Emmanuel Ganpot, a musician and former Eckerd College student, promised to show up in a Pinellas courtroom in April 2003 to start serving nearly six years in prison for dealing drugs.
Instead, he bought a plane ticket to Paris and disappeared, angering the circuit judge who had given him a couple of weeks to get his affairs in order before sentencing.
Unlike fugitives in the movies, most criminals don't get too far when they try to vanish. With no money and no help, they often are quickly arrested.
Ganpot was a different story.
He changed his name and, by all outward appearances, lived it up overseas. He stayed in expensive homes in France and England, played drums in a band, cheered at soccer stadiums and partied on Spanish beaches.
Occasionally, he posted online pictures of himself sipping wine, laughing on the beach or mugging for the camera. These photos would later be his undoing, but not before he lived on the lam for more than five years.
During that time, Ganpot, 36, received help from family members who let him stay at their homes overseas, and who paid $80,000 to his bondsman to get him off Ganpot's track.
Now Ganpot is getting help again, this time from two highly regarded criminal defense attorneys and from his stepfather — the attorney general of Grenada no less — who has written to prosecutors seeking leniency.
The question is whether that will make any difference to Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell, who warned Ganpot in 2003 that if he failed to show up for sentencing, "you could be looking at many, many, many, many years in the Department of Corrections."
She could sentence Ganpot to as many as 110 years in prison. He waits his fate in the Pinellas County Jail. Sentencing is set for Aug. 13.
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Ganpot, a British citizen, attended Eckerd College on a student visa and played soccer there in the early 1990s. His former coach, Jim DiNobile, recalled that Ganpot suffered an injury and battled back from it, "so he showed a lot of determination."
A talented musician, Ganpot liked to go to dance clubs and played drums in bands. But DiNobile also said Ganpot was unfocused and may have gotten "caught up in a lifestyle that certainly got the best of him." He did not graduate from Eckerd, a college spokeswoman said.
Ganpot's stepfather, Jimmy Bristol, the Grenadan attorney general, said in a recent letter that he "first met Emmanuel in 1993 while he was a student in St. Petersburg." He said Ganpot "was doted on by his mother, who provided him with all his needs and more. To say that she spoiled him is an understatement.
"Unfortunately," Bristol wrote to the state attorney, "Emmanuel was befriended by the wrong people and has found himself in his present predicament."
The predicament began in 2001, when Pinellas sheriff's deputies got a tip from an informant about a drug deal that was about to go down in the parking lot of Storman's nightclub on Ulmerton Road. About 3,500 doses of Ecstasy were to be sold for more than $33,250, the tipster said.
Ganpot was arrested with three others, and charged with possessing or selling drugs including ecstasy, GHB, ketamine and cocaine. Facing an especially tough minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years in prison, and a maximum of 105 years, he pleaded no contest in exchange for a sentence of nearly six years.
Farnell allowed him time to get his affairs in order before he was officially sentenced and shipped to prison. Ganpot agreed to come back to the courtroom to begin the prison term.
But he didn't show up. Prosecutors knew he was in the wind.
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One of Ganpot's current attorneys, Denis de Vlaming, said he will present evidence that Ganpot was being threatened by his co-defendants when he left.
Once in Europe, Ganpot changed his name to Neo Niji Masuro and got a British driver's license and passport in his new identity.
Neo, incidentally, means "new."
Pinellas County bondsman Al Estes, who had handled Ganpot's $100,000 bail, says that "when somebody jumps bond, we turn on 'em like a snake." He found a number for Ganpot in Paris, and was floored when Ganpot picked up the phone. But he didn't seem inclined to return, Estes said.
Estes went to Ganpot's mother, Daniele Gaudin, who had put up her condo in Dolphin Cay in St. Petersburg for Ganpot's bail. De Vlaming said Gaudin has ties to St. Petersburg, and also spends time in France and Grenada.
According to a memo filed by a prosecutor, Gaudin eventually went to Estes' office with a cashier's check for $80,000, "paid off the bond, and calmly told the bondsman that they no longer needed to look for her son."
Estes said he doesn't recall those exact words from Gaudin, but he did get the impression that "she didn't want us to be in on trying to find him," he said.
Ganpot also received help from family members while on the run, according to the sentencing memo written by Assistant State Attorney Bill Burgess. It says Ganpot was able to:
• Move into his aunt's home in Paris shortly after absconding.
• Move into a condo southeast of London that his mother previously had purchased for the equivalent of about $600,000.
• Buy a house southeast of London for the equivalent of about $600,000.
"By 2005 Ganpot had firmly established himself in dance club music circles" with his new identity, Burgess wrote in the memo.
By the end of that year, Ganpot was e-mailing and phoning friends saying "that he was enjoying a good life with no regrets about fleeing from the United States, and told them about his new house, that he had bought a music studio, was teaching music and fitness at a school during the week and making music and performing percussion with DJs on the weekends."
He added that "he had a girlfriend with whom he went snowboarding in Evian, France."
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Ganpot might have toned down his act if he had realized Burgess was doggedly trailing him by checking his friends' MySpace and Facebook conversations, picking up on a mysterious friend named "Neo." Eventually, Burgess found where Ganpot was living and got the British authorities to pounce.
In Bristol's recent letter to the state attorney, he said he did not condone Ganpot's actions, but added that "we all err from time to time and should not have our lives completely destroyed by one slipup."
Meanwhile Burgess is urging the judge to sentence Ganpot to at least as much prison time as one of his co-defendants, Jose Negron, who was found guilty.
Negron got 25 years.
On the other hand, if Ganpot had come to court that day in April 2003, his prison sentence would be over by now.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.