The Leonard show
Sacramento’s infamous bounty hunter stars in a reality TV show in his own mind
Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla sits on a park bench and examines his domain: a city square block that includes City Hall behind him and his 1989 Chevy Blazer within view, parked in a nearby alley. Two blocks over is the Lorenzo Patiño School of Law, which Padilla co-founded in 1983. And just a few blocks around the corner is the bail-bonds empire Padilla helped launch in 1975.
“It beats working in the fields,” says Padilla, surveying his surroundings.
It’s nearly 100 degrees on a sticky August afternoon, and the 70-year-old Padilla is dressed head to toe in black: black leather vest, black long-sleeved button-down shirt, black pants, black boots, black sunglasses and, as always, a giant-brimmed black Stetson perched atop his graying hair.
He doesn’t seem to notice the sun beating down, instead more concerned with the constant bleating of his cell phone, which rings no fewer than four times in the span of an hour as Padilla monitors the Jaycee Dugard case.
Earlier in the day, police announced that Dugard, kidnapped 18 years ago from her South Lake Tahoe home, had turned up alive in the Bay Area. Her alleged kidnappers, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, are now in jail, and Padilla is pondering the chance to spring the accused on bail. Even out here on the park bench, several hundred yards away from his office where a giant flat-screen TV blares CNN, the prospect excites him.
“I’ll pay the premium if you post the bonds,” he barks into his phone. “It’s what? Three million on one, four on the other? I’ll bet we can get $2.5 million for them.”
Padilla clicks his phone shut and smiles.
“I told my nephew Tony, ‘Post the bond and I’ll sell the interview to NBC or ABC.’”
It’s classic Leonard Padilla: always jumping at a chance for the limelight. Whether it’s running for Sacramento mayor (four times—so far), uncovering dirt on rival Kevin Johnson or edging himself into high-profile crime cases—it’s Jaycee Dugard right now, last year it was the widely publicized Caylee Anthony murder case—Padilla’s got a knack for keeping himself in the spotlight, the Man in Black starring in the top-rated reality TV show in his own mind.
Padilla sees it this way:
“I don’t know if it’s about the spotlight—it’s more, can anybody else pull this off? Sell an interview for $2.5 million?”
He pauses to reflect on the possibilities.
“Mostly it’s just a lot of times I get myself talked into something and then I can’t back out of it.”
Talked into it by whom?
So is Leonard Padilla his own worst enemy?
“Nah,” he says with a laugh, a toothpick twitching in the corner of his mouth. “I’m my own biggest fan.”Leonard’s Revenge
Padilla won’t get the chance to cash in on the Jaycee Dugard case. The suspects are ultimately denied bail and Phillip Garrido ends up giving that highly coveted interview to KCRA Channel 3, the local NBC affiliate.
Doesn’t matter, Padilla says later, downplaying the attempt. He was never really that interested or involved anyway.
“That was Tony’s gig,” he says. “I honestly didn’t think they’d set bail, but we had The Enquirer and the Globe and Star interested, and they’ll pay the big bucks, they’ll pay the premium.”
It’s a September morning and Padilla is in his office, sitting in his usual spot at a giant wood table that’s covered with books, binders and file folders.
He’s spent the last several minutes on the phone detailing, in rapid-fire Spanish, instructions on tracking down a California man who’s fled to Guatemala to escape DUI manslaughter charges. The TV is tuned silently to MSNBC while Charlie, a green, blue and yellow macaw sits atop a bird cage, chomping happily on a Ruffle chip.
The office is cluttered with books and videotapes; there’s a shiny red toy truck perched near the entrance, a vacuum cleaner in one corner and, stacked neatly on the receptionist desk, a pile of glossy Leonard Padilla advertising cards, as well as a stack of blue pleather-bound datebooks and desk calendars—all embossed with his name.
The walls are crowded with photos. There are pictures of Padilla with friends and family and clients, but it’s the framed images with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President George W. Bush that pop out. There are no fewer than three such Bush pictures.
“I always make sure to wear a different tie every time we take a picture together, so people can’t say it’s just the same picture,” Padilla says. “I first met him at a function back in ’89. I liked the guy. [Then] I met Jeb in Mexico teaching English at a school there—next thing you know, he turns up running for [office].”
Such political hobnobbing is a life long removed from Padilla’s origins. Born to Mexican migrant farmworkers in 1939 near Fresno, Padilla’s early years were hard-spent, crawling through fields, picking cotton for 3 cents a pound.
