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    Robbery survivor battles loss

    Jennifer Simon recounts the armed robbery during which her new friend, Eddie George, drowned.

    By JOSH ZIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


    photo
    [Times photo: Douglas Clifford]
    Nurse's aide Jennifer Simon, 22, feels fortunate to be alive.
    TAMPA -- A day after her budding romance ended tragically with a drowning in the Hillsborough River, the surviving victim of a Saturday robbery was left wondering, what if?

    Jennifer Simon, a 22-year-old nurse's aide, said Eddie George would still be alive if they had not met at the 7-Eleven off Busch Boulevard last week.

    In an interview Sunday, she said she was struggling with a deep sense of loss and guilt.

    "I've been staying at home," said Simon, who recently moved from northern Indiana to live with her mother. "I don't want to go nowhere. I don't want to see anybody. I feel like it's my fault. It's been the worst day of my life.

    Simon, who began working at Heartland of Zephyrhills nursing home a few weeks ago, was on her first date with George, 19. She said that around 4 a.m. Saturday, as they sat on a picnic table at Temple Crest Park, a group of five men -- three of them masked -- drove up and robbed the frightened couple. She said one of the suspects had a rifle or shotgun. The robbers approached and yelled "hands up!" Simon said. The couple stayed silent as the men rifled through their belongings and her car.

    "I was shaking, Eddie was shaking so hard," she said. "The picnic table was shaking."

    The men forced the couple to jump a 5-foot bank into the river.

    The armed suspect yelled "keep swimming," Simon said. She managed to make it back to shore. George, a homebody who lived with his family in Tampa, did not.

    Autopsy results show that George -- who was not a strong swimmer -- drowned, Detective Paul Rockhill said Sunday. Although shots were fired at them while they were in the water, they were not hit, Rockhill said.

    "Why us? We were not doing anything wrong," Simon said. "We weren't vandalizing, we weren't drinking, there was no drugs. When they first pulled up, we thought it was another couple. He asked me if I wanted to leave. I said it was up to him. Now I wish we would have left, of course."

    Simon said she and George swam furiously and were near the middle of the river when she heard the robbers pull away. Seeing George with his head above water, she began swimming toward shore with the intention of finding help.

    Residents at the first house she went to would not open the door, so she headed back to the park expecting to see George, she said. When she did not see him, she ran to another house yelling for help. Police arrived soon.

    "I should have asked if he was okay," she said. "I didn't think. They had made Eddie take his shoes off. I figured he'd be putting his shoes on."

    Neither Simon nor Rockhill would reveal what the men took.

    Simon recalled Sunday that her day with George had started magically. After exchanging phone numbers several days earlier at the 7-Eleven, they decided to get together. She was new to town and said she was glad to have a friend.

    George met her at a self-service laundry near his house and they drove to Ballast Point in Tampa. After buying sodas, they headed to George's home, where he introduced her to his family, she said.

    Instead of calling it a night, they opted to spend more time together, she said. They were sitting in the park getting to know each other -- she was sitting on the table and he was on the bench with his hands on her legs, she said.

    "He told me, honestly, he wasn't a partier," she said. "He told me the highlight of his life -- it was so sweet -- was playing with his nephews."

    Divers retrieved George's body around 7 a.m. Saturday, Rockhill said. George was wearing heavy fabric, black jeans that may have weighed him down and contributed to his drowning, Rockhill said. They found his pants before spotting him about 60 feet from shore.

    Rockhill said police have no strong leads. They are looking for a dark-colored compact car, such as a Plymouth Neon or a Chevrolet Cavalier, which he suspects was stolen.

    Investigators on Sunday scoured the park for possible fingerprints. They also are looking for any pattern of robberies involving ski masks, said Rockhill, mentioning a convenience store robbery in Tampa last Thursday in which masked men shot the owner in the thigh.

    "We're doing some research now to see if they're similar," Rockhill said.

    Simon said she feels confused and is not sure when she will return to work. Police have her car, so she is without easy transportation. She lives in a remote area of Pasco County between Dade City and Zephyrhills.

    She said her family has talked to George's family and offered to help. On top of everything, Simon is waiting for her 5-year-old daughter to arrive from Indiana.

    "I just can't believe I've been through this," she said. "It's a dream. I just keep thinking he's going to call me in 10 minutes and say, 'Hey, sweetie.' We definitely wanted to keep seeing each other."

    Recent coverage

    First date ends with death in dark river (May 13, 2001)

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