoes with numbers written on the insoles.

“If he got caught and killed, that’s how they would have known who got it,” she said. “I had to ask, ‘But you worked for the Seattle school district?’ That was his cover. I was this naive little girl from Modesto. Nothing like that had ever been part of my life.”

“And to find out they were following me... ,” she said. “I had no idea about any of it. There was no way I could have known.”

The Russians knew, though, and for decades thereafter, whenever Ray Simon saw cars parked in places where no cars usually parked, his radar went up.

Last week, the Simons attended a concert at the Gallo Center. They left early. The music was too Russian for his tastes.

“Russia has such a terribly violent history,” he said. “I couldn’t stay all the way through.”

Following the news, and developments involving Flynn, Trump and the Putin connection could prove to be equally troubling over time. Simon likes President Trump’s pro-business agenda.

“When I hear about the Russian ship off the coast of Delaware, the test firing of a cruise missle… It’s a really tough time to be dealing with Putin,” Simon said. “But I’ve never cared much for Russia, anyway.”

The Cold War ended. His cold shoulder toward the Russians had not.