“People tell me things like, ‘You’re crazy’—yeah, probably—but you get that way when you’re 7 years old and picking cotton and you can’t figure out why God picked out this thing for you [while] the farmers are walking around in nice Stetson boots.”
When he was 10, Padilla’s father abandoned the family for Mexico. Eventually, Padilla, along with his mother, four brothers and sister, moved north to Tule Lake.
There, the family continued working on farms and, says Padilla, who spent his last three years of high school in the tiny town, faced rampant racism, taunted for trying to make a living working in the fields, taunted for simply having darker skin.
“We were the only Mexican family living there—it was just outrageous, but when you’re a part of it and you live it, you just think this is the way it’s got to be.”
Still, Padilla knew he had to leave, and so, upon turning 17, he enlisted in the Air Force where, working as a radar operator among other jobs, he traveled to France, Germany and North Africa.
Padilla moved to Sacramento after his 1963 discharge. Here he took a job pumping gas before moving over into car sales and eventually buying a lot of his own. Next came a run in the furniture business and even a Midtown nightclub, El Jardin.
Then, in 1975, at age 36, Leonard Padilla as we know him now was born, when a friend asked if he wanted to make a quick buck hunting a fugitive in Mexico.
The job was easy and, even better, lucrative.
“Back then I didn’t even know what bail stood for, but this guy had fled to Mexico and I said, ‘Tell you what, there’s this guy who works for me down there and we’ll find him,’” Padilla remembers.
Padilla traveled to Mexico that weekend and, with the help of a friend, tracked the suspect down at his house—just 100 yards away from the U.S. border and the San Diego police station. The pair kept watch over the weekend and, when the fugitive finally returned home from a fishing trip, nabbed and delivered him over to U.S. authorities.
Padilla earned $1,400 on that first run—$400 for expenses plus a $1,000 premium—enough money to convince him this would a great way to fund his enrollment at the Lincoln Law School, where he’d been accepted after taking a college-equivalency exam.
Juggling his bounty duties with school, Padilla even helped his then-wife Rose set up her own bail-bonds business; the two worked tag-team, with Rose acting as the licensed agent and Padilla tracking down anyone who skipped out on bail.
Post-law-school Padilla, disillusioned with the idea of practicing law (“I went to law school thinking the justice system was going to right the wrongs, instead I found it’s more to just keep people in line at the OK Corral”) continued his bounty hunting.
In 1983, he and old friend Judge Lorenzo Patiño founded the law school (“I wanted a low-cost option for people”); Patiño died of leukemia that same year, and in 1985 Padilla, divorced from Rose, married Patiño’s widow, Nellie.
Life was good; the bounty-hunting business was profitable and with his help, several relatives had launched their own bond companies.
Now, in addition to Padilla’s office, there are numerous businesses bearing the Padilla surname: Greg Padilla Bail Bonds. Alex Padilla Bail Bonds. Tony Padilla Bail Bonds.
They’re all there, Padilla says without modesty, grown from the seed of his own ambition. “I got my brother doing it, my nephews doing it, all my kids, they’ve done bail bonds or bounty work,” he says.
These days, Padilla likes to look back to Tule Lake as an indication of just how far he’s come.
“My son and my brothers and my nephews all own property up there, and it gives me a certain amount of glee, because I remember when I used to crawl across the irrigation canals—whatever it took to make a buck,” he says. “The kids [I grew up with] there call it ‘Leonard’s Revenge.’”
The man who steadfastly gives his last name an Anglo-Saxon twist—“Pah-DILL-uh” instead of “Pah-DEE-yuh”—says he holds his Mexican heritage dear.
“There weren’t that many Mexican kids at my school; that’s just the way I was taught [to say my name] in kindergarten,” he says.
“It’s never been a point of contention—just a situation where you educate your own children to pronounce it [correctly] and they go forward.”Bad attitude
There’s a sign on Leonard Padilla’s desk that reads “Desk of God’s Favorite Person.”
Padilla received it as a gift, but he does call on God every now and again. Raised Catholic, Padilla says he’s not particularly religious but he recites his prayers nightly and thinks, often, about the bigger picture, the meaning of life.
“I definitely believe in a higher power [but] don’t ask God for too many favors. I don’t want to wear out my welcome—I have to be in a real bind before I say, ‘Give me a hand.’”
Padilla’s been in a bind or two in his day.
By the early ’90s, he was already a well-known figure in Sacramento and beyond, enjoying publicity from both local and national TV crews. A pair of BBC filmmakers, fascinated with the bounty hunter’s “Wild West” profession, shot a documentary about him and, in 2004, actor Val Kilmer narrated Bounty Hunters, a made-for-TV documentary featuring Padilla.
But over the years, Padilla’s fame has often turned into infamy. In 1991, he was charged with failing to file or pay taxes on nearly $3 million worth of income between 1987 and 1988. Padilla was ultimately convicted on misdemeanor charges and served a yearlong prison term at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.
Padilla admits his wrongdoing without much apology.
“I’d been going through that stupid divorce and just had too much on my plate,” Padilla says now by way of explanation. “I just had a bad attitude.”
Imprisonment might have humbled most men, but Padilla instead used his time behind bars to launch his first mayoral run, entering the race because he didn’t like front-runner Joe Serna’s politics.
He lost, of course, but it would be just the first of many political forays, including a bid for a county supervisor seat, a run for governor against Schwarzenegger and even a mayoral race that pitted him against his daughter, Julie Padilla.
Padilla’s most notorious run is arguably last year’s attempt against Kevin Johnson. Padilla had already entered the race when he tracked down evidence that disputed Johnson’s own account about an alleged sexual-misconduct case that took place in Phoenix in the late ’90s.
Padilla, already displeased with Johnson for co-opting what he believed to be his own campaign concepts—“the strong-mayor position, the special city marshal’s unit run out of the mayor’s office, he took those ideas from me”—didn’t hesitate to go for the throat.
The bounty hunter’s not shy about his motives.
“Personal? Nah,” he says. “Political? You bet.”
If anything, Padilla says, he was angry that, at a face-to-face meeting that took place at a Starbucks on the edge of Oak Park, Johnson originally denied the abuse allegations.
“I said, ‘Don’t tell me that, because if you’re lying to me, I’ll get to the bottom of it,’” Padilla says. “What he doesn’t know is that I was in Phoenix in 1997 on a bounty run when all this was happening—I didn’t really pay any attention to it at the time … but you can bet I remembered it.”
And so, a few phone calls to a Phoenix buddy and Padilla was able to produce records that not only outlined police investigations into a complaint filed by the therapist of a teen girl (among the allegations: The Phoenix Suns basketball player touched her inappropriately) but detailed a payment settlement between the two parties.
Padilla claims he gave Johnson the opportunity to come clean once again, and when the candidate ignored his rival’s offer, the bounty hunter called up the local media. The resulting media circus did little, however, to slow Johnson’s eventual win (Padilla, in turn, received nearly 6 percent of the vote).
Johnson, who refused to comment for this article, initially threatened a defamation lawsuit but never actually filed papers.
Now, Padilla says, he thinks Johnson’s doing a good job helming the city.
“I like that Kevin’s the mayor here—he’s a minority,” Padilla says. “He can’t do a better job under the circumstances. If we passed the strong-mayor [initiative] he could do a much better job, but there are people in this town who are so simple-minded, so selfish—they just can’t stand to see him sitting up there running the goddamned meeting.”
Still, if Johnson runs again, Padilla says, you can damn well be sure he’ll throw his Stetson into the political ring once again—even though he knows, inherently, he likely doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Sacramento of actually winning.
“I’d run against him again,” Padilla says. “I’ll probably run [for mayor] at least a fifth time.”
Right now, however, he’s even considering entering the upcoming sheriff’s race.
But what about that mayor’s race?
“That’s still two years away,” he says with a laugh.
“I probably won’t win. … It’s partly for the attention but also to make things happen.”The Leonard show
If there’s one thing Leonard Padilla loves, it’s making things happen. Sometimes to a fault. And, he’ll admit, things don’t always go as planned.
The Caylee Anthony case, for example. Padilla really believed that Florida mom Casey Anthony was innocent of killing her toddler, 3-year-old Caylee. That’s why he disembarked for Orlando, aided by his nephew Tony Padilla, and paid Anthony’s $500,000 bail.
The outcome was a media blitz that saw Padilla popping up on CNN and MSNBC, Fox and ABC.
But, even as armchair crime theorists went ballistic in the blogosphere (“media parasite” and “glorified ambulance chaser” were just a couple of the names hurled at the bounty hunter), Padilla claims he really believed Caylee was still alive.
“I just thought if we got [Casey] out of jail, she could tell us where Caylee was,” he says. “I didn’t think a mother could be such a monster.”
Shortly after Anthony’s release, however, the FBI released DNA testing on hair strands found in the trunk of Casey’s car. The report said the strands exhibited signs of decomposition and indicated that Caylee was likely dead.
