Leonard Glenn Francis, better known as "Fat Leonard," a defense contractor who disappeared weeks before he was set to be sentenced for one of the largest bribery scandals in the nation’s military history, was taken into custody Wednesday in Venezuela, the U.S. Marshals Service confirmed.
Francis was taken into custody by Venezuelan authorities as he was boarding a plane to another country, Marshals Service spokesperson Omar Castillo said. The U.S. Marshals learned of his arrest from a social media release from Venezuelan authorities.
Carlos Garate Rondon, the Director General of INTERPOL Venezuela who disclosed the arrest in a statement posted Wednesday on Instagram, said Francis flew from Mexico to Ve Cuba, and his final destination was supposed to be Russia.
Francis will be handed over to federal authorities. There was no immediate word on when he might be extradited to the United States.
The arrest came on the eve of his long-awaited sentencing in a federal court in California for a bribery scheme that lasted more than a decade and involved dozens of U.S. Navy officers. At the sentencing hearing Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino announced to the court that Francis was in custody in Venezuela and that a “no bail arrest warrant" had been issued.
Prosecutors asked the court to note that Francis failed to appear at his sentencing hearing as ordered, while defense attorneys notified the court that they would be filing a motion severing their ties with Francis due to an “irreparable break down of the attorney-client relationship.”
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on what additional charges Francis could face as a result of his flight from the country, nor how the incident might affect his plea deal. Former federal prosecutor Drew Galvin told NBC 7 by fleeting Francis breached his plea agreement by committing a new crime, violating conditions of his pre-trial release and failing to show up for sentencing.
"By breaching his plea agreement, the government is relieved of all of its obligations under the plea agreement, which means they can recommend any sentence that they want as long as it doesn’t exceed the statutory maximum, and they can also pursue additional criminal charges against him that they hadn’t done previously," Galvin said.
Sammartino set a Dec. 14 status hearing for Francis with the caveat that all parties could meet sooner depending on how events unfold.
The U.S. government faces an uphill challenge returning the fugitive back to American soil from Venezuela. While the countries have an extradition agreement, the U.S. government doesn’t recognize Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government, has no embassy in the country and has imposed crushing sanctions on the country that has further embittered relations. Law enforcement cooperation between the two countries is rare.
'Fat Leonard' Case
Francis has been missing since Sept. 4, when he escaped from home custody in San Diego after cutting off his ankle monitoring bracelet, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. Neighbors reported seeing U-Haul trucks coming and going from the home days before he disappeared.
Last Friday, the U.S. government posted a $40,000 reward last for information leading to the arrest of the Malaysian defense contractor. Ten U.S. agencies were searching for Francis.
The towering man with a wide girth and gregarious personality wielded incredible influence as a main point of contact for U.S. Navy ships at ports across Asia. His family’s ship servicing business, Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia Ltd. or GDMA, supplied food, water and fuel to vessels for decades. He plied officers with Kobe beef, expensive cigars, concert tickets and wild sex parties at luxury hotels from Thailand to the Philippines. In exchange, commanders passed him classified information and steered their ships, mostly from the Navy’s 7th Fleet, to ports he controlled so he could cover up as much as $35 million in fake charges.
Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 to offering prostitution services, luxury hotels, cigars, gourmet meals, and more than $500,000 in bribes to Navy officials and others to help his Singapore-based ship servicing company.
U.S. authorities also issued a red notice, which asks law enforcement worldwide to provisionally arrest someone with the possibility of extradition. Malaysia and Singapore both have extradition agreements with the United States.
Francis had been allowed to remain in home confinement to receive medical care while he cooperated with the prosecution. With his help, prosecutors secured convictions of 33 of 34 defendants, including more than two dozen Navy officers.
The judge repeatedly maintained that security guards must be on site for Francis to be on house arrest, despite his poor health.
According to a transcript of a closed-door hearing in February 2018, which was unsealed in January, Sammartino expressed concern that her name would come up if Francis escaped and ended up back in Malaysia if anyone asked “who let somebody do this without security.”
She raised similar concerns in a Dec. 17, 2020, after receiving a report that the home was left without anyone guarding it for nearly three hours, according to the court transcript. The guard was on a lunch break, and Francis apologized to the judge for the mishap.
Officials found no security guards when they arrived at Francis' home in a tony San Diego neighborhood some seven hours after he removed the ankle monitor, according to Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marsha, Omar Castillo. The device, believed to have been removed with heavy scissors, was found in the home.
Castillo said someone had called the San Diego police department, which sent officers to the home on the afternoon of Sept. 4. Officers found the home empty and contacted U.S. Pre-Trial Services, the federal agency in charge of his confinement, which then contacted the U.S. Marshals Service.