Elderly criminals are having a moment, at least when it comes to providing roles for venerable male stars. First we had Robert Redford planning heists in The Old Man and the Gun, now The Mule brings us Clint Eastwood as Earl Stone, a genial purveyor of day lily hybrids who is recruited as a mule for a Mexican drug cartel and becomes one of its most active couriers, thanks to his spotlessly clean record and being an elderly white guy.
But eventually (spoiler alert!), he is busted with the help of an informer and arrested in an operation spearheaded by a DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) who has been doggedly tracking the notorious courier known in the trade as “Tata,” or grandfather.
The script is loosely based on journalist Sam Dolnick’s 2014 New York Times Magazine profile of Leo Sharp, a Bronze Star–awarded World War II veteran who was convicted that year of hauling more than a ton of cocaine into Michigan for the notorious Sinaloa cartel. However, as the credits declare that this is a fictional story and any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental, the key word is “loosely,” with the script taking its major plot points from reality but filling in the details—along with Stone’s motives and personal life—from the imagination of screenwriter Nick Schenk, co-writer of Eastwood’s Gran Torino.
As Dolnick wrote in an account of the story’s transition from newspaper to screen, “Even with all my reporting, I couldn’t fully tell you what motivated Mr. Sharp. I don’t think anyone could, not even Leo Sharp himself. That’s where Hollywood stepped in.” He added, “Mr. Schenk ran with it on his own, inventing an elaborate back story for the elderly drug mule, complete with a resentful daughter, a guilty conscience and a predilection for pecan pie. Fiction filled in the spaces where journalism could not go.” But there are some facts among the fiction.
Mr. Day Lily
We first meet Stone in 2005 at a mere 75, a dapper figure at a day lily horticulture convention who collects trophies, flirts with the ladies, and buys drinks for the guys—a regular Mr. Congeniality. But while he’s living it up at the convention, he fails to make it to his daughter’s wedding, where he’s supposed to walk her down the aisle. This leads to an ongoing estrangement.
The depiction of Stone as the toast of the day lily world is accurate, although Sharp wore a somewhat more down-market all-black or all-white leisure suit instead of Stone’s seersucker. Sharp loomed large in the day lily community, a surprisingly intense subculture every bit as dedicated as gamers or cat fanciers. Apparently day lilies are very easy to hybridize, and the ones grown by Sharp, who had more than 180 registered in his name, were widely admired. According to Dolnick, Sharp would bring along several Mexican farmhands to help give hundreds of his flowers away to attendees.
In the film, Stone has a thriving business selling his day lily varieties via a catalog. But by 2017, his business has been thoroughly disrupted by the internet and is bankrupt. His house is in foreclosure, he’s fired his workforce, and all his belongings are packed into his battered pickup. He arrives uninvited at his granddaughter’s bridal brunch, where his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) lambastes him for always neglecting his family in favor of being on the road for work. His daughter (played by Eastwood’s actual daughter Alison) refuses to speak to him. Stone ashamedly says he had hoped to pay for the wedding, but it’s not going to be possible.
As Stone mills around, a fellow wedding guest approaches him and, after hearing that Stone has driven to 41 of the 50 states and never picked up so much as a traffic ticket, asks if he would like to make some extra money “just for driving.” He soon begins making runs for the cartel, though he doesn’t seem to realize what his job entails at first.
In fact, according to Dolnick, by the time Sharp was arrested in 2011, he had been involved in the drug trade for almost a decade, after his flower business started suffering in the late 1990s. By 2010, Sharp had already brought in more than 1,000 kilos of cocaine to Detroit.
His lawyer, Darryl Goldberg, told Dolnick that he believed Sharp was recruited by a temporary worker at Brookwood Gardens, Sharp’s 46-acre flower farm near Michigan City, a tourist destination in Indiana. “He has Mexican fellas working on the farms. They happen to know people who introduced him to other people who asked him if he wanted to get involved in something,” Goldberg said in the Times Magazine piece.
At any rate, the personal drama seems to be pure invention. Sharp had one daughter who lived at the time in Hawaii, and there’s no evidence he was estranged from her. While he did have two splits from his wife (actually named Ann), they reconciled and were still married when Sharp died in 2016. Ann outlived Sharp, while in the film Stone goes AWOL from a cartel mission to spend time with a dying Mary, a decision that gets him into trouble with his employers.
Life on the Road
In the film, Stone settles smoothly into his life as a courier. He picks up duffel bags at a tire shop in El Paso, happily drives to motels in the Midwest singing along to the radio, and leaves the key in his truck’s ignition. When he returns to the truck in the morning, the drugs are gone, and there’s an envelope stuffed with cash in the glove compartment. The cartel workers in the tire shop are at first hostile but soon warm to Stone’s folksy charm. If he encounters any highway police officers, he deters them with a combination of good-ol’-boy camaraderie and quick thinking. Soon Stone is transporting 100 kilos of cocaine a month into Chicago, and after he moves 282 kilos in one trip, the big boss, Laton, invites Stone to a pool party at his Mexican hacienda (the perfect excuse for numerous close-ups of young babes in thongs), even asking two of his female employees to show Stone a good time.
