Public Safety

Andre the Giant vs. the Cedar Rapids Police: 30 years later

Booking mug shots of André the Giant Rossimoff on Aug, 21, 1989. (Linn County Sheriff’s Office)
Booking mug shots of André the Giant Rossimoff on Aug, 21, 1989. (Linn County Sheriff’s Office)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — “To this day, I don’t know what we would have done,” Cedar Rapids police Officer Dave Zahner says. “He’s definitely the biggest dude I’ve ever arrested.”

The dude in this case was the 7-foot-4, 520-pound hulking professional wrestler André “The Giant” Roussimoff.

Zahner and other Cedar Rapids police officers working the U.S. Cellular Center that night 30 years ago — Aug. 21, 1989 — witnessed André rag doll then-KCRG-TV cameraman Ben Hildebrandt. They were faced with a challenge of WrestleMania proportions: What happens if André doesn’t go peacefully?

‘André is on me’

Hildebrandt, now 53, drew the short straw that day, he recalled. At the time, KCRG and radio station KRNA had a partnership in which they produced funny bits for broadcast. The cameraman — in this case Hildebrandt — was tasked with shooting, editing and writing the piece.

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With professional wrestling in town that night, Hildebrandt, then 23, said the piece was supposed to be on why so many people were so into professional wrestling, even if the results were predetermined.

Hildebrandt said he was at the Five Seasons Center — now the U.S. Cellular Center — shooting the World Wrestling Federation performance when it came time for the main event: André the Giant vs. the Ultimate Warrior. Hildebrandt said while promoters gave him “carte blanche” to record most of the event, André himself was a different story.

“The ring announcer comes over and says, ‘André is different, you can’t record him wrestling,’” Hildebrandt said. “I said, ‘Fine, may I record him walking in and the bell being rung?’”

“The announcer said, ‘Fine.’ André walks in, I shoot that. I shoot the bell being rung and immediately he’s pinned. I’m not even looking and suddenly André is on me.”

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The match that night is what’s known in wrestling terms as a “squash” and André was pinned in about 30 seconds by the Ultimate Warrior. Hildebrandt said he didn’t record any of the brief in-ring action, but André was quickly yelling for the camera.

André grabbed Hildebrandt’s camera and tried to wrestle it away from him. To say it was not a fair fight would be an understatement, considering Hildebrandt at the time was 5 feet, 9 inches and about 160 pounds soaking wet.

“It really was much like someone who is whipping a towel or a piece of paper around,” he said. “It was not a fair tussle, that’s for sure.”

Hildebrandt said he was slapped upside the head by André at one point — not put in a headlock or body slammed like some tabloids later reported. The camera was also broken in the showdown.

“I had never been in a fight before or after in my life and I just got whipped around like a doll in front of 4,000 fans who, by the way, thought this was part of the entertainment,” he said. “Beer was thrown on me. People spit on me. It was just surreal.”

Officer Zahner, who was there on an overtime assignment to keep rowdy fans in check, had just witnessed one of the stars of the show commit a crime.

“You don’t know what’s for show and what’s not,” Zahner said. “But it was definitely a shove, definitely an assault and he definitely did some damage to the camera.”

Hildebrandt and André were quickly separated and taken to different parts of the arena. Hildebrandt said the event promoters yelled at him for recording André when he was told not to. Hildebrandt took them to the nearby KCRG studios to show them what he recorded. The footage shows Hildebrandt never had recorded André wrestling.

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When they returned to the arena, Hildebrandt — who initially just wanted to go home — said he wanted to pursue charges at the urging of a police officer and others.

‘You’re not taking me’

It was about that time then-police Sgt. Jerry Potter got word from his captain: André the Giant is to be arrested on assault and criminal mischief charges.

“He told me to come down to the arena and make sure it went OK,” Potter said.

When Potter arrived, André was showering in the locker room. After the officers waited for André to finish showering and get dressed, Potter told him he was under arrest and was going to jail.

“I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something like, ‘I’m not going anywhere and you’re not taking me,’” Potter recalled.

Police didn’t have a lot of options. Officers at that time didn’t carry non-lethal options like stun guns and chemical spray, and André — who could drink in excess of 100 beers in one sitting — might have shrugged them off.

