Throughout late summer and fall of 2008, cable news junkies couldn’t get enough of self-proclaimed “World Famous Bounty Hunter” Leonard Padilla, whether for his colorful commentary or his anachronistic fashion choices. The signature Stetson hat and leather vest, evoking images of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters of the Wild West, provided an irresistible contrast to the buttoned-up talking heads opposite him on the screen. The media frenzy revolved around Padilla’s hunt for a missing person, although it wasn’t a bail-jumping fugitive. The search was for 3-year-old Caylee Anthony, 2,400 miles away from Padilla’s home base in Sacramento. The Orlando, Fla., toddler reportedly was last seen in mid-June of 2008, but her mother, Casey Anthony, didn’t report her missing until July 15. Casey, initially charged with child neglect and interfering with a criminal investigation, was sent to jail—that is, until Padilla and his nephew Tony Padilla, a Sacramento bail bondsman, flew to Orlando to release her on a $500,000 bond. Their theory: Caylee was still alive and they could get her mother to tell them where she was.
Thus began a media circus that set the blogosphere on fire and eventually provoked the Anthony family’s attorney to liken Padilla to P.T. Barnum, the greatest showman on Earth.
Back in Sacramento, talking about the high-profile case, the 69-year-old Padilla chews on an ever-present toothpick, which in his case functions not so much as a hygienic tool as an accessory. He has taken a rare couple of hours away from his cluttered H Street office, where mounted knives, deer trophies and hundreds of photographs (mostly of Padilla posing with VIPs, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pres-ident George W. Bush) bring to mind a hunting lodge on steroids yet couldn’t exactly be called ornamentation because men like Padilla don’t “decorate.” Over a Diet Coke, he chats and relaxes in a deli in the heart of what might be called Sacramento’s Bail Bond Alley.
Padilla says that while he took heat for springing Casey, he had no reason to believe she wouldn’t talk. Years ago, he bailed out the mother of a missing child in Sacramento, and she spilled the whole story. Nor would he have gotten involved in the first place had it not been for a phone call from a friend in New York.
“My friend said, ‘It cries out for your involvement.’ Well, you know the ego I’ve got,” says Padilla. “I said ‘OK,’ and next thing you know I’m over there.”
But conversations with Casey revealed nothing and within the next couple of months, hundreds of pages of investigation documentation were released, including evidence of human decomposition in the trunk of Casey’s car, leading to a grand jury indictment of first-degree murder.
In November, Padilla flew to Orlando again—this time as a volunteer in the search for Caylee’s body. Night after night, he appeared on cable TV, jawing with CNN host Nancy Grace about hiring divers to search a river, from which they produced a bag of toys and bones that Florida authorities quickly dismissed as unrelated to the case. When the search for a body came up empty, Padilla made news again by organizing a memorial service for the little girl.
While Padilla became a hero to many—websites are rife with “Thank you, Leonard!”—his actions sparked outrage in many corners, including with Caylee’s grandparents, who believed she was still alive; members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, who reportedly were disgruntled with the media circus; and the FBI, which requested that Padilla take a lie detector test to determine whether he planted the bag of bones and toys. Even the organizer of the search, Tim Miller of Texas EquuSearch, expressed disgust at Padilla’s ostensible reason for asking him to provide more divers. Miller said on “Nancy Grace” that Padilla told him, “Tim, you don’t realize the opportunity we’re missing. Think about it—TV cameras all around, Tim Miller’s holding Caylee’s skull. Think how much money we could make.”
In response, shock waves rolled across the Internet, adding to Padilla’s already considerable stable of enemies. But during our interview, Padilla—who’s said all along that he cared only about finding the girl, not about any personal gain—brushes Miller’s comment aside.
“Tim can say what he wants.”
In the end, Padilla lost his chance to return to Florida and prolong the spectacle. Discovered by a utility worker on Dec. 11 in a wooded area near the Anthony home were the skeletal remains of a child, which authorities later identified as Caylee Anthony’s.
