Barrel-chested Leo Thalassites squints like Clint Eastwood, hops around like Jackie Chan and has been an active cop for nearly six decades. He is 86 years old.
He first joined the Miami-Dade Police Department in 1956. He moved to the Hialeah Police Department in 1963, where he has been on active duty ever since. And now, according to the International Police Association, he is the oldest active police officer.
He might have started his police career sooner but he was busy serving in all five branches of the military during World War II and Korea. Thalassites earned three Purple Hearts — two in WWII and one in Korea — and competed in the Olympics trials for the 1964 Toyko Games, representing the U.S. in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Starting in 1963, he won the police Olympics seven years in a row. At 170 pounds, he benched 340, squatted 500 and dead-lifted 540 pounds. Thalassites was named last year to the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame. He has trained fighters including Hector “Macho” Camacho, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran.
Thalassites moved to Tampa in 1995 to be closer to the Greek community in Tarpon Springs. He frequently drives 300 miles to Hialeah – from Tampa – to train officers and make sure that they are physically fit and ready for action.
Thalassites turns 87 on April 24. But his 177-pound, five-foot-eight inch frame is nearly as strong as it was 50 years ago. For nearly his entire life, he has combined a strict regimen of daily prayer, exercise and diet. He has not had a soda in decades, shuns sugar and fat, and eats small meals throughout the day. “I put protein in a blender along with broccoli, celery, garlic and some other stuff,” said Thalassites, who noted that when he shuts off the blender, he watches the mixture bubble up. “That means it’s ready.”
Thalassites had a chapel custom-built inside his home. It is ornately decorated with 30 Byzantine icons. There are stained-glass windows in memory of his parents. His father, George, was a seventh-generation priest who served Miami’s Greek community in the 1940s. Before that, his father taught combat fighting to elite Greek soldiers.
“The first thing I do when I wake up is pray,” said Thalassites. He then prays for exactly one hour and 33 minutes each morning. The 33 extra minutes signify the age of Jesus Christ when he died. “It is compulsory.”
After, he runs four miles around his Palm Harbor neighborhood, then returns to his home gym, where he jumps rope, lifts free weights, and does speed and heavy bag work.
He is also ready when it comes to police work. “The history of this police department cannot be written without mentioning” Thalassites, said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who once trained as a police officer under Thalassites. Last year, Hernandez proclaimed Feb. 28 as Lt. Leo Thalassites Day.
Though Thalassites still carries the Colt .45 issued to him in the Korean War, he has never had to use it. Rather, he relies on something far more dangerous. “His fists are weapons of mass destruction,” said Hialeah Police Lt. Carl Zogby.
Stories about Thalassites over the years include the time he jumped into a boxing ring – on live TV – to knock out a Korean trainer after he disrespected the U.S. flag. He also is said to have fractured the skull of a would-be mugger outside a Greek restaurant.
In 1967, Thalassites responded to a Liberty City bar fight where two of his coworkers had been shot dead. “He pulled a gun on me,” Thalassites said of the suspect. He quickly disarmed then nearly beat the suspect to death with his baseball-mitt-sized fists. “I defended myself.”
Over the years, he has preferred to fight “big guys” for one simple reason: “I bring them down to me, see, then I break their wrists, ribs and shoulders,” said Thalassites, who still trains officers in the Hialeah police gym named after him in 2002.
Next month marks Thalassites’ 50th year as a Hialeah policeman, and he noted some changes with the department since its Wild West years.
“We did real police work back then,” said Thalassites, who feels that guns and Tasers are overused to compensate for overweight and lazy cops who can’t fight or control a situation. Even worse, the cops he describes as having counterfeit muscles. “They come into training with big arms and small waists and think they’re something until I put them in a headlock and they can’t get out,” said Thalassites, who added that annual physical fitness exams should be mandatory for all officers. “They have no real strength, run out of breath fast and can’t even run.”
Out-of-shape cops, he says, present the biggest hazard to the public.
“They are quick to pull a gun because they can’t use their fists,” said Thalassites. “I may have broken a lot of bones but at least they lived.”
Theo Karantsalis is a librarian and an open government activist. He is a member of the First Amendment Foundation's Sunshine Brigade. As a freelancer for the Miami Herald, Theo enjoys writing historical and civic features related to Miami's inner city. Find him on Twitter, @springyleaks.