As U.S. Extradites ‘Most Brazen’ Criminal Fugitive, ‘Fat Leonard’ Francis’ Legal Fate Uncertain

December 20, 2023 10:52 PM - Updated: December 31, 2023 6:47 PM
Interpol Venezuela Image

The announcement Wednesday that international fugitive Leonard Glenn Francis is being extradited to the United States from Venezuela – where he fled 15 months ago after defying house arrest in California – raises more questions about federal prosecutors’ legal wranglings in San Diego. 

Francis, a Malaysian-born defense contractor and mastermind of a wide-ranging, multi-million dollar Navy corruption case, fled to Venezuela in September 2022, just three weeks before a scheduled sentencing for his 2015 federal conviction. The former president of Singapore-based Glenn Defense Marine Asia had taken a deal for him and GDMA to plead guilty to charges of bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to defraud the United States. In exchange, he helped prosecutors implicate three dozen military officials in the scheme. More than two dozen of them have since agreed to plead guilty.

But Francis’ freedom lasted just two weeks. He had traveled to Mexico and then Cuba but was detained in Venezuela, where he tried to board an airplane to Russia, according to Interpol officials.

Since then, Francis lingered in legal limbo. U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino, who has presided over the so-called “Fat Leonard” prosecutions, delayed status hearings three separate times while U.S. officials negotiated with Venezuela over extraditing Francis.

Francis’ extradition was bundled in diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Venezuela that also secured the release of 10 Americans held in Venezuela. 

“A fugitive named Leonard Francis, who fled the United States before he could be sentenced for his lead role in a brazen bribery and corruption case, was arrested and returned to the United States from Venezuela so that he will face justice for crimes he committed against the U.S. government and the American people,” read a statement from President Joe Biden.

Francis is slated to appear in federal court in Miami on Thursday morning, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, whose prosecutors will seek to extradite him to San Diego.

“Now that Mr. Francis is back in U.S. custody, we look forward to his return to the Southern District of California where he will be held accountable for his crimes,” said U.S. Attorney Tara McGrath.

McGrath became the top prosecutor in San Diego on Oct. 5. A Marine Corps judge advocate and veteran, she most recently served in Japan as the civilian litigation attorney advisor for the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific region, where she advised prosecutors, law enforcement, and unit commanders on legal issues, investigative best practices and legal ethics. 

Escape and Embarrassment

Francis was released on his own recognizance – and without posting a financial bond, as some federal defendants do – and was required to wear a GPS ankle monitor as part of his plea deal.

He reportedly suffered from renal cancer and other health issues, so was allowed to travel to appointments for “medical furloughs,” which Sammartino had approved, according to federal court documents. His defense attorneys – court records show 14 have represented him since 2014 – had pressed to allow him to live at home so he could pursue medical care on his own rather than through the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The details and extent of his medical problems, however, weren’t made clear to prosecutors or Sammartino, the judge, according to a limited set of transcripts publicly available.

Moreover, the private security guards who were entrusted with keeping an eye on Francis at his rental house were being paid by Francis. At times Pretrial Services personnel who dropped in to see Francis saw no guards at the house.

On the morning of Sept. 4, 2022, the GPS tracker emitted an alert that it was being tampered with. After a welfare check by San Diego Police Department, federal marshals responded to the house that afternoon. They found the door unlocked, the house empty and the GPS monitor abandoned, a U.S. Marshals Service spokesman told USNI News at the time.

Francis, whose sentencing hearing had been repeatedly delayed over seven years, would have been monitored by U.S. Pretrial Services, which provides probation and pretrial work for the federal courts.

When federal authorities interviewed the neighbors around the rental house Francis shared with his mother and children in San Diego’s tony, upscale Carmel Valley neighborhood, they learned that U-haul trucks had frequented the house for two days before he fled.

Prosecution Circus

Francis’ company provided key ship husbanding services for U.S. Pacific Fleet ships throughout the U.S. 7th Fleet region. The legal fallout from the long-running federal corruption investigation delayed or stymied advancements and promotions. 

The Navy tried just a handful of cases in legal proceedings. An undisclosed number were handled through the more secretive administrative “consolidated disposition authority” process rather than through the military courts.

But over in San Diego, federal attorneys, investigators and federal grand juries took the reins and prosecuted nearly three dozen Navy and Marine Corps officials – including some senior officers, commanders and criminal investigators – and GDMA company officials.

While most have resulted in guilty pleas, a handful of cases were headed to trial. Francis was expected to be among the key witnesses for the government. But his escape and subsequent extradition threw those cases into limbo. On Sept. 15, 2022, Sammartino approved the government prosecutor’s motion to dismiss all charges against retired Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless. The judge had previously denied requests by Loveless’ attorneys to separate his case from the others. Loveless had denied the charges of conspiracy, bribery and conspiracy to commit honest service fraud, and his 2022 trial ended with a hung jury.

On Sept. 12, 2023, Sammartino dismissed felony charges against David Newland, James Dolan, David Lausman and Mario Herrera and issued each $100 fines. 

More recently, attorneys for the remaining defendants have sought to get the charges dismissed because of alleged misconduct by federal investigators.

During a status hearing on Wednesday, as U.S. officials announced Francis’ extradition, Sammartino set a March 4, 2024, date to hear arguments by defense attorneys to change or withdraw guilty pleas by Marine Col. Enrico “Rick” DeGuzman, former Capt. Donald Hornbeck and former Chief Warrant Officer Robert Gorsuch

During a status hearing, Sammartino declined to drop the charges outright, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, and said she is “concerned about the totality of this case.”

Also pending are charges against former Cmdr. Stephen Shedd, who last year pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery.

Shedd’s sentencing hearing has been rescheduled several times and was set to happen on March 5, 2024, but Sammartino canceled that hearing and instead scheduled a hearing about Shedd’s request to withdraw his guilty plea for that day.

Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She has spent more than 20 years reporting extensively on the Marine Corps and the Navy, including West Coast commands and Pacific regional issues.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox