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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.