Casey Anthony’s trial is set to begin in March.
LIFE OF CONTROVERSY
Closer to home, Leonard Padilla flits seamlessly between society’s polarities, from its highest echelons to its seediest dregs.
A 1980 graduate of Lincoln Law School, Padilla has run for office seven times—four times for Sacramento mayor (once against his daughter, Julie), once for California governor in the 2003 recall election, once for Congress against Doris Matsui in 2005 and once for Sacramento County Supervisor in 2006—but, with his maverick platform, checkered background and shoot-from-the-hip style, he stood little chance of winning.
The details of his life, to quote Alice in Wonderland, just keep getting curiouser and curiouser.
In the early 1990s, Padilla served a year in a federal prison for the nonfiling and nonpayment of income taxes.
He claims to have been the target of two assassination attempts and is suspected of being involved in at least one on another person. Innuendoes swirl around other illegal activities in which he’s said to have participated—after all, it is whispered, he knows a lot of shady characters—although he has never been charged.
His family relationships are fractured. His brother Greg, a bail bond agent, works just down the street from his office, but the two haven’t spoken in 15 years—due in no small part to a difference in business philosophy, says Topo Padilla, Greg’s son.
Although Topo admits “we don’t spend Christmas together,” he says he and his uncle do talk, and he doesn’t believe the var-ious heinous allegations against him.
“In no way, shape or form do I believe he’s involved in any illegal activity,” he says. “But because of his personality, the perception of him is to the contrary.”
Leonard Padilla, who went through a messy divorce in the early 1980s and now lives with longtime partner Nellie Patino and their 16-year-old daughter, talks at length about all of his skeletons. “No comment” doesn’t seem to be an option. With Padilla, who has fairly or unfairly been called a media whore, it never has been. Despite his gruff—some would say rude—manner, he’s the first to say that he never met a television camera he didn’t like, that he’s a “big ham” with an outsized ego, and that he uses the media to solve problems and right wrongs.
But often the only thing getting attention is Padilla himself.
His media stunts are legendary.
It was Padilla who, in 2004, got William Nesler to surrender to authorities, using TV news as his conduit. Nesler, whose vigilante mother, Ellie, shot his accused molester in a courtroom in 1993, had since turned to a life of crime and was wanted in the beating death of an acquaintance. One of Nesler’s aunts, frantic, called Padilla, a family friend, begging for his help. Padilla took a risk on the air, boldly stating Nesler would surrender to him in 12 days.
“The reporter said, ‘Well, how’s he going to do that?’ I said, ‘You guys get the word out; he’ll see it on television. He’s not gonna embarrass me; he’ll surrender.’ All the guys in the office said, ‘Boy, you really did it this time.’ Six days later, Willie calls me: ‘What do I do?’ I says, ‘Come to my office. I’m going to have the FBI in and they’re going to take you to jail. You just tell me when you’re going to be here.’ Five o’clock the next day, he came walking in with an attorney. They searched him, cuffed him, took him to jail.”
Padilla has certainly been no stranger to the camera. From time to time, he’s popped up on local news broadcasts offering to solve problems that perplexed city officials. In one instance, he offered property he owns in Natomas for a homeless camp—even though it was against local ordinances—and in another, he invited a convicted child molester to live in his H Street office building when it became clear nobody wanted him as a neighbor.
During the 2008 Sacramento mayoral race, Padilla caused a stir by circulating to the media a copy of a Phoenix police report from a 1996 investigation of his opponent, former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who was accused of sexual misconduct with a teenage girl. No charges were ever filed, and Johnson, who was elected mayor this past November, threatened a defamation suit against Padilla.
Padilla defends his actions.
“I’ve supported Kevin since he was 12 years old—St. HOPE, anything he wanted to do,” he says, adding that the one thing he could not support was the obfuscation of truth.
Johnson declined to comment for this story.
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
The son of Mexican immigrants, Padilla grew up in California and Oregon. He is the oldest of three brothers and two sisters but never had a hometown to call his own. The family moved where the field work took them, resulting in his attending five high schools.
