New beginnings: chronicle of a serial rapist

Ron Leno shows how easy it is for U.S. sex offenders to get a fresh start in Nicaragua. Part I in a special series on sex crimes in Nicaragua.

GRANADA—Slightly more than a decade ago, Massachusetts defense attorney Bruce Carroll argued that his client, repeat sex offender Ronald J. Leno, was no longer a threat to society and deserved another chance at a fresh start.

At the time, Leno, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was in jail for stalking a 16-year-old Boston-area girl while on parole after serving a 12-year sentence for his third rape conviction. Still, his attorney insisted Leno was on the straight and narrow.

 “[B]ased on Mr. Leno’s five-plus years of provisional liberty without a conviction for any sexual offense, the best prediction is that Mr. Leno is not likely to reoffend (should he be released),” attorney Carroll is quoted as saying in a 2000 report.

Leno got out. But Carroll was wrong.

Eleven years later, Leno, 63, is back in familiar surroundings behind bars in a Granada jail cell after being arrested earlier this month by Nicaraguan police. This time he faces charges of raping a 14-year-old girl and for using other minors for commercial sexual exploitation. He also was found in possession of marijuana and cocaine, but not enough of either to be a serious offense.

ski mask and gloves found in Leno's Granada home

Police raided his rental home in Granada two weeks ago and found a homemade photography studio complete with a plywood catwalk, backdrops, costumes and makeup kits. Black curtains covered the windows. Police were also interested to find a dark ski mask with matching black gloves—not exactly appropriate attire for the tropics.

On Leno’s laptop, police found dozens of photographs of naked and scantily clothed teenage girls. Some of the pictures were allegedly uploaded to the Internet.

Two of the young girls featured in the photographs have already filed criminal complaints against the U.S. sex offender. At least five other girls have yet to be identified, police say. Granada police are coordinating their investigation with cops in the nearby town of Jinotepe, where Leno was also known to prowl about on his motorcycle.

Leno’s arrest has sent shivers of disgust through the community of Granada, as well as suspicious sidelong glances between foreigners and Nicaraguans.

Some expats who knew Leno from around town were shocked by the news; they describe him as an upbeat and friendly guy whose stories and jokes were enhanced by his thick Boston accent. Yet anyone who did a Google search on Leno immediately saw his long and sordid history as a serial sex offender in the U.S. and might suspect he was a time bomb of sexual recidivism.  

In addition to the provincial fallout from Leno’s arrest, his case provides a horrifying example of how easy it is for serial rapists to move abroad and start over again in an underdeveloped country where detection of sex crimes is low and socio-economic conditions are ripe for exploitation.

U.S. law enforcement has known of Leno’s presence in Nicaragua since January 2008, when Interpol Washington sent a letter to Nicaragua authorities “to advise of the subject’s situation.”

Somehow, that message never made it to the police in Granada—or at least no one remembers receiving it. Police Chief Horacio Sobalvarro told The Nicaragua Dispatch this week that Leno’s unwelcome presence here wasn’t discovered until a few months ago, when community members tipped off cops about Leno’s suspicious behavior.    

Now police are working backwards to try to figure out how many girls Leno abused over the past four years, and what exactly he’s been up to.

Leno, the early years

Since returning from the Vietnam War as a young decorated veteran—Leno claims he was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze and Silver Stars—Leno has a long history of sexual violence and aggression.

In 1978, Leno pled guilty to three violent rapes, one in Hawaii and two in Massachusetts. As a young man, his tactics were brutish. His first three rapes with knockdown, drag-out affairs; he tore the clothes off his first rape victim in Hawaii, forced his second into an empty field in Massachusetts, and broke into the house of his third victim, a former girlfriend in the Boston area.

His fourth rape occurred while he was on probation two years later, in 1980, when he forced a woman into the back office of a Boston café where he was working as a bartender. Shortly afterwards, he was accused of a fifth rape, but was later acquitted, according to media reports.

In 1981, the law finally caught up to Leno and he was sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. His sentence was later reduced to 9-20 years, and by the 1990s he was out on parole and causing trouble again.

In 1996 he was accused of stalking a 16-year-old girl while on probation and put back behind bars until 2000, when his Boston attorney argued that Leno was a reformed man and was ready to return to the streets. Leno’s case caused a media stir in the Boston area when a conservative talk show host rallied public support to keep him behind bars.

At the time, new legislation had been passed in Massachusetts to keep life-time sex offenders in a state treatment center after their prison terms ended. But since Leno’s conviction predated that law, he was grandfathered under an older law and set free.

