“He’s not going wherever,” one in every of his protection attorneys, Devin Burstein, assured the decide in late 2020.
However the felony mastermind often known as “Fats Leonard” due to his 6-2, 350-pound body ultimately did go someplace, chopping off his ankle monitor this previous Labor Day weekend and fleeing the San Diego mansion the place he had been residing with non-public safety employees that he paid for underneath a court-approved deal meant to forestall his escape.
He was captured after 16 days on the run, caught Tuesday at an airport in Venezuela from which he was headed to Russia after earlier stops in Mexico and Cuba, in accordance with Interpol. Interpol’s Venezuela director common, Carlos Gácharge Rondón, stated the 57-year-old Francis could be handed over to judicial authorities to start the paperwork for extradition.
The worldwide manhunt for Francis renewed curiosity in his long-running case and the best way he outmaneuvered federal authorities in escaping weeks earlier than his sentencing. His flight additionally triggered new calls from attorneys representing Navy officers in associated circumstances for extra particulars concerning the well being points that induced Francis to be launched from jail on a medical furlough that the courtroom repeatedly prolonged with out objection from prosecutors.
Francis pleaded responsible in 2015 and have become a cooperating witness. He spent a few years in jail earlier than a analysis of kidney most cancers led to his preliminary furlough in 2018 for medical therapy, after which a number of extensions, courtroom recordsdata present. With Francis’s assist, prosecutors secured convictions of 33 of 34 defendants.
Francis more and more took benefit of his confinement guidelines, in accordance with new information on his family preparations obtained by The Washington Submit and interviews with individuals who knew or labored for him throughout his years in house detention. He employed servants to fulfill his household’s each want and undermined the courtroom’s safety necessities geared toward retaining him from fleeing by stationing his private safety guards in windowless garages, with no night time patrols and no customer’s logs. He appeared capable of anticipate when federal officers had been headed to verify on him, the interviews confirmed, and allowed a video crew to movie him days earlier than he fled.
Throughout his years on medical furlough, Francis stayed at three non-public houses, the place his comforts and liberties grew. Most just lately he, his household and an English bulldog lived in a five-bedroom, seven-bath house with a $7,000-a-month lease in a gated group, courtroom filings and interviews present.
At his first keep outdoors a cell, in an condominium close to his physician’s workplace, Francis’s employees ready a lot meals for him that uneaten meals crammed two to a few trash luggage every day that must be positioned in a industrial dumpster close by, in accordance with Ricardo Buhain, a live-in, around-the-clock safety guard who stated that he had been employed by way of an introduction from a health care provider treating Francis and that Leonard paid him $10,000 a month.
“He’s form of a type of Loopy Wealthy Asian form of folks,” stated Buhain, who stated he was Francis’s first safety guard throughout his house confinement, referring to the novel and romantic comedy a couple of fabulously rich Singapore household. “The servants actually served him. They bathed all of his youngsters. They fed them 24-7.”
A guard employed as Buhain’s successor on the condominium, Anthony Galvan, earned about $7,500 a month and stated he labored a 12-hour daylight shift and by no means noticed indicators of in a single day safety.
Galvan stated that there was by no means anybody on obligation when he arrived or left and that he spent a lot of his time opening Amazon bins.
“It’s loopy how a lot stuff he ordered,” he stated. “He had packages coming from Amazon all day lengthy. He had a lot deliveries occurring each single day. Typically it could be couches, all types of furnishings, books. Each morning I’d present again up on the storage and there would simply be bins in there.”
Within the days earlier than he went on the lam, Francis paid for U-Haul vehicles to hold his household’s belongings out of his house and introduced in a movie crew to interview him, in accordance with Perla Nation, who stated she met Francis by way of an legal professional and labored throughout his remaining month of house confinement dealing with administrative duties.
Nation stated she requested Francis concerning the movie crew however didn’t get a proof. “He stated it was ‘simply one thing that I’m doing,’” she stated.
Regardless of working within the house two or three days per week, Nation stated she by no means met the safety guard who she stated stayed within the property’s storage. She stated she by no means noticed a log of holiday makers to the home.
Nation stated the U-Hauls had been there to clear the home of belongings from Francis’s youngsters as they moved out in anticipation of his sentencing.
