The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Fat Leonard’ had life of leisure, relaxed security before escape, capture

Leonard 'Fat Leonard' Francis, mastermind of a massive Navy bribery scandal, shown after his arrest at an airport in Venezuela. He fled federal home detention in the U.S. by cutting off his electronic monitoring device. (-/Interpol Venezuela Instagram Acc)

The rules laid out in federal court were clear: Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian defense contractor who admitted bribing dozens of Navy officers as part of a $35 million fraud scheme, would remain in home confinement under tight, 24-7 security while he provided evidence against corrupt Navy personnel. Only approved visitors could enter the home. An ankle monitor would alert authorities should he somehow slip away.

“He’s not going anywhere,” one of his defense attorneys, Devin Burstein, assured the judge in late 2020.

But the criminal mastermind known as “Fat Leonard” because of his 6-2, 350-pound frame eventually did go somewhere, cutting off his ankle monitor this past Labor Day weekend and fleeing the San Diego mansion where he had been living with private security staff that he paid for under a court-approved deal meant to prevent 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, according to Interpol. Interpol’s Venezuela director general, Carlos Gárate Rondón, said the 57-year-old Francis would be handed over to judicial authorities to begin the paperwork for extradition.

The international manhunt for Francis renewed interest in his long-running case and the way he outmaneuvered federal authorities in escaping weeks before his sentencing. His flight also triggered new calls from attorneys representing Navy officers in related cases for more details about the health issues that caused Francis to be released from prison on a medical furlough that the court repeatedly extended without objection from prosecutors.

Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 and became a cooperating witness. He spent a couple of years in prison before a diagnosis of kidney cancer led to his initial furlough in 2018 for medical treatment, and then multiple extensions, court files show. With Francis’s help, prosecutors secured convictions of 33 of 34 defendants.

Francis increasingly took advantage of his confinement rules, according to new records on his household arrangements obtained by The Washington Post and interviews with people who knew or worked for him during his years in home detention. He hired servants to meet his family’s every need and undermined the court’s security requirements aimed at keeping him from fleeing by stationing his personal security guards in windowless garages, with no night patrols and no visitor’s logs. He seemed able to anticipate when federal officers were headed to check on him, the interviews showed, and allowed a video crew to film him days before he fled.

During his years on medical furlough, Francis stayed at three private homes, where his comforts and liberties grew. Most recently he, his family and an English bulldog lived in a five-bedroom, seven-bath home with a $7,000-a-month rent in a gated community, court filings and interviews show.

At his first stay outside a cell, in an apartment near his doctor’s office, Francis’s staff prepared so much food for him that uneaten meals filled two to three trash bags each day that would have to be placed in a commercial dumpster nearby, according to Ricardo Buhain, a live-in, around-the-clock security guard who said that he had been hired via an introduction from a doctor treating Francis and that Leonard paid him $10,000 a month.

“He is kind of one of those Crazy Rich Asian kind of people,” said Buhain, who said he was Francis’s first security guard during his home confinement, referring to the novel and romantic comedy about a fabulously wealthy Singapore family. “The servants really served him. They bathed all of his kids. They fed them 24-7.”

A guard hired as Buhain’s successor at the apartment, Anthony Galvan, earned about $7,500 a month and said he worked a 12-hour daylight shift and never saw signs of overnight security.

Galvan said that there was never anyone on duty when he arrived or left and that he spent much of his time opening Amazon boxes.

“It’s crazy how much stuff he ordered,” he said. “He had packages coming from Amazon all day long. He had so much deliveries happening every single day. Sometimes it would be couches, all kinds of furniture, books. Every morning I would show back up at the garage and there would just be boxes in there.”

In the days before he went on the lam, Francis paid for U-Haul trucks to carry his family’s belongings out of his home and brought in a film crew to interview him, according to Perla Nation, who said she met Francis through an attorney and worked during his final month of home confinement handling administrative tasks.