With all the media heat in Boston, Leno drifted up to Androscoggin County, Maine, landing in the small town of Durham, with a population of less than 5,000. Though all sex offenders are required to register with police under “Megan’s Law,” Leno decided to lay low and avoid detection.

Megan’s Law is named after a hideous incident in which a seven-year-old New Jersey girl, Megan Kanka, was raped and murdered by a serial rapist who drifted into town undetected after getting out of jail. Today, Megan’s Law has led to a nationwide database of nearly 500,000 registered sex offenders in the United States. But Leno wasn’t interested in drawing more attention to himself, so he tried to slip into Maine under the radar.

His behavior eventually gave him away. In 2004, a young coed from the University of Maine filed a restraining order against Leno after he started stalking her. Police pulled up Leno’s record, saw he was a repeat sex offender, and made his presence known to the community.

The community was not happy to learn the Boston rapist had been hiding in their town for two years, and Leno was not happy about being detected. When a neighbor confronted Leno in the street, Leno reacted violently, attacking the man with a steel pipe. Leno was again whisked away to jail, this time for aggravated assault.

That pattern of reacting violently to whistleblowers would repeat itself seven years later in Granada.

Marginalized in Maine

As Leno’s third jail term was coming to an end in February 2007, he wrote a letter from his cell to the chief of police in the small town of Presque Isle, Maine—a sparsely populated outpost of less than 10,000 residents near the Canadian border. In his letter, Leno described himself as a “highly decorated Vietnam veteran” who said, “My hope and desire is to reside in Presque Isle” after getting out of jail.

In the letter, Leno came clean about his prior convictions for “sexual assault against adult victims” and said he was looking for a chance to start over in a new community. He said his current jail sentence for aggravated assault was, “The result of propaganda and rumor and outright lies.”

Public notification circulated by police in Presque Isle, Maine

Leno assured the police chief that he posed no threat to the people of Presque Isle. He said, “I only ask that I be allowed to assimilate and become a member of the community.” He said he wanted to speak to the police officers when he got to town. The police, after reading his letter, were eager to meet Leno, too.

“We don’t usually get letters from people like that,” said Presque Isle Police Corporal Wayne Selfridge, who was the first to interview Leno when he arrived in town in February, 2007.

Selfridge said police were curious to find out why Leno wanted to live in their town. Leno had no contacts, friends or family in Presque Isle, a sleepy and semi-rural town that is home to a small community college and an annex campus for the University of Maine.

“Whenever we have a sex offender come into town, we do an intake just to get a measure,” Selfridge told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview. “What Leno told me when I interviewed him was that he was coming up here because it was as far away as he could get to try to start a new life. He had no connections up here; he lived in a boarding house. We told him that we thought he was a serious risk and that we were going to notify the public. We used all media and went door to door to give neighbors his picture. The schools all had pictures of him, and so did the library and the swimming pool.”

The Presque Isle Police considered Leno a “public threat” and a “serious risk” to the community. He was considered their number-one security risk in town, Selfridge said.

The villagers were not happy. Leno was treated like a leper. When he would go out in public, the townsfolk would call the police to report his whereabouts. He was banned from the public library as a preventive measure after being spotted there several times.

Perhaps the only guy in town who didn’t mind Leno’s presence was the owner of the local sporting goods store.

“The sporting goods store couldn’t stay stocked with pepper spray; they kept selling out and that was because of the Leno issue,” Selfridge said.

Leno was not happy with all the negative attention. So one day he decided to drop off the grid altogether. Leno’s lawyer sent a letter to the Presque Isle Police Department informing them that his client was moving abroad. He didn’t say where.

Because of the risk Leno presented, the Presque Isle Police notified federal law enforcement that the sex offender was planning to leave the country.

Several weeks later, Interpol Washington notified the Presque Isle Police Department that Leno had left Miami on a flight for Nicaragua, on Aug. 23, 2007. Despite being registered as a life-time sex offender in the United States, Leno was not prohibited from moving abroad to a country with no registry. Leno broke no U.S. laws by leaving the country and no U.S. arrest warrant or international capture order was ever issued.

Presque Isle breathed a sigh of relief at Leno’s change of latitude.

“There was such a stir in the community about his presence here that the police chief actually had to send out a second press release letting everyone in town know that Leno had left the community and moved abroad,” Selfridge said. “That’s the first time we’ve ever had to do that.”

 Unfortunately, that press release didn’t make it to Nicaragua.

Why Nicaragua?

Selfridge says he believes Leno was honestly looking for a chance at assimilation in Presque Isle, and did not move to the small community with the intention of stalking new prey. He said Leno’s outreach to police and full disclosure about his priors appeared to indicate that he was trying to straighten out.