Padilla’s hardscrabble childhood made “Leave It to Beaver” look like science fiction.
“My dad drank a lot and was a wife beater,” he says. “He went to rooster fights, played cards and gambled. We called him the poor man’s Errol Flynn.”
When Padilla was 10, his mother divorced his father and supported the family as best she could, selling embroidery and cleaning homes and offices. He took over the role of family patriarch but often felt he was on the outside looking in. In those days, Padilla says, discrimination against Mexican immigrants was rampant, and he found himself at the bottom of the social totem pole at his high school in Tulelake in Siskiyou County.
“We were the only Mexican family there,” he recalls. “We had to take the lowest-paying jobs. You see everybody else doing the all-American thing, and you’re either pumping gas or out in the fields. It tends to screw your head up.”
Immediately after graduation, Padilla served in the Air Force for six years, then cast about for some direction in life. He and a brother moved to Sacramento to look for jobs, and eventually Leonard wound up in the used-car business.
It wasn’t until 1975, when a friend asked Padilla to use his connections in Mexico to help him track down a fugitive, that Padilla found his true calling: bounty hunting. Since then, he claims to have captured thousands of fugitives (he lost count at 4,000 several years ago), saying only about a dozen have eluded him. He’s starred in reality shows on the National Geographic channel and elsewhere and sells “Bounty Hunter” DVDs and T-shirts on his website, fostering a cult following that extends to Europe and Australia.
While it might seem that one can’t swing a chair without hitting a newspaper, magazine or television with Padilla’s face on it, he talks at length about the parallel universe he inhabits that few people ever see. In this world, most of his hours are spent in secrecy strategizing with his team, pretending to be someone he’s not, hoping to catch a fugitive off guard. Bounty hunting, he says, is more of a lifestyle than a career—which is why he carries a 9mm Beretta 24/7: “You never know when you’re going to encounter a situation that requires it.”
But bounty hunting (many in the industry prefer the tamer term bail recovery) isn’t necessarily the glamorous adventure it’s often portrayed to be. Long hours are spent investigating leads and doing surveillance, and most fugitives surrender without a fight. In fact, many express relief at no longer having to hide.
Above all, “a bounty hunter is a thinker,” says Padilla, who typically is paid 20 to 40 percent of the bond amount—but only if he delivers within the time limitation, which in California is six months and in some cases a year, after a fugitive fails to appear in court. Often Padilla has just days or weeks to catch a fugitive because bond or surety companies won’t hire him unless they’re desperate.
Padilla, whose bounty hunting has taken him all around the world, boasts that he once orchestrated the nabbing of a fugitive while Padilla was in prison while sitting on a garbage can and using nothing but a pay phone. “That,” he says, allowing himself a smug grin, “means you’re damn good.”
The adrenaline rush adds to the allure. “It’s a chess game—a human chess game,” says Padilla. “And it’s gratification. Every time you catch somebody, you’ve succeeded. Hemingway said that once you hunt man, you never go back to hunting anything else, because at least a human can think. A reporter once asked me, ‘Good as sex, Padilla?’ I said it’s better because sex is over in 10 minutes, and this stuff lasts for days because everybody talks about it.”
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
The mere mention of Padilla’s name prompts eye rolling among many Sacramentans. The cowboy get-up, the exotic profession, the bluster—none of it suggests a person you can take seriously. But to dismiss Padilla as a joke or a caricature would be a mistake, say those who know him. By all accounts, he’s more Socrates than Yosemite Sam. Or perhaps a little of both. But really, neither.
“He’s an original,” says Sacramento County Chief Deputy District Attorney Cindy Besemer, who’s known Padilla for 14 years.
Even within a couple of hours of talking with him at the deli, it becomes apparent that Padilla is nobody’s fool. Intuitive, intelligent, with a laser-sharp memory, he is in the conversation but not of it, constantly scanning the environment, missing nothing. He can tell you what the person who walked by the window five minutes ago was wearing, the name of the city where a fugitive’s girlfriend lived eight years ago and other types of obscure details that vaporize instantly from most people’s minds.
