Fat Leonard thought he was going free. Now he’s locked up in Miami.

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Fat Leonard, the celebrated con man and fugitive from U.S. justice, got snookered in the end.

As recently as Monday, Leonard Glenn Francis thought he was on the verge of permanently gaining his liberty after 15 months of trying to outrun U.S. officials, according to Francis’s attorney and others who have been in contact with him. He texted his mother from a Caracas prison to let her know that Venezuelan officials had promised to release him from custody to receive medical treatment and that he expected to win his complete freedom by the end of the year.

In fact, it was all a ruse hatched by Venezuelan security officials so Francis wouldn’t legally contest his transfer back to U.S. custody as part of a larger prisoner swap that the two countries negotiated in secret over the past several months.

On Wednesday, instead of walking free, the 59-year-old Francis was bundled onto a small jet by Venezuelan officials and flown from Caracas to the tiny Caribbean island of Canouan — part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a country in the West Indies. There, along with 10 Americans who had been held prisoner in Venezuela, he was handed over to U.S. officials in exchange for a Venezuelan diplomat who had been facing money laundering charges in Florida, according to news organizations in St. Vincent.

U.S. authorities transported Francis to Miami where he remained locked up in a federal prison on Thursday, according to a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons. In the coming days, the Malaysian defense contractor is expected to be transferred to San Diego so he can finally be sentenced — nine years after he pleaded guilty to federal bribery and fraud charges — for masterminding the most extensive corruption case in U.S. military history.

Who is ‘Fat Leonard,’ the fugitive Venezuela turned over to the U.S.?

His recapture marks the end of a 15-month odyssey in which he bamboozled federal officials into thinking he was terminally ill, escaped federal home detention in San Diego and fled to Mexico, Cuba and finally Venezuela, all in hopes of winning refuge in a country that wouldn’t extradite him to the United States.

Francis had told family members and other confidants in recent days that he was optimistic he would be released imminently from Venezuelan custody and given his freedom after a long-running bid to win asylum there.

“Hoping for positive outcome before the year ends,” he wrote in a text Monday to Sarah Macdonald, a British journalist and filmmaker who is producing a documentary about how Francis bribed scores of U.S. Navy officers while defrauding the Pentagon of an estimated $50 million. She shared the text exchange with The Washington Post.

When Macdonald asked if he meant he was about to be sprung from prison, he responded: “Let’s see in 12 days 😊.”

Francis sent similar messages Monday to his mother in Kuala Lumpur, according to a person in touch with his family in Malaysia.

Marco Rodriguez-Acosta, a Venezuelan lawyer who represents Francis, said his client suddenly changed his mind in recent weeks about his legal strategy for winning his freedom. The attorney said Francis instructed him last month to drop long-planned efforts to file a legal petition for his release from Venezuelan custody, apparently because someone had convinced him that he was about to be released through informal channels instead.

“I am convinced he was deceived,” Rodriguez-Acosta said.

He said Venezuelan officials did not legally notify him or Francis of the fugitive’s pending transfer or give him an opportunity to contest it in court. Rodriguez-Acosta called the outcome “a hard blow for those who still trust in the independence of powers.”

Francis was the owner of Glenn Defense Marine Asia, a Singapore-based defense contractor that resupplied U.S. warships during port calls in Asia for nearly a quarter century. In January 2015, he pleaded guilty to federal fraud and bribery charges.

But his sentencing was delayed for years because he agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department as part of his plea bargain and provide incriminating evidence against hundreds of U.S. Navy officers whom he lavished with expensive meals, prostitutes and other gifts.

Francis was apprehended by Venezuelan authorities in Caracas in September 2022 on an Interpol Red Notice 16 days after he escaped from house arrest in San Diego by slicing off a GPS ankle monitor and fleeing to Mexico.

But U.S. authorities were unable to formally request his extradition from Venezuela because Washington does not have diplomatic relations with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. As a result, Francis remained in legal limbo — and in detention in a Caracas prison — while his asylum case stalled in the Venezuelan courts.

In exchange for Francis and 10 Americans who had been detained by Maduro’s government, President Biden agreed to grant clemency to Alex Saab, a Maduro ally who was awaiting trial in Miami on federal money laundering charges. Saab, 51, was arrested last year in Cape Verde while traveling to Iran and later extradited to the United States.

The prisoner swap took place Wednesday on the Caribbean island of Canouan — neutral ground, given the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Maduro’s government, according to Searchlight, a news site that covers St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

U.S. officials handed over Saab, who then returned to a hero’s welcome in Caracas and met with Maduro at the presidential palace. Some of the freed American prisoners then were transported from Canouan to a military base in San Antonio. Francis was taken on a separate flight to Miami.

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