But Megan’s Law made it impossible for Leno to blend or keep a low profile. Apparently Leno realized that if he was persona non grata in the woods of Maine, he wasn’t going to be able to make it anywhere in the U.S.

Ron Leno, after his arrest Nov. 14 (courtesy of National Police)

“I think the reason he went overseas is because everywhere in the States has Megan’s Law and no matter where he went, he was not going to be welcome,” Selfridge said. “And that’s probably why he went to a country where it would be comfortable for him. It was just too hot for him up here.”

Megan’s Law, in effect, is like a zone defense by U.S. law enforcement. Police are responsible for keeping tabs on sexual predators in their jurisdiction, but once the sex offender leaves town, they become someone else’s problem.

When registered offenders decide to move from one U.S. town or state to the next, they must notify police about their intentions and where they are going. The police then notify the corresponding police department about their new resident. But U.S. law doesn’t restrict them from leaving the country, and can’t require them to register as a sex offender abroad.

So when sex offenders decide to pull up the stakes and leave the U.S., communication can break down pretty quickly across borders, law officials say.

Canada realizes that danger and has implemented border background checks and legislation prohibiting U.S. felons from visiting their country. As a result, even though Leno was living only 13 miles from the Canadian border, he couldn’t go any farther north in search of another fresh start.

Latin America, therefore, became his best bet for dropping off the radar. And Nicaragua, with its close proximity, easy visa requirements, cheap living and international reputation as a marginalized place, seemed like a perfect fit for a marginalized guy living on a tight budget from a veteran’s pension.

A State Department source who wished to remain unidentified told The Nicaragua Dispatch that Nicaragua’s “pariah” reputation is also attractive to sex offenders who become pariahs themselves. The perception of tense political relations between Nicaragua and the United States is also attractive to sex offenders looking to escape the long arm of Uncle Sam, the source said.

While only Leno knows whether he came to Nicaragua with the intention of preying on girls or whether his inner voice just got too loud to ignore once he was here, there were some early warning signs that trouble was coming.

“He told us that he liked how young women paid attention to him here; he said in the U.S., young women don’t look at old men,” said one Granada resident, who wished to remain unidentified.

Next: Leno finds easy pickings in Granada.

  • Si-hay-A

    Nicaragua a safe haven for sex offenders. Starting with President Ortega…

  • Nero

    Seen this pervert in Granada. Ive lived in Granada and noticed that the problem is not only with the foreighners. Almost half of the local men I know participate (or have…) in sex crimes. Dont get me wrong, I do condone this criminal behavior. The standart must be raised to protect the women and children. But as Si-hay-A stated, In Nicaragua even the president gets away with sexual abuse.

  • Maria

    Sexual Exploitation of children is a reality in Nicaragua, everyone’s duty is to fight against it.

    We have a social problem in Granada caused by deficient education, economic struggle and a cultural problem (machismo). All of this does not make sexual exploitation of children less of a crime

    I think that more than waiting for the “standard to be raised” by someone else, WE ourselves have to raise it (whether we are Nicaraguan, visitors, expats, etc.), stop condoning such behaviors, sexual exploitation of children is not OK just because we have a failed system, where is your responsibility as a citizen and a human being?

    You see a crime, your duty is to report it!! (yes, the police sucks! but YOU have to report it!).

    And I agree that it is not only the foreigners exploiting children in Granada; it is the families that “rent” the girls to perverts, the “clients” who physically abuse them and the apathetic population (local or foreign) that just witnesses.

    • Nero

      Sorry Maria ment condenm, think I screwed up on the spell check choises. My bad.

  • Robert

    Excellent piece of reporting Tim. Hopefully this guy will rot in jail instead of being recycled back to the street the way was in the US.

  • Nero

    Tell the cops? Its obvious you dont live here. That will only work if they’re foreigners like this guy. The cops here love to bust the foreigners. Makes them look good and they can pump money out of them. A well known 61 year old local was caught with a 14 year old, with his pants down (literally). He was out in less than a month due to health reasons. Now I know the real reason of his sudden release, his Sandinista family and lawyer discredited the girl, her family and the woman who turned him in. So your “report it” policy does not work here, at least not with the locals. Have you any other suggestions?

    • brinniewales

      When locals are enraged about anything in Leon, they take to the radio stations and TV to publicly denounce the individual, business, public official, etc., with whom they have issues. Their railings are often unfounded and full of embellishment or outright lies, but the forum is available and the people listen, watch, and talk.

