Customers remember Leo Sharp as a skinny, affable guy in waist-high khaki pants, shuffling among the rows of his prized daylilies at his Michigan City farm.
The DEA remember him as one of the most successful drug traffickers in the history of the United States.
And the public remembers him as portrayed by Clint Eastwood.
Brookwood Gardens, Leo Sharp’s daylily farm in Michigan City, Indiana, remains a legend in the Midwest horticulture community. A popular flowering plant, the daylily’s name refers to the brief but dramatic flowering period of this perennial—sometimes only 24 hours.
Sharp’s efforts to create new hybrids attracted customers from across the United States, and his hybrids still reside in tens of thousands of gardens. Customers lined up Brookwood Gardens by the busload, hoping to nab his choicest daylilies.
Well into his 80s, Sharp worked like a man in his 20s. He found respect everywhere. Respect as a businessman, respect as a popular guest lecturer at horticulture conventions, respect as a Bronze Star recipient for acts of bravery during World War II, and respect for his unparalleled daylily hybridization. This respect paid off in business, accolades and even the honor of planting daylilies in the White House Rose Garden for President George H.W. Bush.
A great life and some great accomplishments—which is why his customers, friends and family couldn’t understand why Sharp decided to become a Mexican drug cartel’s most successful coke mule for almost a decade, from 2001 to 2011.
In 2001, Brookwood Gardens was flagging.
Horticulture is a fickle business, with variables too numerous to foresee, and Leo Sharp, who loved his gardens, was watching it all fall apart, slowly crumbling into insolvency. Internet advertising and ordering had him stumped.
When several laborers connected to a Mexican drug cartel approached Sharp and half-jokingly suggested the old man could make some easy money, Leo Sharp surprised them: he said yes.
A little shocking, but Leo Sharp was a decorated combat soldier. Even in his 80s, he would make damn sure his gardens wouldn’t disappear, at least not without a fight. His crime was monumental, but so was his resolve.
Under the guise of transporting goods for his daylily business, Leo Sharp spent a decade hauling hundreds of pounds of cocaine from the Mexican border to Detroit, Michigan, then ferrying millions of dollars in cash from Detroit to Arizona. Detroit DEA watched the river of cocaine flowing into the city, but couldn’t track down the couriers. All they knew was the nickname of the most revered one: Tata (“Pop” or “Grandfather” in informal Spanish).
Information about Tata trickled in from DEA informants and taps. Tata worked alone. Tata drove a pickup. Tata brought in hundreds of kilos at a time.
Tata was a legend.
Then the DEA got a break. A brought description of Tata’s vehicle (an expensive Lincoln Mark LT pickup truck) and the date he’d be arriving in Detroit (October 21, 2011). Detroit flooded the highways with officers, all of them scanning for the same pickup. They wouldn’t be disappointed.
The officer pulled him over as if it were a routine traffic stop.
Leo Sharp came bumbling out of his truck, his shoulders hunched and his hand cupped on the side of head as a makeshift ear trumpet. He played his part perfectly; a half-senile old man, irritable and offended by the inconvenience. He was too old and tired for this shit. He stayed in character until the drug dog sniffed the truck bed and the officers found the duffel bags filled with cocaine.
His ruse forgotten, Leo Sharp said, “Why don’t you just kill me and let me, just, leave the planet..?”
It was all over.
Leo Sharp was 87 years old, no spring chicken, and the pokes and prods from prosecuting attorneys fell off him like rainwater. His defense insisted the cartel had taken advantage of him. He didn’t understand what he had been transporting, he didn’t understand the money. His life had been threatened. These arguments made a strong enough case that prosecutors recommended a sentence of only five years, a slap on the wrist for the most celebrated coke mule in US history.
Even that seemed too much. Sharp himself, in a plea to stay out of jail, tearfully promised the judge he’d pay any fine by growing some delicious papayas for everyone. Whether a move to demonstrate his dementia or a serious offer, no one knew. Sharp received three years in prison, but would be released in only a year for poor health. Prison is hard on everyone, and especially hard on old men. He didn’t have long to live. The point had been made.
Sharp defended his crime onto death, saying that while bring cocaine into Detroit hadn’t been right, he had done something good with the money: developing his daylilies. He had made the world a better place. His friends, colleagues and employees agreed. Sharp had been very generous and gave away his plants to customers, causes, even Michigan City (he once donated 5,000 plant bulbs to the city).
At the age of 93, Leo Sharp passed away and was buried in Honolulu at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, reserved for veterans. A simple epitaph decorates his tombstone: “I did it my way.”
In 2018, actor-director Clint Eastwood directed, produced, and starred in The Mule, based on Sharp’s exploits.
Discovering the actual location of Sharp’s farm was next to impossible. Brookwood Gardens official address is his Michigan City home, with no other address provided, and the LLC officially states the business has a single location.
The best source of information on Sharp, the New York Times article “There’s a True Story Behind ‘The Mule’: The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” is artfully vague about the location of Brookwood Gardens, mentioning a railroad truss, a hill, a dip, and a gravel road. Not much help.
I finally was able to track down the derelict site online, based on descriptions from former customers and the few pictures available. It’s a long strip of land, with an overgrown gravel road running up its middle. The trees remain, but recent satellite pictures show large patches of dirt where fields of prized daylilies once grew, no doubt picked over by souvenir hunters. When the weather and my schedule allow, I plan on going out there. Dilapidated or not, covered with bare dirt and Indiana weeds or not, I’ll still make the 90-minute drive. Not to snatch any remaining daylilies. Just see it.
After all, if Sharp was willing to risk his life and liberty to keep his Brookwood Garden going, I think it must be something worth seeing.