For a man who relies on his ability to judge character, being wrong came as a huge, personal disappointment.
“It didn’t feel so good, sitting there watching the TV and listening and thinking we’ve got to come up with an exit strategy,” Padilla says.
“I was just in daze, saying, ‘Well, the FBI can’t be wrong.’ That was on a Thursday and on Friday she’s rearrested on check charges which took us off the liability and gave me a way out.”
Closer to home, there’s not always an easy way out.
While public figures such as Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully praise Padilla—“Leonard keeps us all on our toes, he pays attention to community issues … [and] his willingness to speak out on issues encourages public debate”—others aren’t so enamored with the bounty hunter’s predilection for getting involved in everyone else’s business.
Most notably, many members of Padilla’s family declined to be interviewed for this article. Daughter Julie Padilla initially agreed to answer questions via e-mail but then ignored follow-up communications. Similarly, son Len Padilla refused to comment on his father, offering only one terse statement:
“My father taught me that you can lose the things that you have, but you can’t lose the things that you know.”
Even Padilla’s wife, Nellie Patiño, with whom he has a 17-year-old daughter, won’t talk.
At least some of the hesitance likely stems from tense family relations; brother Greg Padilla sued the bounty hunter in 1997, charging that his older brother was trying to run him out of the bail-bonds business.
One year later, Padilla made headlines when he grabbed the spotlight during the much-publicized search for Henry Moreno. Moreno, the brother of Padilla’s ex-wife Rose Moreno, disappeared in August 1998, just as he was set to open the La Mansion del Rio restaurant on the Garden Highway.
While Moreno’s family worried he’d been the victim of foul play, Padilla speculated—loudly and publicly—that the restaurateur fled the country to escape bad debts.
Now, 11 years later, Rose Moreno refuses to talk about her ex-husband—despite Padilla’s claims that the two “get along better than ever.”
For his part, Padilla remains staunch in his belief.
“I feel very confident that [Henry is] alive and living in Germany with his girlfriend. … Pay me $100,000 and I’ll find him.”
Padilla’s former brother-in-law Carlos Moreno wishes Padilla would just, for once, step away from the spotlight.
“There is a lot of animosity between him and my family,” says Moreno, a guard with Folsom State Prison. “There’s a lot of bad blood.”
Henry Moreno’s father, Rosendo Moreno, doesn’t understand his former son-in-law’s motivations for doing anything.
“He sticks his nose in everything,” the elder Moreno says. “Do you see him on the TV? [Leonard] says he will get people and bring them back in—but it’s all just for the money.”
Tony Padilla believes his uncle gets a bad rap.
“He’s very misunderstood,” Padilla says. “He’s very smart and successful, [but] people see him as a criminal because he didn’t pay his taxes and did time for it.”
The younger Padilla—son to Leonard Padilla’s brother Jesse—has worked with his uncle since childhood, when he appeared in his furniture-store commercials for a flat rate of $50 a month.
Years later, it was the elder Padilla who convinced Tony to enter the bail-bonds business.
“He’s not just my uncle, he’s helped me immensely,” Padilla says. “Without his help and guidance—his being a mentor to me, a leader—I would have never succeeded.”
Leonard Padilla’s attention-seeking ways don’t detract from those qualities, Padilla adds.
“There’s no doubt Leonard loves the spotlight—he absolutely loves it, he loves being flamboyant. But if people embraced him and gave him the opportunity, they’d see how smart he is, how loyal, how much of a hard worker he is—I think he’d be a great mayor.”
So, who is the real Leonard Padilla?
Is he just a showboating muckraker? Or is Padilla the community activist who, last year, paid for and set up a homeless camp in Natomas? Is he the aspiring politician who, disgusted with what he saw as then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s crusade against illegal immigrants, switched from the Republican Party to Independent? Is he the generous benefactor who paid for his daughter’s friend’s private-school tuition?
It’s difficult to say. On The Leonard Show, Padilla is often the only player willing to appear on camera, self-editing the story to his own liking.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that, despite the fame it would bring, Padilla says he’s not particularly eager to secure a TV deal, to let a camera crew follow him around for a behind-the-scenes show.
“The ego says yes, but when you settle down and get sensible you realize that [doing reality TV] isn’t easy,” he says. “The people we’re looking for are on the run, and you have to have a crew that’s [willing to] shoot for hours and days before it’s edited down to just an hour.”
But never say never.
“People walk into my office and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ and I tell ’em, ‘I’m watching myself on TV.’ They ask, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of that?’ ‘No! I’m always honing my skills.’”