  • joe

    tell the police…Thats so stupid,,, How about dont let a person with this type of problems leave prison, You have to keep them there for ever…..wake up world…. He has raped 8 girls they know about,,, How many does it take to realize wow he has a problem ….so so stupid, And how stupid he was for not paying mom 20 bucks or what ever she want or payed the police,,, All i know if he did one or the other, You would not know anything about this now, He might have to pay a few thousand,, NOW, And move to the next country oh its friday rape time, Ronny will be sayying in a few months when he is out,, But mabe he learn hes lesson …dont be so stupid never will he be ok ….,,,,,

  • joe

    THE ONLY REASON ANYONE THERE CARES IS BECAUSE THEY DIDNT GET PAID NO ONE THERE CARES IF HE HAS SEX WITH 14 YEAR OLD GIRL IM SURE HE SPORTED THEM ALL OVER TOWN WHAT THEY FORGOT TO SAY IS THE GIRL WAS TAKING MONEY FROM RONNY AND IF SHE WASNT HER MOM WAS THIS IS NORMAL IN NICARAGUA FOR AMERICAN OR LOCAL OR THE POLICE OR ANYONE ELSE THERE GIRLS ARE HAVING SEX THERE WHEN THERE 11 OR 12 MANY ALREADY HAVE KIDS AND THE DAD OF THESES KIDS IS HER DAD OR BOTHER OR UNCLE OR SOME ELSE IN THE FAMILY WRONG IT MIGHT BE ,,BUT FOR SURE NO ONE CARES THERE

  • joe

    AND IF YOU WANT TO ACT LIKE YOU CARE THERE IS MABE 100 MORE THERE JUST LIKE HIM SO WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT HIM AND OTHERS NOT SHIT ,,,JUST GOING TO RUN YOUR MOUTH ,,, IF YOU WANT TO REALLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT YOU CAN PAY ME TO GO AROUND THE WORLD AND I WILL FLIM ALL THE AMERICANS THAT ARE DOING BAD THINGS ,,,YES DONT TALK PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS ILL WORK FOR YOU TO GET THESE GUYS FLIM THEM AND LET THE WORLD KNOW WHATS GOING ON

    • kelly

      hey joe don’t film anyone, especially if they are underage. You can get in trouble for child porn instead of making a point.

    • kelly

      Not to mention a lot of pervs will be turned on and use the videos for all the wrong reasons. You will be exploiting the poor girls not helping them at all. And you may open the wrong doors for many disgusting pigs who don’t know about this sort of behavior to become enticed and visit this country more so than before.

  • Nero

    Damn Joe, ease up on the profanity. And UNLOCK YOUR CAPS, I know you’re trying to get your point across but it looks like you’re HOLLERING at us. I do like your “film them” suggestion.

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  • Daniel Ortega

    I’d like to know a little more about the “fliming” of Americans. I don’t know what this “fliming” is, but it intrigues me.

  • Nero

    flim, dialect ( Northern English ) a five-pound note

  • Jack Brisdone

    I live in Nicaragua with my family. We moved here in 1999 and all we know is kindness from this culture. I can a sure you that there is more child molesters in Oregon where we came from that there is in Nicaragua. I cannot believe – all I can say I am bewildered starting from the title of the article. My nica friends, my baseball bodies never been involved in such a atrocity. But yet through the comments in this article half of the population are child molesters. What is up with that? My wife Hanna and I live in Altamira Managua, we both have separate jobs we both walk to work to this date we never been bother by an intruder or robbed. Try doing just that in North East Portland, OR and you’ll be mugged, No kidding. Our two kids also contribute to society our dauther is happily married near Casa Colorado, El Crusero and our son is happy camper in the departamento de Boaco. Please, stop generalizing, putting the blame on the nicas. Looking into your heart and then talk.

  • JOE

    Give your self alittle more time,, They will get you one way or another gringo..Be careful there out to get your money ,,you will be a victim ,,,,sorry but wake up smell the coffee,,you will pay one way or another,,,i hope not i have seen it a 100 times gringo say im out of here,,

  • Nero

    Well Jack, guess I just been hanging with the wrong crowd. Since the 90’s Ive been involved in the renovation and construction of homes. Been exposed to a tough construction crowd. Ive seen and heard stories of sex involving under aged girls on my job sites. Had to fire and or discipline a few of my workers for doing this. I am Latino but was raised in the states and noticed my standards involving under aged girls are much different than allot of Nica guys I know. Glad every things peachy where you’re at, but I just cant say the same.
    As for JOE, “calmate hodido”, stop scaring the gringos!.

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  • http://www.delsurnews.com Kelvin

    Well said Jack Brisdone.

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