“He’s a really sensible man, and you’re seeing the fallout now,” she stated whereas Francis was nonetheless at giant. “As a result of even inside these confines he all the time had choices.”
Francis’s escape has drawn further scrutiny to the federal decide, the U.S. legal professional’s workplace, Pretrial Companies and the U.S. Marshals Service for his or her roles in his uncommon confinement. And whether or not Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will enable his extradition is unknown. The USA doesn’t acknowledge Maduro’s authorities as authentic. The international locations minimize diplomatic relations in 2019.
Starting in 2018, U.S. District Choose Janis Lynn Sammartino of the Southern District of California granted Francis the medical furlough for therapy of most cancers, which she and attorneys for each side anxious might show deadly, in accordance with courtroom transcripts.
From that point on, courtroom transcripts present, fears that Francis would bolt from house detention nagged the decide and prosecutors, alongside anxiousness about how greatest to take care of a essential witness in proceedings that had been stretching for years.
“I even went as far as to surprise if he’s nonetheless on this nation,” Sammartino commented at a 2020 listening to after Francis was discharged from a health care provider’s care.
Courtroom transcripts at different instances present the decide and attorneys discussing the necessity to take a deposition with Francis to protect his testimony ought to he not survive to assist at trials.
Particulars of his well being had been shielded in closed-door hearings performed since 2018. Redacted transcripts had been made public just lately solely after protection attorneys for Navy personnel on trial pressed for data that they argued might assist protection groups probe Francis’s credibility and study extra concerning the phrases of his house detention.
Due to the redactions, the complete extent of Francis’s medical situation and response to therapy nonetheless are troublesome to discern.
As the federal government ready to launch him on furlough, Sammartino stated paying for fixed safety over months or years was too expensive for the federal government, resulting in Francis’s hiring his personal safety employees.
“It’s non-public safety, which in all probability wouldn’t have been the courtroom’s desire,” Sammartino stated in February 2018. “However I don’t assume the Marshals are going to place someone on the market 24-7.” Assistant U.S. Legal professional Mark Pletcher stated on the identical listening to that he agreed with the courtroom’s evaluation that safety on the time “looks as if the least of our issues.”
The decide, the U.S. legal professional’s workplace and Pretrial Companies didn’t reply to interview requests. The U.S. Marshal’s Service responded to an interview request with a press release that stated, “The U.S. Division of Justice usually doesn’t touch upon extradition-related issues till a defendant is in the US.”
Francis was solely three weeks shy of his sentencing date, scheduled for Sept. 22, when he fled, aided by the truth that nobody knocked on his door till six hours after his ankle monitor registered an issue.
Till then, former employees and others who knew him stated, he lived a lifetime of opulence.
A Navy veteran, Buhain stated he met Francis by way of one in every of Francis’s medical doctors. Buhain stated he wired the condominium to which Francis was launched with video cameras and movement detectors, then stayed in a separate residence on the property the place he might monitor Francis by way of a window overlooking the entrance gate. Buhain offered The Washington Submit a doc outlining “commonplace working process” that he stated he was given when he began the job. It identifies solely legal professionals, paralegals and Francis’s 5 youngsters as authorised guests.
Throughout the first six months, Buhain stated, most of Francis’s youngsters and his mom moved in with him. When safety guard Galvan took over the job within the fall of 2018, he stated that Francis gave him a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift and a chair in a windowless storage the place he might monitor safety cameras of the condominium and grounds.
Pretrial Companies employees members repeatedly advised the courtroom that they made unannounced visits to verify on Francis, in accordance with courtroom transcripts.
Buhain and Galvan stated Francis appeared to know when somebody from the company was about to reach. “Me, personally, I really feel like he knew after they had been coming,” Galvan stated. “I don’t know the way, however he would all the time textual content me, ‘So and so is right here.’ He would all the time textual content me a minute or two earlier than they had been right here.”
In December 2020, a Pretrial Companies official arrived in late morning at Francis’s house, discovered no safety current and alerted the decide, who known as a listening to.
“Perhaps I could make it easy for everyone,” the decide stated. “Safety means safety. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week state of affairs. It doesn’t conform to someone’s schedule, and that was the courtroom’s concern in setting this way.”