Zahner joked they might have had to enlist Ultimate Warrior to subdue André one more time.

Instead, André and Potter talked.

“I just explained to him, ‘You are under arrest, you do have to go over to the jail with us, but it’s not a big problem,’” Potter said. “‘Your manager will follow us, you’ll be released and it won’t even take that long.’”

André was compliant, but told Potter he wasn’t going to be handcuffed — largely because they don’t make André the Giant-sized handcuffs. Potter had an answer for that, too: a set of leg shackles from the Linn County Jail.

“I’ll use them if you make me,” Potter said he told André. “I said it in a joking manner and it got him laughing. When André starts belly laughing, it seems like the whole room shakes.”

With the shackles on André, officers moved him into the back of Potter’s Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser, which worked only because Potter’s car did not have the standard partition in it separating officers from those in custody.

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Still, André fit awkwardly across the back seat, his head in one corner and his feet in the opposite corner.

Potter and another officer, Jerry Chapman, took André to the jail where he was booked, fingerprinted — on an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper since a standard card was too small — and released after posting bail.

“He was a big man,” Potter said. “But fortunately, he cooperated. ... Once we started talking and got to be friends, it went well.”

Before André left the jail, Zahner managed to snag a souvenir.

“While he was there being fingerprinted and photographed, I politely asked him, ‘Would there be any chance I could get a whole handprint of yours and have it signed’ just because I don’t get to arrest André the Giant every day?” Zahner said. “And he was more than obliging.”

The rest of the night did not go as smoothly for Hildebrandt.

By the time he got back to the station, his back was hurting. He was taken to the hospital and told his spine was strained and he had whiplash. He left in a neck brace.

The story quickly was picked up by wire services, the Chicago Tribune, National Inquirer and Newsweek. Mad magazine even parodied the incident on their cover.

“For a nanosecond, I was big,” Hildebrandt said. “I never wanted to be big for that reason.”

Professional wrestling historian and publisher and editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer, said the entire incident was out character for André.

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“André never had a rep for being a bully and, with his size and drawing power, he could have been with little or no repercussions,” Meltzer told The Gazette. “He was extremely well-liked by his fellow wrestlers.”

But André’s deteriorating health — his size was a result of gigantism, he suffered issues related to excessive growth hormone and his weight put pressure on his bones and joints — could have contributed to his mood.

At that point in his career, André was “suffering badly,” Meltzer said, who recalls seeing him in a wheelchair after matches.

“Being in pain, being frustrated, that all led to him being in a bad mood,” he said. “So all of that plays a factor.”

News reports show André eventually was fined $100 for criminal mischief and ordered to pay $233 to KCRG for the camera. He was found not guilty of assault.

But that wasn’t the end of legal proceedings.

Hildebrandt said he believes both KCRG and the Five Seasons Center sued André over issues related to workers’ compensation and the broken camera. André countersued both organizations, as well as Hildebrandt. Eventually, everyone settled out of court, which is what Hildebrandt — who grew up watching professional wrestling and rooting for André — wanted to begin with. Almost all of the settlement went to his lawyer, he said.

“I have an interesting story,” Hildebrandt said of the incident. “The shocking thing is every time somebody forces me to tell this story, somebody in the group or audience will say, ‘I remember that,’ even 30 years later.”

Where are they now?

Hildebrandt got out of television not long after the André the Giant incident. He now lives in Des Moines and has his own consulting business, doing public relations, lobbying and sales and marketing training. He recently told his story to his local rotary club as part of its “brush with greatness” series.

Potter retired from the Cedar Rapids Police Department in May 2013. He said he doesn’t tell the André story often, but calls it a “fun memory of my career.”

Zahner is with the Cedar Rapids Police Department. He still has André’s hand print.

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André Roussimoff’s pro wrestling career continued until 1992. He died of congestive heart failure on Jan. 27, 1993, in Paris after attending his father’s funeral. André was the inaugural inductee of the WWF — now WWE — Hall of Fame later that year. He continues to be one of professional wrestlings most beloved characters. A documentary film, André the Giant, aired on HBO in April 2018.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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