'The Mule' tells tale of Detroit drug bust, elderly courier

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — The colorful, controversial life of Leo Sharp, the octogenarian drug mule convicted of hauling 228 pounds of cocaine to Metro Detroit for the world’s most notorious Mexican drug ring, hits the silver screen Friday.

Clint Eastwood’s film “The Mule” opens nationwide and is a fictionalized version of the 2011 drug bust that led to the 87-year-old Sharp being handcuffed on the shoulder of eastbound Interstate 94 after Michigan State Police found $3 million worth of cocaine hidden in the bed of the Indiana man’s pickup.

Sharp was prosecuted in federal court in Detroit and the case revealed the mutton-chopped World War II hero and champion grower of daylilies was leading a secret life as a trusted courier for drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

In this file photo taken on Jan. 8, 2016, drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted into a helicopter at Mexico City's airport following his recapture during an intense military operation in Los Mochis, in Sinaloa State.

The elderly courier popped up on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's radar in September 2011. That's when an informant told federal agents a large drug shipment would arrive at a warehouse on Clark Street in Wyandotte.

The drug warehouse in Wyandotte.

The commercial building was the drug ring's stash house. Couriers would haul cocaine and other drugs to the warehouse and leave with money bound for Mexico.

On Sept. 17, 2011, the informant was at the warehouse, wearing a secret recording device. Agents watched the recording and saw an old man arrive in a black 2006 Lincoln pickup and spotted two men loading more than $1 million into the truck.

Agents didn't know Sharp's name, initially. Members of the drug ring called him "The Grandfather" and investigators learned he was the primary courier.

Agents obtained a subpoena to track Sharp's phone. The next month, agents shadowed Sharp after learning he was headed to Metro Detroit with a large cocaine delivery.

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Leo Sharp ended up in handcuffs on the side of I-94, west of Ann Arbor.

Investigators stopped Sharp's Lincoln Mark LT pickup near Chelsea on Oct. 21.

In the bed of the pickup, investigators found 228 pounds of cocaine during an encounter captured by a trooper's dash-cam.

Michigan State Police captured video of the traffic stop in October 2011. 

Sharp was arrested and taken to federal court in Detroit.

He shuffled into a federal courtroom and said he was threatened at gunpoint to serve as a drug mule. His detention hearing turned into a bizarre episode during which Sharp announced he was penning a book about the arrest, complained about hearing damage caused by cannon fire during "the war" and nearly talked his way out of receiving bond.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Randon quizzed Sharp about his hearing and asked if he could read.

"Can I read?" Sharp asked. "I can probably read as well or better than anybody sitting in this room, sir. I've got an IQ ..."

Randon cut him off.

"I didn't ask all that," the judge said. "I just said 'can you read?'"

"I think you have to have an IQ to read," Sharp said before laughing.

Sharp said his passport was stolen, prompting snickers from the gallery.

The snickers proved contagious, spreading through the courtroom gallery.

Randon tried to stifle a laugh by covering his mouth. Then, he shook his head and smiled.

Listen to Leo Sharp's detention hearing in October 2011.

"Mr. Sharp, we are trying to get you home to Indiana," Randon said, warning him to keep quiet. "Help me help you."

Sharp eventually went home and later struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors, who accused him of making seven trips to Detroit and delivering more than 1,200 kilograms of cocaine. 

In return, Sharp was paid about $1.25 million.

Three years later, in May 2014, on his 90th birthday, Sharp stood in front of U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds for sentencing and threatened to commit suicide if sent to prison.

Leo Sharp, right, and his attorney, Darryl Goldberg, walk into the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit, Wednesday afternoon, May 7, 2014, before being sentenced to three years in prison.

"All I can tell you, your honor, is I'm really heartbroken that I did what I did, but it's done," Sharp told the judge.

The judge ordered Sharp to spend three years in prison.

Edmunds, best known for sending former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to prison for 28 years, later gave Sharp a break.

She freed Sharp two years early, citing his declining health.

Sharp, 92, died in December 2016 and is buried at a national veterans' cemetery in Hawaii. 

"The Mule" opens nationwide Friday, Dec. 14.


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Twitter: @robertsnellnews