Nation said she asked Francis about the film crew but didn’t get an explanation. “He said it was ‘just something that I’m doing,’” she said.

Despite working in the home two or three days a week, Nation said she never met the security guard who she said stayed in the property’s garage. She said she never saw a log of visitors to the house.

Nation said the U-Hauls were there to clear the house of belongings from Francis’s children as they moved out in anticipation of his sentencing.

“He is a very smart man, and you are seeing the fallout now,” she said while Francis was still at large. “Because even within those confines he always had options.”

Francis’s escape has drawn additional scrutiny to the federal judge, the U.S. attorney’s office, Pretrial Services and the U.S. Marshals Service for their roles in his unusual confinement. And whether Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will allow his extradition is unknown. The United States doesn’t recognize Maduro’s government as legitimate. The countries cut diplomatic relations in 2019.

Beginning in 2018, U.S. District Judge Janis Lynn Sammartino of the Southern District of California granted Francis the medical furlough for treatment of cancer, which she and attorneys for both sides worried could prove fatal, according to court transcripts.

From that time on, court transcripts show, fears that Francis would bolt from home detention nagged the judge and prosecutors, alongside anxiety about how best to care for a critical witness in proceedings that were stretching for years.

“I even went so far as to wonder if he is still in this country,” Sammartino commented at a 2020 hearing after Francis was discharged from a doctor’s care.

Court transcripts at other times show the judge and attorneys discussing the need to take a deposition with Francis to preserve his testimony should he not survive to help at trials.

Details of his health had been shielded in closed-door hearings conducted since 2018. Redacted transcripts were made public recently only after defense attorneys for Navy personnel on trial pressed for information that they argued could help defense teams probe Francis’s credibility and learn more about the terms of his home detention.

Because of the redactions, the full extent of Francis’s medical condition and response to treatment still are difficult to discern.

As the government prepared to release him on furlough, Sammartino said paying for constant security over months or years was too pricey for the government, leading to Francis’s hiring his own security staff.

“It’s private security, which probably wouldn’t have been the court’s preference,” Sammartino said in February 2018. “But I don’t think the Marshals are going to put somebody out there 24-7.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Pletcher said at the same hearing that he agreed with the court’s assessment that security at the time “seems like the least of our concerns.”

The judge, the U.S. attorney’s office and Pretrial Services did not respond to interview requests. The U.S. Marshal’s Service responded to an interview request with a statement that said, “The U.S. Department of Justice generally does not comment on extradition-related matters until a defendant is in the United States.”

Francis was only three weeks shy of his sentencing date, scheduled for Sept. 22, when he fled, aided by the fact that no one knocked on his door until six hours after his ankle monitor registered a problem.

Until then, former staff and others who knew him said, he lived a life of opulence.

A Navy veteran, Buhain said he met Francis through one of Francis’s doctors. Buhain said he wired the apartment to which Francis was released with video cameras and motion detectors, then stayed in a separate residence on the property where he could monitor Francis through a window overlooking the front gate. Buhain provided The Post a document outlining “standard operating procedure” that he said he was given when he started the job. It identifies only lawyers, paralegals and Francis’s five children as approved visitors.

Within the first six months, Buhain said, most of Francis’s children and his mother moved in with him. When security guard Galvan took over the job in the fall of 2018, he said that Francis gave him a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift and a chair in a windowless garage where he could monitor security cameras of the apartment and grounds.

Pretrial Services staff members repeatedly told the court that they made unannounced visits to check on Francis, according to court transcripts.

Buhain and Galvan said Francis seemed to know when someone from the agency was about to arrive. “Me, personally, I feel like he knew when they were coming,” Galvan said. “I don’t know how, but he would always text me, ‘So and so is here.’ He would always text me a minute or two before they were here.”

In December 2020, a Pretrial Services official arrived in late morning at Francis’s home, found no security present and alerted the judge, who called a hearing.

