The Midlands restaurant owner accused of killing his wife’s lover on Valentine’s Day has been targeted for death by a ruthless Mexican drug cartel because the man he allegedly killed was a cartel member, according to the man’s attorney.
“Jail is not a safe place for someone who has a threat from a Mexican cartel,” attorney Dick Harpootlian told federal Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges on Friday in a bond hearing at the U.S. courthouse in Columbia. “There is a credible threat on Mr. Leon’s life.”
Arturo Bravo Santos, 28, the man Leon is accused of shooting to death in a deserted parking lot near Lexington while Leon’s wife watched, “was a member of the Mexican drug cartel gang called Los Zetas,” Harpootlian said. “They commit assassinations in Mexico pretty much on a routine basis.”
Harpootlian’s gang assertions, which he told the judge came from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, were not challenged by assistant U.S. Attorney Jim May. Neither did several plainclothes DEA agents in the courtroom have any objections.
At the end of a 20-minute hearing, Hodges freed Leon on a $100,000 unsecured bond, and Leon walked out of a back entrance of the courthouse.
In freeing Leon, Hodges said her main concern was that Leon met all the conditions to assure he would show up for state court hearings for his state murder charges.
Hodges noted that Leon, who is 49, already posted a $500,000 secured bond to assure his appearance in court proceedings on the murder charges.
Leon remained locked up in a coastal county jail, however, and was transported to Columbia on Friday. He needed to appear before a federal judge because he was on federal probation when Santos was killed, so officials had put a hold on him.
Leon is currently serving six months’ federal probation after pleading guilty in November to misdemeanor charges of hiring illegal immigrants to work at his restaurants. For those offenses, he has paid a $180,000 fine.
As a condition of the federal probation, announced Jan. 28 by U.S. Judge Joe Anderson, Leon was not supposed to possess any firearms or commit any crimes.
Leon earlier pleaded guilty to paying bribes that went to ex-Lexington County sheriff James Metts in return for Metts allowing illegal Mexican workers employed at Leon’s restaurants to leave the county jail. Leon has completed the terms of his probation on that charge.
Hodges said state Judge Knox McMahon – in setting Leon’s $500,000 bond on the state murder charges – made multiple findings that allay concerns about Leon. Those findings include that Leon posed no flight risk, was not a danger to anyone, had surrendered his passport, would be severely restricted in his movements and – as sole owner and operator of eight Mexican restaurants in the Midlands – was needed to keep his eight restaurants up and running.
Under McMahon’s order, Leon can travel only in four Midlands counties, wear an ankle monitor bracelet, not possess any deadly weapons, avoid contact with his wife, Maria Leon, and live at his parents’ house in Lexington.
“Will you agree to all the conditions of your bond?” Hodges asked Leon, who stood before her, his hands and feet in chains.
“Yes, your honor,” said Leon, in a hoarse voice. More than 50 of Leon’s friends and relatives filled the small federal courtroom.
On Feb. 14, according to an arrest warrant, Leon shot and killed Santos in a commuter parking lot off I-20 near U.S. 378. Bravo was in the back seat of a Toyota Tundra pickup truck with Leon’s wife at the time, the warrant said.
“I shot my wife’s lover,” Leon said on a recorded 911 line, according to the warrants. He surrendered to the Lexington police later that night, accompanied by one of his lawyers, Eric Bland.
It took nearly a week for SLED and Lexington County coroner Margaret Fisher to identify Santos. He was an undocumented immigrant and had two different sets of identification on him, according to officials.
On Friday, Bland – who was with Harpootlian at the hearing – said, “Obviously, we are very concerned about the threat to Mr. Leon’s life, and we’re happy we received bail from both state and federal judges.”