Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who fled home arrest in San Diego earlier this month, was arrested Tuesday morning in Venezuela as he attempted to board an airplane at the Caracas international airport, according to the U.S. Marshals Service.
The top Interpol official in Venezuela posted on social media that Francis, who orchestrated the worst bribery and corruption scandal in U.S. Navy history, was headed to Russia. He had traveled through Mexico and Cuba and was captured at Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela’s capital.
The arrest was made after Interpol, the international policing agency, had issued a “red notice,” a request by law enforcement to locate and arrest someone, Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Omar Castillo said Wednesday.
Francis escaped from home arrest in San Diego on Sept. 4 by cutting off a GPS ankle bracelet. The escape only added to his notoriety, and Francis has been the subject of an international manhunt since, with marshals and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service offering a combined $40,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
Francis’ defense attorney, Devin Burstein, declined to comment Wednesday. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Castillo said he could not confirm where the flight Francis was attempting to board was headed. Francis is now in custody of authorities in Venezuela.
He will have to be extradited back to the U.S., which could take some time. Castillo said the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Justice will lead the extradition effort.
The U.S. and Venezuela have a limited extradition treaty, though it’s unclear whether tensions between the nations could complicate the process.
No marshals were in Venezuela as of Wednesday, according to Castillo, who said he did not believe any U.S. officials had yet seen Francis or been in contact with him.
Journalist Tom Wright, who recorded a podcast with Francis while he was in home confinement, first reported Monday that Francis was in Venezuela. He reported that Francis was in the company of one of his adult sons.
News of his apprehension came one day before the date that had been set for Francis to be sentenced on bribery and conspiracy charges in San Diego federal court. For more than a decade he orchestrated a wide-ranging corruption scheme in which U.S. Navy officers were bribed with gifts, cash and sex, and in return they aided Francis’ ship-servicing business, which controlled ports throughout Southeast Asia.
The scheme defrauded taxpayers out of at least $35 million and led to the conviction of nearly three-dozen Navy personnel in the worst scandal in the services’ history.
Francis’ plea deal called for him to forfeit that $35 million to the government. While he paid $5 million of that several years ago, he fled without having paid out the remainder. He still owes the government $30 million, according to Joseph Mancano, the lawyer for one of the convicted Navy officials.
Francis was arrested in 2013 in a San Diego hotel room as part of a federal sting. After his guilty plea, and after several bouts with health issues that included kidney cancer, Francis was released on medical furlough and has been on house arrest since at least 2018.
Both behind bars and later while on home confinement, Francis worked as a cooperating witness for federal prosecutors who continued to build cases against several others involved in the scheme. His sentencing date had been put off for years as he assisted prosecutors and prepared for what was expected to be his star turn on the witness stand in the trial earlier this year against five former naval officers.
Francis’ escape opens the door for him to face much stiffer penalties than he would have previously.
How long his sentence was going to be is unknown, but by cooperating with the government Francis was expecting a significant reduction in the potential 25-year sentence he could have faced under the three crimes to which he pleaded guilty.
But that agreement is likely void now. A clause in it says by committing nearly a dozen acts, such as not appearing in court or committing new crimes, Francis would be in breach of the deal.
In that case, the government could file any charges “including those that were dismissed, promised to be dismissed, or not filed as a result of this agreement.”
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