The true story behind Clint Eastwood's 'The Mule': How a 90-year-old trafficked 1,400 pounds of drugs for El Chapo
Born in Michigan City, Indiana, on May 7, 1924, Leo Earl Sharp moved to Detroit with his family at a young age.
He grew up to make his country proud in World War II, fighting in the Italian campaign, before being bestowed with a Bronze Star Medal for his service, the Indianapolis Star reports.
Sharp later turned to horticulture and became highly regarded in the daylily community. He famously operated Brookwood Gardens, a flower farm near Michigan City, for several years. The war veteran was considered an admired hybridizer after he had nearly 180 officially registered daylilies to his name, according to a piece on his life in New York Times magazine.
While Sharp frequently traveled across the country to speak at daylily conventions, he also contributed flowers to the White House Rose Garden during the George H.W. Bush administration. According to The Times, Sharp would produce an annual color catalog of all his new daylilies every year to show off his new creations. These catalogs were widely respected and several enthusiasts held on to them as keepsakes.
But during his final years, he was going to lose the flower farm as his business dwindled, and there was no way around it. The last thing he wanted to witness as an old man was his flowers being sold away and his life's work getting crushed. When a Mexican laborer on his farm offered Leo Sharp a shortcut to make millions of dollars, he had no choice but to accept the proposal.
At the outset, it seemed quite simple. According to the newspaper, all Sharp had to do was drive down to Arizona, let them fill up his truck with contraband, and drop it off back in Michigan. Furthermore, they assured him nobody would pull him over or ask him questions as he was an old man. At the same time, he'd earn sufficient money to keep his flower business afloat.
D.E.A. Special Agent Jeremy Fitch said after Sharp was caught: “Leo is the perfect courier for the cartel. He has a legitimate ID, he’s an older guy, he wouldn’t be pegged as a drug runner and he has no criminal history.”
Once the Sinaloa Cartel realized the arrangement was working well, they entrusted him with moving millions of dollars himself and began loading his truck up with hundreds of bricks of cocaine at a time. That said, it wasn't like Sharp didn't know what he was doing. Gaining immense trust from the drug kingpins, they let him drive right into the drug houses while other drug couriers were told to maintain their distance. He even chatted with cartel members like they knew each other since childhood, one of them being Viejo, the cartel’s head of Detroit distribution, with whom he once vacationed in Hawaii.
Sharp was the last person anyone would suspect of being a drug trafficker, and he exploited it to the fullest. He would drive across several state lines in a single trip, dropping off shipments in Chicago, Boston, and Detroit without ever being apprehended. The elderly gentleman shipped drugs around the country for nearly a decade in the 2000s and sometimes earned as much as $1 million in a single year
The renowned horticulturist turned drug mule was eventually arrested on I-94 by the Michigan State Police in 2011 at the age of 87. According to news archives, he was found to be carrying 104 bricks of cocaine weighing more than 200 pounds in his pickup truck.
According to police reports, the depiction of his arrest on Clint Eastwood's "The Mule", a movie based on his life, was spot on. During the scene, Eastwood almost succeeds in talking his way out of the situation before a K-9 officer begins barking at his vehicle. In court, Sharp claimed he moved drugs because he "feared the cartel would harm him, his children, and his grandchildren" if he didn't. Having said that, it wasn't his first operation by a long shot.
He would later admit to detectives he was responsible for trafficking over 1,400 pounds of drugs across the country. Furthermore, there was strong evidence of him transporting marijuana and cocaine in 2000, originating from the West Coast.
According to Indianapolis Star, the veteran and daylily expert was sentenced to three years in prison on his 90th birthday. Prior to his sentencing, he offered to make up for what he had done by growing Hawaiian papayas for the people of the United States. “It’s so sweet and delicious,” he told the presiding judge. “People on the mainland will love it.”
When his rather fanciful request was denied, he asked for mercy and threatened to kill himself in prison. "I'm really heartbroken I did what I did. But it's done," Sharp said. "I won't live in prison, I'm just going to end my life if I end up there."
That said, owing to his terminally ill condition at the age of 91, Sharp was granted an early release from prison, before his death in 2016 aged 92.