Since 2012's Trouble with the Curve, Clint Eastwood has taken some time away from the big screen. He returned in 2018 with The Mule, which tells the story of an elderly drug runner working for a Mexican cartel to save himself from financial ruin. The Mule is based on the true-life tale of Leo Sharp, a horticulturist and WWII veteran who began bringing cocaine into Michigan in the final decade of his life. While Eastwood’s film presents a Robin Hood kind of tale, the real story is much more complex.
At the peak of his bootlegging days, Sharp was the ideal drug runner. No one batted an eye at him, he lived alone, and everyone thought he was a sweet old man - that is, until he ended up in a DEA sting that brought down multiple members of the Sinaloa cartel. The true story of Leo Sharp is a fascinating tale of deception and the lengths people will go for financial gain.
The inspiration for Clint Eastwood's character Earl Stone, a 90-year-old drug mule, was Leo Sharp, a WWII veteran born in 1924. He grew up in Indiana and Michigan, and prior to his arrest, he didn't have a criminal record. After fighting in the Italian Campaign, Sharp received a Bronze Star Medal.
Theories abound about what turned a mild-mannered grandfather into a criminal, but even Sam Dolnick, The New York Times reporter who covered Sharp's case extensively, never determined exactly why Sharp started moving huge units of illegal substances across the country. Even after Sharp's passing in 2016, his motives remain unclear.
While working for the Sinaloa cartel until his arrest in 2011, Leo Sharp funneled massive amounts of coke into Detroit. At the time, the local DEA office claimed they'd never encountered someone who moved so much product in such a short period. The agency calculated that Sharp delivered almost 1,200 kilos between February and June 2010. One agent referred to him as "an urban legend."
To cruise under the DEA's radar, Sharp drove alone and worked under the alias "Tata," or "Grandfather." The only thing the agency knew about Sharp was that he was old and that sometimes the cartel joked about him during wiretapped conversations.
Leo Sharp indirectly worked for Joaquín Guzmán, better known as El Chapo. Guzmán ran the Sinaloa cartel from Mexico, but the organization held strong ties to Michigan, as well as Arizona, where they stored much of the product that Sharp delivered. Every month, Sharp picked up large quantities of powder and transported them across the country, usually to Michigan.
Authorities believe Sharp moved nearly $2 million a month for the cartel while he was active. It's unclear if Sharp ever met with El Chapo.
Leo Sharp's run came to an end in October 2011. With the help of Sinaloa cartel bookkeeper Ramon Ramos, the DEA tracked down Sharp in a sting operation on I-94 between Kalamazoo and Jackson, MI. While multiple agents waited on the road, a state trooper pulled Sharp over so as not to incite his suspicions.
The octogenarian got out of his truck and had trouble answering questions and finding his identification. However, when dogs zeroed in on his trunk, as seen in the footage from Sharp's arrest, the troopers knew they had found the right man. Inside, they found five duffel bags containing 104 kilos.
The authorities arrested Sharp, who reportedly pleaded with officers, "Why don’t you just kill me and let me, just, leave the planet?"