“I used to be so shocked to study that this was being dealt with in the best way it was,” Sammartino added, in accordance with the transcript. “In order that’s the one factor. It’s not an excellent large deal. However it must be taken care of.”
Sammartino received one other unwelcome shock a 12 months later when a podcast collection that includes interviews with Francis boasting of how he reeled within the Navy was posted on-line. The chief of the undertaking, Tom Wright, stated he had podcast tools delivered to Francis by way of one in every of his staffers.
Joseph Mancano, a protection legal professional for a retired Navy captain convicted in Francis’s scheme, stated the episode illustrated how the federal government ought to have been extra cautious in its dealing with of Francis, notably given how many individuals he had hoodwinked as a part of his fraudulent enterprise. He famous that Francis nonetheless owes the federal government $30 million in restitution.
“Leonard Francis is a man who will do no matter it takes to assist himself,” Mancano stated. “That’s how he’s lived his life. So he’s going to do no matter he can to attempt to get what he wants, and it wouldn’t shock me, in actual fact, if he wasn’t planning [his escape] for a very long time.”
Nation, 33, who began in August serving to Francis with administrative duties, stated he might have lulled authorities into complacency as a result of, in her expertise, he very seldom left besides to take quick walks, go to church, or attend authorized and medical appointments.
“I believe that’s why the system turned so lax round him,” she stated, “as a result of he actually was a mannequin of home arrest in that manner.”
The safety system met its final take a look at about 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 4, in accordance with a timeline offered by a U.S. Marshals spokesman in response to questions despatched by The Submit earlier than Francis’s seize.
The Pretrial Companies workplace obtained an automated notification that there was an issue with Francis’s anklet. Pretrial Companies employees and members of his protection group tried and failed to succeed in him by textual content and cellphone that morning.
A member of the protection group knocked on his door at about 1:30 within the afternoon and, discovering the home quiet, known as the San Diego Police, who arrived an hour later and found the severed monitor in a transportable cooler crammed with water in an in any other case largely empty house, the Marshals Service stated.
Francis’s escape turned public when it was first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune the next day. The Marshals Service and the Naval Legal Investigative Service supplied a $40,000 award for data resulting in his seize.
Nation stated she noticed Francis the day earlier than his departure and was deeply upset by his determination to flee. Throughout his remaining days in San Diego, after his household left the rented house, Francis grew deeply melancholy as his sentencing approached, she stated.
“He turned an increasing number of morose as time went on, but it surely was pure to see him that manner since you’re developing towards this factor that’s going to vary the course of your life,” she stated. “You don’t know what’s going to occur. I keep in mind the final time I noticed him, and I might simply see his face and it was so unhappy.”
She stated, “It’s in all probability the most important disappointment in my life to study that Leo had fled. You need to imagine the very best in somebody.”
Nation stated regulation enforcement investigators interviewed her for 4 to 5 hours after Francis’s disappearance.
Her legal professional, Stephen P. White, advised The Submit that Nation had no advance data of Francis’s flight at the same time as she helped him get rid of his remaining belongings.
“He used her kindness and sensitivity to his benefit,” White stated.
Left with Nation was an English bulldog named Puteri, which belonged to the Francis household. Nation has boarded the canine and hopes to have the ability to return the pet to the Francis youngsters.
Sandra Jenney, one other former home employees member for Francis, faces a lawsuit introduced by the owner of Francis’s final house. The owner claims to be due again lease and damages on account of Francis’s escape.
Jenney labored for Francis as early as 2018, in accordance with the usual working process doc.
In a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in California Superior Courtroom, San Diego County, home-owner Mitesh Kalthia says Jenney and one in every of Francis’s sons, Leonardo Francis, signed the lease to the five-bedroom house the place Francis and his household stayed. Kalthia alleges he has not been paid the ultimate month’s lease of $7,000 and is in search of a complete of greater than $25,000 for the unpaid lease and different damages, in accordance with the swimsuit. Jenney and her legal professional declined to remark. Leonardo Francis couldn’t be situated to hunt remark.
Kalthia’s legal professional, Michael Wright, stated Kalthia “didn’t even know Leonard was the tenant” as a result of Jenney paid the payments: “He was coping with her.”
Craig Whitlock, Alice Crites and Samuel Oakford in Washington and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.