But get him on the political stage and other characteristics emerge, none of which would earn him the Mr. Congeniality title. Clearly, Padilla likes his issues like some people like their coffee—straight up, no sugar. It can and does rub people the wrong way, and his outlandish image doesn’t help.
“He’s definitely misunderstood, that’s for sure,” says nephew Tony Padilla, the bail bondsman. “He’s very passionate about everything he does. Not only is he intellectual, he’s street-smart. I tell people this all the time: As goofy as he comes off in the media, he’d be a very good mayor, senator—any kind of public office.”
Try telling that to the voting public; many have extreme distaste for Padilla and all he stands for.
Says nephew Topo, “He’s not concerned about what anybody thinks of him. He just doesn’t care. He has been knocked down in his life, sometimes because of his race or for other reasons—some deserved, some not deserved—and he just became callous to being knocked down. He’s going to do it his way or the highway.”
Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State, has met Padilla on several occasions and observed him for years. “I find him fascinating because he’s so complicated,” she says. “I never suspect him of making something up. He really is very tenacious; I think his heart is in the right place. It’s always valuable to have people like Leonard. We need people to say the emperor has no clothes. He doesn’t care about reality; he cares about what’s right. I don’t know that I’d want to watch him govern; logistics and consensus building is just not his shtick. But I admire the fact that he’s so engaged and he cares so much. He’s a street fighter who feels he’s got to be flamboyant to get attention.”
Padilla himself says the publicity he generates is secondary to his main goal: to advocate for a society based on common sense rather than feel-good rhetoric, to always challenge conventional thought. That’s why he’s for the decriminalization and taxing of marijuana, the cutting of 800 city jobs, the capping of all state salaries at $60,000 until the budget gets straightened out and other initiatives most voters would find unpalatable.
He knows it won’t get him elected.
“I’m not delusional,” he says. “Here’s the thing: You got the cops in this town, 250 of ’em drive their patrol cars home. [The city is] a million and a half dollars shy every year, and the cops are blowing off two and a half million because they don’t drive their own personal cars to and from work. They’re just as big a thief as the people they’re chasing.
“Now, if I go out here on the corner of Ninth and J and start telling people there’s 250 cops driving cars home that they shouldn’t be allowed to, ain’t nobody gonna pay attention. But if you spend 10 grand running for mayor, you’ll have people thinking about it.”
Such a motive hardly points to the kind of self-aggrandizement Padilla often is accused of pursuing. If he really wanted to show off, those close to him point out, he’d be all over the news declaring himself the Mustachioed Mother Teresa.
But Padilla keeps quiet about his many good deeds, which include talking to schoolchildren about the importance of education, chipping in for tuition and books for students of modest means, nurturing fledgling entrepreneurs and contributing to nearly every charity that asks for help. A homeless man named Peter, who hangs out near Padilla’s office, gets a personal invitation to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas at Padilla’s home.
Padilla considers his crowning achievement the founding of Sacramento’s Lorenzo Patino School of Law, enabling economically disadvantaged students to obtain a law degree. Padilla has served as president and chairman of its board of trustees since 1982 and never misses a graduation. His other great sources of pride are the five children he’s raised and provided with quality educations (daughter Julie went to Stanford) “to give them a better shot than what I had.”
Tony Padilla talks about his uncle’s generosity toward every needy person who crosses his path. “He’ll say, ‘Go buy $50 worth of groceries and take them to this address.’ People have no idea how often he does that; I bet he gives away $800 a month. And he doesn’t go around telling everybody; he just does it. He’ll make phone calls at Christmas: ‘I got gifts for your kids.’ He’s like Santa Claus.”
To Padilla, it’s all part of living without regrets. There isn’t much he wants to do that he hasn’t done already, except maybe spend a week on the space station or go to Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Knowing him, he just might do it.
“Death,” he says, “comes once in a lifetime, and there’s no rewind.”