If anything, the movie version underplays how much money Sharp was making. We see Stone pull piles of cash from manila envelopes but are never told what his commission is. He doesn’t trade in his baseball caps and sport shirts for Armani Privé suits—his only concession to bling is a gold bracelet—although he does buy himself a spiffy new Lincoln pickup after his original truck dies. He also donates $25,000 to reopen his favorite Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost after it’s damaged by fire. (In the film, Stone is a veteran of Korea instead of World War II.) He pays for his granddaughter’s wedding and her cosmetology school tuition, but beyond that appears to live modestly.
In fact, the cartel’s ledgers revealed that Sharp was transporting between 200 and 250 kilos per month in 2010—“working on a scale the Detroit DEA’s office had never encountered,” Dolnick reported—and is thought to have made $1 million that year alone. At the time of his arrest, he was found with 104 kilos of cocaine in his trunk. The commission on that trip alone would have been $104,000.
Sharp operated for some 10 years, not the year or so of the movie’s timeline, making enough money to buy back Brookwood Gardens, and it was this, not paying for a wedding, that motivated his entry into the drug trade. “He was able to get his farm out of hock and live a rather odd life,” Eastwood told USA Today. Traveling to conventions and symposia for the flower business also provided a good cover story.
Eastwood said that the specifics of Stone’s road trips are largely invented because “we don’t know what he incurred when he was on the road doing all these trips.” This likely includes Stone’s bizarre encounters with, and offensive comments to, lesbian bikers and a young black family he helps roadside, which have turned some heads.
We do know the film is accurate in that Sharp, like Stone, was trusted enough to be allowed into the premises where the drugs were stored (less-trusted couriers had bags of drugs deposited into the trunks of their unattended parked vehicles). Although Stone is assigned a “babysitter” because of cartel politics, in real life Sharp always traveled alone. However, he did get friendly enough with “Viejo,” one of the ringleaders of the cartel’s Detroit operation (who lived in Miami, not Mexico, like Laton), for the two to vacation in Hawaii together.
In the film, we often hear about how Stone wants to do things his own way and chafes against the cartel’s strict guidelines (corporate life, eh?). In fact, Sharp was an ideal employee, until he started to slip shortly before his arrest, probably as the result of his declining mental state. On his final trip, he dropped his truck off for repairs with the cocaine still in the back. On other trips to Detroit, he sometimes required a cartel guide to meet him at the exit ramp and guide him to the drop spot. In the movie, Stone’s only confusion is about how to text, a skill he eventually masters.
In the movie, Colin Bates (Cooper), the Drug Enforcement Administration agent working out of the agency’s Chicago office who is tasked with pursuing the cartel, busts a cartel operative who, in return for entering witness protection, brings them a prize: a page stolen from a ledger, complete with coded names, courier routes, and earnings. It is this that first alerts the DEA to the remarkable record of a mule known as Tata.
In reality, Jeff Moore, a DEA agent working out of the Detroit office, got a search warrant for the house of Ramon Ramos, a bookkeeper for a trafficking ring affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel. The bookkeeper did become an informant and did reveal the existence of Tata.
In the film, the DEA never gets a look at Stone until the actual arrest, for maximum effect, except for an entirely invented episode where Bates and Stone, unaware of each other’s real identity, make small talk at a Waffle House about not putting work before family. In reality, Ramos told Moore about an upcoming pickup with Sharp at a warehouse, which was where Moore caught his first glimpse of the courier.
Through Ramos’ concealed recording device, Moore heard Sharp saying he would also be carrying some Georgia onions. This is echoed by a scene in the movie where Stone transports bags of pecans along with the cartel’s drugs.
In the movie, Stone’s capture is a huge operation, with Stone caught amid DEA cars behind him on the highway, a state police roadblock in front, and a helicopter overhead. He’s still grieving for Mary and still bleeding from a beating the cartel gave him for abandoning a job to be with her. Just as he’s about to hit the roadblock, he stops and quietly gets out of the car.
The real arrest was a bit less O.J.-ish. Twelve unmarked DEA cars were stationed along a 70-mile stretch of Interstate 94 near Kalamazoo, Michigan, each one joining the pursuit as Sharp went by. At one point, Sharp cut across traffic and headed for an exit, which made the agents wonder if he had spotted the surveillance. In fact, he had had an urge for an orange shake, retrieved one from a drive-thru, and returned to the highway.
Per the DEA’s plan, a state trooper pulled Sharp over for what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. The arrival of a police dog, which got very excited by Sharp’s truck bed, gave the police probable cause to unlock the cover, revealing the five drug-filled duffle bags beneath.
In the film, Stone ignores his lawyer’s advice and, stricken by remorse for breaking the law and neglecting his family, pleads guilty. The last we see of him is in a federal penitentiary, tending lilies in the prison garden.
Sharp did indeed plead guilty at his trial in October 2013, without cooperating with the authorities. He did express some remorse, telling the judge, “I’m really heartbroken I did what I did. But it’s done.” But this may have been in aid of his rather bizarre proposal to pay off his $500,000 fine by growing papayas. The judge declined the offer. At age 90, Sharp was sentenced to three years—other cartel couriers received sentences of more than five years—but was released after only a year because of his declining health. He died in Hawaii in December 2016. He had been allowed to keep his day lily farm.