2018 : Clint Eastwood’s The Mule Recalls Michigan Drug Bust

December 14, 2021 all-day

The names are different. So are the locations and details. But the seed for Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” which opens Friday, was planted by the infamous Michigan bust of an elderly drug mule for a cocaine pipeline between Mexico and Detroit.

In 2011, Leo Sharp was arrested after being stopped on I-94 near Ann Arbor. The 87-year-old daylily farmer from Michigan City, Indiana, was nabbed with nearly $3 million worth of cocaine in his Lincoln pickup truck and wound up serving time in federal prison.

Whatever happened to Sharp? And how did his strange, melancholy foray into crime lead to the 2018 movie directed by and starring Eastwood, who’s 88 himself and still going strong?

Here are some essentials:

NYT and Twitter: The movie was inspired by a 2014 New York Times article written by Sam Dolnick that took a deep dive into Sharp’s role as a courier for the powerful Sinaloa cartel led by Joaquin Guzman, aka the notorious El Chapo. Dolnick got the idea while scanning Twitter and stumbling on a link involving Sharp’s guilty plea.

Detroit connections: Dolnick’s reporting was adapted for the big screen by Nick Schenk, who also wrote the screenplay for Eastwood’s 2008 Detroit-made drama “Gran Torino.” The result is mostly Schenk’s invention, except for the main character’s involvement with shuttling drugs and growing daylilies. “Fiction filled in the spaces where journalism could not go,” Dolnick wrote last week in the Times.

From wood to stone: In the movie, the lead character (played by Eastwood) is named Earl Stone. His fictional backstory focuses on his past failures in being there for his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest), daughter (Eastwood’s real-life daughter, Alison) and granddaughter (Tessa Farmiga). Andy Garcia portrays the cartel boss, who is named Laton here. Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Pena are DEA agents on the case.

Peachy: “The Mule” was shot mostly in Georgia for practical (i.e. film incentives) reasons. As for the setting, Eastwood’s character lives in the Chicago area and is arrested in Illinois and tried in an Illinois federal court.

The road to prison: Real-life drug mule Sharp was pulled over in southeast Michigan, where a dozen Drug Enforcement Administration agents in unmarked cars had dotted a portion of I-94 between Kalamazoo to Jackson on the lookout, according to Dolnick’s 2014 chronicle. The arrest was the result of a months-long investigation: “It was by every measure the biggest cocaine operation Detroit authorities had ever seen. In previous years, a significant bust might be a dozen kilos; now the cartel was bringing in 200 kilos a month.”

Guilty: According to the Free Press, Sharp’s initial version of what happened was that he was forced at gunpoint to haul the cocaine. Eventually, he entered a guilty plea to drug conspiracy. He was one of nearly 20 defendants indicted in the scheme.

Unhappy birthday: In 2014, Sharp was sentenced to three years in federal prison at a court hearing that coincided with his 90th birthday. As described in Free Press coverage, he urged the judge to let him avoid time behind bars and even threatened to kill himself. “I’m really heartbroken I did what I did. But it’s done. I won’t live in prison, I’m just going to end my life if I end up there,” he said. Sharp’s lawyer, who said his client had dementia, argued unsuccessfully that he had been “brainwashed” and threatened by drug lords.

Sending a message: In sentencing Sharp, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said said she couldn’t justify not sending the frail senior citizen to prison considering the seriousness of his crime. Edmunds noted that not locking up Sharp would send the wrong message: “If you want to inoculate your organization from punishment … get an elderly person to do your deliveries for you, because they’re not going to go to prison for it.”

Out early: In 2015, Sharp was granted an early release because he had six to nine months to live due to an undisclosed terminal illness. He wound up living nearly a year and a half in freedom. Sharp is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, a final resting place for those who’ve served in active duty for the U.S. military.

Source : Julie Hinds, “Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Mule’ inspired by senior citizen drug bust in Michigan“, Detroit Free Press, December 13, 2018.