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Man who received pardon for felony arson and became fire chief is now also a police officer

Man who received pardon for felony arson and became fire chief is now also a police officer

State board shows Jerame Simmons joined the force March 14

By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
bhundsdorfer@capitolnewsillinois.com

Jerame Simmons spent nearly 24 years as a convicted felon after pleading guilty to arson in 1999 until a 2021 pardon cleared that record and allowed him to head the department that put out the fire he started.

Now, he’s not only a fire chief, but also a part-time police officer, allowed to make arrests, carry a gun and use lethal force if warranted.

A plea deal allowed him to avoid prison time 24 years ago, but the prohibitions that come with a felony conviction would stand in the way of a public safety career and gun ownership.

That all changed with a May pardon from Gov. JB Pritzker, which followed a string of other favorable decisions from police, prosecutors and judges that allowed Simmons to avoid prosecution or conviction in other cases.  

After that pardon, Simmons became the fire chief for the Prairie Du Pont Fire Department, where he previously served as a volunteer firefighter when he pleaded guilty to setting fire to an abandoned home when he was 18 years old. His hire prompted a mass resignation by firefighters from the department.

Last month, he also became a part-time police officer in his small hometown of East Carondelet, just across the river from St. Louis, where his father has served as mayor for more than three decades.

Simmons did not return calls for comment.

The timing of Simmons’ employment is fortuitous for him. Starting July 1, officers must have completed nine months of training before starting work. Because he was hired before the July 1 deadline, he has full police powers and can begin work immediately. He must complete nine months of training within his first 18 months of employment.

According to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, Simmons joined the force on March 14 and completed his firearms training on March 23. Although the pardon did not restore Simmons’ firearm privileges, a federal law exempts police officers from having to obtain a Firearm Owners Identification Card or concealed carry license.

Background checks are largely up to the counties and municipalities doing the hiring and are usually required by most local police departments. Simmons’ father, Herb Simmons, is the longtime mayor of East Carondelet, a village of 500 that borders the Mississippi River on one side and a railroad depot on the other.

Herb Simmons also formerly served as the town’s police chief. He is currently head of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency and he sits on several influential boards in the Metro East region.

Herb Simmons did not return a call for comment.

 

The charges

It was after school on a Thursday, Jan. 15, 1998. Toilet paper and ceiling tiles were piled in a heap in the basement of Dupo High School and set on fire, causing minor damage.  

Nine days after that fire, St. Clair County sheriff’s deputies received a report that a white van had turned on emergency lights and stopped a vehicle.

The men in the stopped vehicle told police that the van’s driver approached them and asked if they had alcohol, then displayed a badge and told them he was a U.S. marshal. Deputies later found Simmons behind the wheel of a white Chevrolet Astro Van, registered to his father, Herb Simmons, who served as a deputy U.S. Marshal.

On Feb 13, 1998, a vacant house was set on fire.

Police stopped Simmons and questioned him after a neighbor identified a white van leaving the area after the fire started. Simmons was driving a white van – and responding to the fire call in his capacity as a volunteer firefighter – when he pulled up at the Prairie Du Pont Fire Department.

The Illinois Fire Marshal’s report from 1998 stated a 5-gallon gas can was found on the home’s first floor, flares were found in three different locations, and evidence of accelerant was found on the stairs of the home.

Gloves and a coat taken from Simmons had the odor of gas, and Simmons’ cousin told police Simmons started the fire. The house had been set on fire three times before.

Simmons eventually confessed to a St. Clair County detective, but Simmons said the officer “acted like a jerk” and lied to him to leverage the confession.

After his arrest, Simmons was charged with starting the fire at Dupo High School a month before the fire at the vacant house. He was also charged with unlawfully using the emergency light.

In the case at the high school, Simmons was charged with a Class X felony – the most serious felony – because he knew that there was a woman in the building when the fire was set, according to court records.

In a plea agreement, the school fire charge was dismissed and Simmons pleaded guilty to the arson charge related to the vacant home. Under the terms of the deal, Simmons received four years of probation on the arson charge related to the vacant home. He received another 30 months of probation for the unlawful use of an emergency light.

Those charges were expunged after the pardon was signed by Gov. JB Pritzker on May 19, 2021.

 

The fight

Three years before that pardon, Jerame Simmons told a strip club bouncer that he was a cop, according to a police report.

The bouncer at the Sauget club ejected Simmons’ wife, who had had an altercation with another patron, the report stated. The report stated the bouncer said Simmons accosted him, told him that he was a police officer, then pulled a gun.

Simmons later denied that he pulled a firearm, stating that he shook his fist at the bouncer while holding a vape cigarette.

Police did not review the surveillance video because they took the word of the club manager, who said Simmons was not holding a gun.

Simmons was not a police officer at the time.

Simmons was charged with disorderly conduct and sentenced to 90 days probation.

Simmons has faced other charges over the years as well, including a 2006 charge of leaving the scene of an accident, to which he pleaded guilty and received six months supervision; a 2009 charge of obstructing a police officer, to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to conditional discharge; and a 2016 disorderly conduct charge to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.

He has also had multiple charges dismissed, including a 2006 charge of violating an order of protection, a 2008 charge of impersonating a police officer, and two 2008 charges of violating an order of protection.

These charges cannot be seen on Simmons’ public record, but were listed in the petition for clemency and in previous news coverage about the fight at the strip club.

 

Public safety record

Simmons was interested in law enforcement early on, according to his clemency petition.

He joined the Boy Scout Explorers at the East Carondelet Police Department when he was still in high school.

He trained with a K-9 Officer, searched for missing kids and started a Boy Scout Police Explorer program. He received first responder, firefighter and police safety commissions, as well as University of Illinois and Federal Emergency Management Association certificates.

He served as director of the Public Safety Department of Emergency Services for East Carondelet in 2005. He volunteered with the Golden Garden, Valmeyer and Prairie DuPont fire departments. He was acting fire chief for the Brooklyn Fire Protection District. 

In May, he asked the governor for another chance – a clean slate to pursue a career in public safety.

“I know that kids do stupid things, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time is all it takes. I am a perfect example,” Simmons wrote in his petition. “I have lived this nightmare for a long time and I am asking for your forgiveness.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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