The US Marshals Service and other law enforcement agencies are facing questions over their competence after the central figure in the biggest scandal in US naval history was able not only to escape house arrest but also rented vans to load up his possessions.
When marshals arrived at Leonard Francis’s home in San Diego on Sunday, they found he had cut off his GPS ankle bracelet and fled, two weeks before his sentencing hearing. The whereabouts of the Malaysian contractor’s three sons, who had been living with him, was unclear.
Alerts were put out at ports, airports and the nearby southern border with Mexico, but law enforcement officials conceded that Francis may already have escaped the country.
The Regional Fugitive Task Force and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service were both reported to be helping with the manhunt.
After being arrested in 2013 in a San Diego hotel room as part of a federal sting operation, Francis pleaded guilty over a vast corruption scheme, in which naval officers were plied with food, drink and paid sex, and in return made sure US naval vessels as big as aircraft carriers, were diverted towards his Singapore-based company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, for servicing.
The affair, in which the navy was overcharged by an estimated $35m, is known as the “Fat Leonard” scandal, a reference to Francis’s body size.
The San Diego office of the US Marshals Service put up a wanted notice on Twitter on Tuesday. “The San Diego Fugitive Task Force is searching for Leonard Francis aka ‘Fat Leonard’. Francis, who was on home confinement and being monitored by US Pretrial Services, cut off his GPS bracelet and left his home,” the notice said.
Francis’s lawyer, Devin Burstein, declined to comment. Francis had been a cooperating witness for federal prosecutors in their cases against senior naval officers. His own sentencing hearing had been repeatedly postponed but was due on 22 September.
Francis’s house arrest arrangements were highly unusual, after he was released from prison in 2018 to undergo cancer treatment. He was being watched by a private security company, paid for by Francis himself, which on a previous occasion was found to have left the house unsecured when a guard went for lunch.
In the days before his disappearance, neighbours had seen U-Haul rental trucks coming and going at Francis’s home, according to the supervisory deputy US Marshal, Omar Castillo, said.
“He was planning this out, that’s for sure,” Castillo told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
In December 2020, a judge in the federal district court in San Diego ordered a review of the security arrangements at Francis’s house after a court officer made a routine check and found no guard there for more than two hours. The guard said later he had gone on lunch break.