Hialeah celebrates as ‘oldest active police officer in America’ turns 90

Hialeah Police Lt. Leo Thalassites, 90, poses for a photo at Hialeah City Hall with Lt. Carl Zogby and Lt. Eddie Rodriguez.
Hialeah Police Lt. Leo Thalassites, 90, poses for a photo at Hialeah City Hall with Lt. Carl Zogby and Lt. Eddie Rodriguez. Special to the Miami Herald

For more than 50 years, Hialeah police officers have talked about vim and vigor. They have talked about bravado and brute force. They have talked about Lt. Leo Thalassites.

“Four guys still can’t hold me down,” said Hialeah Police Lt. Leo Thalassites, who was honored a day after his 90th birthday at Hialeah City Hall. “No one can hold me down, understand?”

And no one could hold down their excitement for the nonagenarian as city leaders, police officers and friends sang Happy Birthday to Thalassites during the April 26 city council meeting. at City Hall.

Thalassites marched to the podium as the big screen beamed photos of his half-century tenure, and the theme music from the film Rocky roared in the background.

“The whole country has to thank you,” said Hialeah Police Lt. Carl Zogby. “Leo is a highly decorated combat veteran of World War II and Korea who honorably served in all five branches of the military and earned three Purple Hearts.”

Zogby added that Thalassites was also a “karate, judo and jui-jitsu expert long before anyone knew what that was.”

“My father was old school and taught me how to fight,” Thalassites said.

Thalassites’ father, George, taught hand-to-hand combat skills to elite Greek soldiers before serving Miami’s Greek community in the 1940s as a priest.

As a young man, Thalassites strove to become a Greek Orthodox priest, but those hopes were dashed as his Greek language skills lagged. Instead, he chose to enter the military and then a police career.

A 1948 Washington Times-Herald story hails Thalassites as a Marine hero who was wounded at Iwo Jima and in Korea. He was selected to carry the Olympic torch for the AHEPA Games at Georgetown University.

After serving his country, Thalassites signed on with Dade County police in 1956. He transferred to the Hialeah police department in 1963 and has worked there on and off until now, according to his FDLE profile sheet. He moved to Tampa in 1995 to be closer to the thriving Greek community in Tarpon Springs. In Tampa, he worked as a police officer from 1995 to 2003. He returned to Hialeah as a reserve office in 2007 and routinely commutes between Tampa and Miami-Dade County.

However, his relatively unblemished 60-year police career hit a few snags midstream.

A 1987 Miami Herald story details allegations that Thalassites wielded undue control within the police department and that physical violence and threats had blemished Thalassites’ 23-year Hialeah police career.

▪ 1971: Indicted by a Dade grand jury on an extortion charge for threatening a police officer. He was acquitted after a nonjury trial.

▪ 1976: Took a gun from police property. Investigators found no criminal intent in his giving a .38-caliber revolver to a friend, but he sustained an administrative charge and was suspended for two weeks.

▪ 1984: Suspended for two months by then-Mayor Raul Martinez after “photographs and videotapes of nude women” were found in the police gym. The charge: Thalassites failed to “dispose” of them in a proper manner.

He was accused of using the media to his “personal benefit” by calling a news conference and showing 55 photographs of seminude women — 14 of which, Thalassites said, were taken at the Hialeah police station.

▪ 1985: Taught karate to reputed crime figure Alberto San Pedro. A report that year showed Thalassites and San Pedro collaborated to dominate the department. San Pedro was convicted in 1988 of seven drug- and bribery-related charges.

▪ 1987: Accused of violating a variety of departmental rules and regulations, including insubordination, threatening the police chief and disobeying orders.

That same year, coworkers lodged troubling complaints against Thalassites.

“I’m concerned about being here today,” wrote Hialeah Police Sgt. Phillip Bidart in a sworn statement filed with the state attorney’s office. “This guy, Leo, beats up people and I just don’t want to be beat up, you know.”

Bidart added: “He keeps a list of everybody who goes against him and he pays people back sooner or later, one way or another he pays them back.”

“I worry about physical violence from him,” Hialeah Police Officer Karl Weber said. “It’s been keeping me awake again. I personally feel ashamed that the fear of retribution is not coming from criminals I’ve put in jail, but from a fellow police officer.”

Off the job, Thalassites had a reputation as a world-class combat sports trainer of champions.

His training accomplishments were recognized by the state in 2014, when he was inducted into Florida’s Boxing Hall of Fame for training fighters like Hector “Macho” Camacho, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran.

Currently, Thalassites spends his days focused on training officers at the police gym that bears his name to make sure they are physically fit and ready for action.

“My dad becomes upset when he sees others who are below what he considers excellent,” said George Thalassites, 62. “He thinks that disaster is just around the corner from the lazy and the unaware.”

Thalassites never rests his hands in his pockets as he wants to be “ready.” At times, he gets a bit carried away. Like the time when he was honored by Hialeah, in 2012, for being the “oldest active police officer” in the United States. Afterward, during horseplay with other officers, he swung his arms and accidentally knocked a hole through the drywall at City Hall.

Hialeah Police Lt. Carl Zogby joked at that time that Thalassites’ hands were still “weapons of mass destruction.”

Thalassites credits his power and longevity to daily prayer, diet and exercise. He rises early each day to pray in his home chapel, then he exercises to keep his weight at exactly 178 pounds. During the day, he eats plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables

On May 1, Hialeah police dispatched its color guard to Tallahassee to honor his induction into the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s inaugural Law Enforcement Officers’ Hall of Fame.

“As America’s oldest serving law enforcement officer, Leonidas Thalassites is an excellent role model for the law enforcement community,” FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said. “His dedication to serving others began at the age of 14 when he joined the Marine Corps and continues today as a reserve police officer for Hialeah Police Department.”

Thalassites currently lives near Tampa and commutes about 300 miles to work part-time in Hialeah. He has 11 children, 19 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.