Screencap via ABC News
Leo Sharp is an 89-year-old drug mule. He pleaded guilty last fall to trucking 200 pounds of cocaine across the country for the Sinaloa Cartel. Now, he's awaiting sentencing next week on May 7, his 90th birthday. He told a news crew in no uncertain terms that if given jail time, "I'm just gonna end it all. Period." If that's too ambiguous for you, he clarified: "I'm gonna get a goddamned gun and shoot myself in the mouth or the ear, one or the other." So if he means it, that's happening this coming Wednesday.
Sharp has a lot going for him PR-wise. He's a Bronze Star recipient who saw action in the Italian theater of WWII. "I served with the 88th Infantry Division, also known as the Blue Devils," he wrote in a friend's obituary a year ago. This means he was part of the fighting force that drove the Germans into Rome in 1944 at heavy cost. In addition to running drugs, Sharp has probably put bullets in a lot of people.
After the war, he made himself into an even more unimpeachable example of the Norman Rockwell/Greatest Generation set. After settling in Michigan City, Indiana, he got into the flower business. He narrowed his focus to the daylily, and achieved international recognition for his special variety of hemerocallis hybrida, known in gardening circles as "Siloam Leo Sharp."
In his 80s, the flower business wasn't paying the bills, however, and for one reason or another, Sharp found himself trafficking cocaine for the Sinaloas. That's not like getting mixed up with some hoods. The Sinaloa Cartel is the Comcast of the drug world, and they used Sharp to move 670 kilos in total. If you were an avid coke user in Chicago from 2009 to 2011, there's a good chance Leo Sharp was your courier. Hell, if it was carted eight more hours and turned into crack after crossing the Canadian border, maybe Rob Ford even smoked it.
But in 2011, Sharp got busted with 200 pounds of cocaine by the Michigan state police. Some coverage emphasized that he had dementia, but it doesn't look like he thought for a second he was trucking around a bunch of Gold Bond. He confirmed in press interviews that he'd known that was cocaine back there. He'd gotten involved "because an old man is not gonna be bothered by cops, driving through Arizona," he told ABC News.
Late last year, he seemed comfortable with what he'd done. In that same ABC interview he equated cocaine with lilies. "All God's plants that cheer people up are created for a purpose. To take depressed people's minds, and make them feel like they can feel good," he said.
Image via Flickr user Christina Groth-Biswas
When I spoke with Sharp's lawyer, Darryl Goldberg, it was obviously time to downplay Sharp's indifference to the law. Goldberg politely declined to let me interview Sharp ahead of sentencing, saying, "I'm getting a lot of requests, and here's how I'm going to play it: Hopefully he'll be on house arrest by next week. In the meantime, for an interview I'd have to be there, and I can't."
His courtroom statement had been an effort to make Sharp appear a little more contrite. "Mr. Sharp made a monumental mistake at a moment of perceived financial weakness, and was exploited and threatened, but his conduct in this case was truly an aberration from a law-abiding life."
The prosecution looks to be gunning for a five-year sentence, which, granted, is merciful for a drug offense of this scale, but would be a life sentence for Sharp. Goldberg, however, is pushing for house arrest. Legally speaking, that looks unlikely. Sharp's confession indicated jail time is inevitable, but maybe some kind of time served arrangement would make house arrest a possibility.
Screencap via ABC News
It may be a little gauche to point this out, but just because this particular old man is a colorful, outspoken flower enthusiast, the justice system isn't supposed to hold him to a different legal standard than, say, a 25-year-old black man in Compton who probably had his reasons too. But clemency for offenses like these, even for less telegenic offenders, is becoming a catchy idea.
Now, after decades of pursuing harsh penalties and bringing about its own plague of prison overcrowding, the Department of Justice is looking to free thousands of cocaine offenders under orders straight from President Obama. This is happening at a time when, as we've pointed out in the past, the system seems to be moving toward locking up fewer drug offenders to begin with.
A favorable outcome for Sharp could be an example of a positive sea change. Then again, the high-profile case of an old man being sent to die in a concrete box might spark an even more substantive shift toward reform. Maybe Leo Sharp is just the mascot the war on "the War on Drugs" needs right now.
But Sharp probably isn't thinking about the national implications. "Hopefully at the sentencing, if he gets jail time, they won't cart him off right then and there," Goldberg told me. He didn't point out the 500-pound gorilla in the room, though: If they don't remand Sharp right there in court, he'll probably be a no-show on the day he's scheduled to get locked up.
And maybe that's for the best.
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