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CBP officer charged with taking bribes at border deemed flight risk in drug case

Tijuana, Baja California - February 04: Vehicles get in line to cross into the United States. Morning traffic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022 in Tijuana, Baja California. (Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

A federal magistrate judge ruled Tuesday that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer charged with allowing drugs to pass through ports of entry in exchange for bribes is a flight risk and should remain in custody without bail.

Leonard Darnell George, 40, was indicted last week on a charge of receiving bribes by a public official and two charges for conspiracy to traffic and distribute drugs. Prosecutors allege George allowed vehicles containing stashes of methamphetamine, fentanyl, cocaine and heroin to enter the U.S. from Mexico.

George is the lead defendant in a seven-person indictment on the drug charges, though he’s the only one accused of taking bribes. The indictment alleges that George, who was known as “The Goalie,” began accepting bribes as early as October 2021 and continued to do so until at least June 2022.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bianca Calderon-Peñaloza told the judge Tuesday that traffickers would be told ahead of time what lane at the San Ysidro Port of Entry George was working, and he would allow vehicles loaded with drugs to pass through.

In requesting that George not be allowed to post bond, the prosecutor told U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara Major that the defendant, who owns a home in San Ysidro with his wife and three children, has spent the past two or three years living a “secret life” apart from his family that included 39 trips to Tijuana so far this year. Calderon-Peñaloza argued George has “significant ties to Mexico,” including to a woman who works in Tijuana’s red-light district.

Major ruled that because of George’s significant connections in Mexico, and because it was unclear if he stashed away money from the alleged bribes and drug crimes, releasing him from custody created too much of a risk that he’d flee south of the border.

Defense attorney Andrew Nietor told the judge that George has worked for CBP for five years and previously worked as a corrections officer for CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates the Otay Mesa Detention Center. George worked as a military contractor before CoreCivic, according to his attorney.

Prosecutors and court records indicated George has had prior issues in the workplace.

On May 6, San Diego police detained him on a mental-health hold after he sent messages about self-harm to his CBP supervisor, according to records in San Diego Superior Court. Police seized four guns from him and sought a gun violence restraining order that would also prohibit him from purchasing additional firearms.

George allegedly told a clinician that he’d been placed on administrative leave at work, which caused him to stress out and have a panic attack, according to a detective’s declaration for the gun violence restraining order.

A CBP spokesperson was not able to immediately answer questions from the Union-Tribune about why George was on administrative leave in May. But the spokesperson noted that the agency is prohibited from discussing administrative actions, including discipline, as well as matters under litigation.

Nietor rebutted the prosecutor’s argument that George’s alleged mental health issues were a reason to deny him bond. Nietor argued to the judge that keeping him detained was detrimental to his mental health, especially because “he’s in a segregated, special housing unit because of his previous employment.”

Nietor conceded that his client traveled frequently to Mexico, but said it was usually for day trips to visit bars and clubs.

One such trip last year with George’s brother prompted four fellow CBP officers to seek harassment restraining orders against George, according to court records.

According to varying accounts in court records, a dispute broke out at the San Ysidro Port of Entry over the ability to confirm the brother’s identity. George said his brother had left his wallet at home, while officers wrote in internal CBP reports that George gave them a fake name and birth date for his brother — allegedly because the brother had a warrant out for his arrest.

A verbal altercation broke out in the secondary inspection area while officers were fingerprinting and trying to identify his brother, with the officers claiming George became hostile, and George arguing the officers were threatening him, the records state.

George allegedly threatened some of the officers involved that day, and then threatened and intimated other officers who reported his initial threats to their supervisors.

A judge denied one of the restraining orders and granted the other three, which were terminated in January.

Court records show George also sought a restraining order against two co-workers in 2018 between the time he was hired to work for CBP and when he actually began his employment. In a request for that restraining order, George wrote that his CoreCivic colleagues, a mother-son duo, “filed a complaint with the local police department claiming I threatened to hurt them.” He said that the opposite was true and they threatened to hurt him because the son “grew jealous of me when he discovered I was romantically involved with the girl he liked.”

He said he was placed on leave for three weeks because of the strife.

A judge denied the restraining order request.


© 2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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