SAN DIEGO (AP) — The brazen escape of the man at the center of one of the biggest bribery investigations in U.S. military history was the realization of the judge’s oft-stated fear that he would slip away from house arrest.
On Sunday, three weeks before he was to be sentenced, Leonard Glenn Francis — known by the nickname “Fat Leonard” — snipped off his ankle monitor and disappeared.
Officials acknowledged he may have been in Mexico before his escape was even discovered, and it was suspected he planned to return to his Malaysian home.
As a condition of his house arrest, U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino had required round-the-clock security guards watching the home.
At one point, she expressed concern that if he were to escape and ended up “back in Malaysia for whatever reason,” her name would come up if anyone asked “who let somebody do this without any security,” according to a transcript of a closed-door hearing in 2018.
Francis, a defense contractor, was at the time cooperating with prosecutors as they pursued charges against dozens of Navy officials who accepted bribes in exchange for classified information that gave Francis’ ship servicing business in Asia an edge in getting military contracts.
His poor health was a major factor in the granting of the “medical furlough” that allowed him to await sentencing in a rented home. His three teenage children and his mother lived there with him, and Francis was required to pay for the round-the-clock surveillance.
Sammartino’s uneasiness about the situation was documented in a number of her decisions. At one point, she denied a request to allow Francis to walk his children to school, saying he already had been awarded great leniency.
Sammartino again raised security concerns in a hearing on 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 said he had been on a long lunch break, and Francis apologized to the judge for the lapse.
Neighbors in the gated Collins Ranch subdivision told reporters that they had seen cars with out-of-state plates and U-Haul trucks outside the residence as early as Friday.
It is thought that Francis shed his monitoring ankle bracelet — snipping it off with heavy scissors and stashing it in a cooler — around 8 a.m. Sunday.
Omar Castillo, supervisory deputy U.S. marshal, said the San Diego police received a call around 2 p.m. to request that they check on Francis’ whereabouts. Castillo said he did not know who made the call.
After finding the home empty, police contacted U.S. Pre-Trial Services, the federal agency in charge of his confinement, which then called the U.S. Marshals Service.
When the marshals arrived around 3 p.m., they found no security officers at the home. The monitoring device was inside.
The home is about a 40-minute drive from the Mexican border, where vehicles stream into Tijuana and are only stopped randomly.
When asked Tuesday about the bold escape, Francis’ lawyer, Devin Burstein, who pushed for more leniency for his client, said: “At this time, I have no comment, sorry.”
Castillo said Mexican authorities have been put on alert and 10 U.S. law enforcement agencies at local, state and federal levels were searching for Francis. Though he seems to have shed some weight during his illness, the marshals’ wanted poster lists him as 6-foot-2 and 350 pounds.
Nearly a decade ago, Francis was arrested in a San Diego hotel as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, bilked the Navy out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts. In exchange the officers, including the first active-duty admiral to be convicted of a federal crime, concealed the scheme in which Francis would overcharge for supplying ships or charge for fake services at ports he controlled in Southeast Asia.
The case, which delved into salacious details about service members cheating on their wives and seeking out prostitutes, was an embarrassment to the Pentagon. It was prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office, which offered an independent authority from the military justice system.
Francis was scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 22 after working with prosecutors for years, leading to dozens of convictions. He was facing up to 25 years in prison.
All that cooperation will mean nothing now, but Francis may be hard to catch, given his wealth and vast worldwide connections, said Jason Forge, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego who worked on a number of high-profile corruption cases.
“He doesn’t strike me as the type of person under these circumstances to make a spontaneous decision,” Forge said. “I’m assuming this means he has planned things out and he has the wherewithal to do so. He will probably be a free bird for a while.”