How an Elderly War Vet Became a Drug Mule

Leo Sharp was a renowned lily farmer before turning to crime

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Jun 15, 2014 8:26 AM CDT

(Newser) – When DEA officers pulled over a notorious cocaine courier in 2011, they were in for a little surprise: An elderly man stepped out of the pickup truck, his hair tousled and face unshaven as he cupped an ear to hear. "At age 87, I want to know why I’m being stopped," he said. That man was Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran and renowned lily grower who had become a drug mule for the Sinaloa Cartel, writes Sam Dolnick in the New York Times Magazine. So how and why did Sharp do it? His lawyer claimed dementia and said the cartel had threatened Sharp at gunpoint, but a judge wasn't swayed and gave Sharp three years in prison. "It's not a victimless crime," the judge said, reports the Detroit Free Press. "This is a huge drug operation, and Mr. Sharp was right in the middle of it."

Once a hugely admired lily hybridizer, Sharp grew small flowers in brilliant reds, pinks, and yellows; nearly 180 are registered to his name. He even showed up at day-lily conventions in all-black or all-white suits with an entourage that handed out lilies to swooning fans. "He was just a stud," says one gardener. "He just had the air." One theory has it that when the Internet blossomed, he stuck with a paper catalog for his lilies and lost too many customers. His woes intersected with the rise of the Sinaloa Cartel, which was smuggling massive amounts of cocaine from Mexico into Arizona safe houses. Sharp became their driver into Detroit, and prosecutors say he earned about $1.25 million doing it, the Detroit News reports. A colorful presence in the courtroom, he whispered "death sentence" when the judge sent him away last month. "All I can tell you, your honor, is I'm really heartbroken that I did what I did, but it's done," he said. (Click to read about the Sinaloa cartel kingpin's arrest in February.)

Leo Sharp walks toward U.S. District Court before his scheduled sentencing, Wednesday, May 7, 2014, in Detroit.   (AP Photo/Ed White)
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The people who do lilies are way cooler than other plant people. He was just a stud. He just had the air. He had 70-year-old swagger. - Nikki Schmith, gardener

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