Julie Hinds Detroit Free Press
Published 10:05 AM EST Jan 18, 2019
Clint Eastwood’s hit movie “The Mule” has raked in $93 million at the box office with its compelling story of a senior citizen who becomes a courier for a notorious Mexican drug cartel.
Another gripping, but quite different story? The real-life tale of Leo Sharp, who was arrested near Ann Arbor and sentenced in Detroit to prison at age 90 for his role as a drug mule for El Chapo’s crime organization.
Sharp’s odyssey loosely inspired — emphasis on loosely —the journey of Eastwood’s character, Earl Stone, who almost accidentally falls into a brief brush with the drug trade as he attempts to mend fences with his ex-wife and estranged daughter.
On Tuesday night, the prosecutor who handled Sharp’s case, Christopher Graveline, will discuss some of the fact vs. fiction aspects of “The Mule” after a screening of the movie at the Patriot Theater inside the Grosse Pointe War Memorial.
Speaking of the big screen, Berkley resident Graveline’s career could provide the inspiration for a slate of films. The U.S. Army veteran worked for the Department of Justice while prosecuting the Abu Ghraib prison abuse cases and was head of the organized crime division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit. He resigned that post to run in 2018 for Michigan Attorney General as an independent candidate.
Here are some of Graveline’s thoughts on “The Mule” and more, edited for length and clarity.
QUESTION: You’ve seen the movie. What’s your review?
ANSWER: My review is it’s an excellent movie. They told a good story. A number of the facts have changed, so it wasn’t necessarily our story about our case. My only critique in changing the facts is (the main character of) “The Mule” was actually one of the Sinaloa cartel’s biggest drug couriers for about 10 years. It wasn’t just a six-month time period (as in the movie). He got paid about a thousand dollars per kilo he was delivering and his normal load was about 250 kilos to Detroit. People should realize it was fictionalized from what was actually occurring with Leo Sharp.
Q: Was he the oldest defendant in this kind of case you’d ever had?
A: Oh yes, I don’t personally remember a defendant being over 65 before. But this was actually the Sinaloa cartel’s M.O. in this case. We had caught another individual in the same case, he was 65, and we took $2.9 million out of his RV. They were actually using senior citizens to run their money and their drugs to and from Arizona. That’s why we felt Leo Sharp needed to have some prison time, because we were worried there had to be some deterrent effect, at least to the seniors, to say we’e not just going to turn a blind eye to it.
Q: The Sinaloa cartel sounds as if it could be a topic for many more movies.
A: Absolutely. One of the things the movie didn’t deal with (is) this particular case was one of the major drug operations in the Midwest. We ended up charging, I believe, 18 people in this case. It was some of the biggest drug dealers in Detroit. The price per kilo of cocaine on the streets of Detroit prior to this investigation was $30,000 per kilo. By the time we were done, it was $43,000 per kilo. That’s a real hit in the supply chain.
Q: Have you particularly liked any other fictional portrayals of drug crimes for their accuracy, such as Netflix’s “Narcos”?
A: I haven’t watched “Narcos” yet. HBO’s “The Wire” is spot on. I don’t know of any fictional storytelling that is as spot on as “The Wire.” It might as well be written by police officers in a major city. I recognize every single episode as being (like) real life. I liked Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” which was about armored car robberies. When I was a law school intern, I worked at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Hampshire and I helped in the prosecution of seven armored car robberies from that area, from Charlestown, Massachusetts. In fact, the tattoo on the back of Jeremy Renner’s neck was the tattoo of the group that we actually convicted.
Q: It sounds like you have to keep an eye out for movies about your past cases.
A: I do. I’ve worked on a number of high-profile cases. Another one that touched our case, although I think it was made before our case, I prosecuted the son of the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor for torturing people and the Nicolas Cage movie “Lord of War,” where he was an arms runner, he was dealing with a father and son out of West Africa that was (based) on the Taylors of Liberia. Also, the (Leonardo DiCaprio) movie “Blood Diamond” had a lot to do with it, because the blood diamonds were in Sierra Leone, which was a neighboring country. But it was the Taylors who were fomenting the civil war there and were profiting. “Blood Diamond” is very good as well and very accurate.
Q: You ran for office. What’s your position on the war on drugs?
A: It’s multi-faceted. When people say the war on drugs doesn’t work, well, what’s the alternative? So heroin becomes widespread and everybody can get it? There are certain substances that are just very dangerous. Now, as a society, we’re deciding can we regulate marijuana. OK, let’s see what we can do with that. I will say this: We kind of rushed into legalizing marijuana. I think there are a lot of issues people aren’t thinking about. As long as it’s still illegal federally, the stores that sell legal marijuana, they can’t put their money into a bank that’s federally insured. That’s money laundering. So you’re creating this big, cash-based system which is ripe for robbery and extortion. And is that really going to stop the black market? The cartels, while they make money clearly in cocaine and heroin, their big cash crop is marijuana. Do we think cartels will really just turn that over and not try to undercut the sale? Let’s just think about what we’re doing before we rush headlong into it.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or [email protected]
Screening followed by discussion with former U.S. District Attorney Christopher Graveline, who prosecuted the case that inspired the film
7 p.m. Tue.
Patriot Theater at Grosse Pointe War Memorial, Grosse Pointe Farms
Tickets are $12 ($10 for seniors)
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