“Maybe I can make it simple for everybody,” the judge said. “Security means security. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week situation. It doesn’t conform to somebody’s schedule, and that was the court’s concern in setting this manner.”

“I was so surprised to learn that this was being handled in the way it was,” Sammartino added, according to the transcript. “So that’s the only thing. It’s not a super big deal. But it needs to be taken care of.”

Sammartino got another unwelcome surprise a year later when a podcast series featuring interviews with Francis boasting of how he reeled in the Navy was posted online. The leader of the project, Tom Wright, said he had podcast equipment delivered to Francis through one of his staffers.

Joseph Mancano, a defense attorney for a retired Navy captain convicted in Francis’s scheme, said the episode illustrated how the government should have been more careful in its handling of Francis, particularly given how many people he had hoodwinked as part of his fraudulent business. He noted that Francis still owes the government $30 million in restitution.

“Leonard Francis is a guy who will do whatever it takes to help himself,” Mancano said. “That’s how he’s lived his life. So he’s going to do whatever he can to try to get what he needs, and it wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if he wasn’t planning [his escape] for a long time.”

Nation, 33, who started in August helping Francis with administrative tasks, said he may have lulled authorities into complacency because, in her experience, he very seldom left except to take short walks, go to church, or attend legal and medical appointments.

“I think that’s why the system became so lax around him,” she said, “because he really was a model of house arrest in that way.”

The security system met its ultimate test about 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 4, according to a timeline provided by a U.S. Marshals spokesman in response to questions sent by The Post before Francis’s capture.

The Pretrial Services office received an automatic notification that there was a problem with Francis’s anklet. Pretrial Services staff and members of his defense team tried and failed to reach him by text and phone that morning.

A member of the defense team knocked on his door at about 1:30 in the afternoon and, finding the house quiet, called the San Diego Police, who arrived an hour later and discovered the severed monitor in a portable cooler filled with water in an otherwise mostly empty home, the Marshals Service said.

Francis’s escape became public when it was first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune the following day. The Marshals Service and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service offered a $40,000 award for information leading to his capture.

Nation said she saw Francis the day before his departure and was deeply disappointed by his decision to flee. During his final days in San Diego, after his family left the rented home, Francis grew deeply melancholy as his sentencing approached, she said.

“He became more and more morose as time went on, but it was natural to see him that way because you’re coming up against this thing that is going to change the course of your life,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. I remember the last time I saw him, and I could just see his face and it was so sad.”

She said, “It’s probably the biggest disappointment in my life to learn that Leo had fled. You want to believe the best in someone.”

Nation said law enforcement investigators interviewed her for four to five hours after Francis’s disappearance.

Her attorney, Stephen P. White, told The Post that Nation had no advance knowledge of Francis’s flight even as she helped him dispose of his remaining belongings.

“He used her kindness and sensitivity to his advantage,” White said.

Left with Nation was an English bulldog named Puteri, which belonged to the Francis family. Nation has boarded the dog and hopes to be able to return the pet to the Francis children.

Sandra Jenney, another former house staff member for Francis, faces a lawsuit brought by the landlord of Francis’s last home. The landlord claims to be due back rent and damages as a result of Francis’s escape.

Jenney worked for Francis as early as 2018, according to the standard operating procedure document.

In a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in California Superior Court, San Diego County, homeowner Mitesh Kalthia says Jenney and one of Francis’s sons, Leonardo Francis, signed the lease to the five-bedroom home where Francis and his family stayed. Kalthia alleges he has not been paid the final month’s rent of $7,000 and is seeking a total of more than $25,000 for the unpaid rent and other damages, according to the suit. Jenney and her attorney declined to comment. Leonardo Francis could not be located to seek comment.

Kalthia’s attorney, Michael Wright, said Kalthia “didn’t even know Leonard was the tenant” because Jenney paid the bills: “He was dealing with her.”

Craig Whitlock, Alice Crites and Samuel Oakford in Washington and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.

Loading...