LARGO — Five years ago, a Pinellas judge gave Emmanuel Ganpot three weeks to get his affairs in order before she sentenced him to prison on drug-trafficking charges.
Then Ganpot vanished.
This summer, Ganpot, 35, finally was caught in London and has been shipped back to Pinellas County to face his charges.
His capture was engineered by a relentless prosecutor who took advantage of Ganpot's own hubris and a few Internet tricks to catch him.
The story begins in 2001 when Ganpot and another man were arrested at a Largo nightclub and charged with possessing large amounts of drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy. Both were charged with drug trafficking.
Ganpot's co-defendant, Jose Negron, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ganpot pleaded no contest and was promised a generous deal by prosecutors in which he would serve less than the 15-year minimum mandatory sentence.
Pinellas Judge Dee Anna Farnell gave Ganpot three weeks before she sentenced him. But on April 2, 2003, Ganpot didn't show for his sentencing hearing. Farnell issued a warrant for his arrest. She set bail at $1-million.
But Ganpot, who is from Gulfport, was nowhere to be found.
Two years ago, Pinellas prosecutor Bill Burgess was given the assignment of looking for Ganpot. Burgess decided to use the Internet as his primary tool.
Burgess set up phony profiles on the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook in which he pretended to be a foreign national.
Burgess, a former Army Special Forces member trained find people, began spying on profiles of local people he knew were friends with Ganpot. He checked their Web sites at least once a week — often after hours or in between work on other cases.
Over the next year, Burgess noticed that a few of Ganpot's friends exchanged messages about a mutual friend named "Neo."
The messages struck Burgess as hushed and secretive. He wondered if Neo could be Ganpot.
"It was like the dog that didn't bark," Burgess said.
Burgess searched MySpace for people named Neo — there are a lot of them — and finally found his man. The photo on the profile shows Ganpot making a kissing gesture toward the camera. The profile said Neo lived in England.
Burgess began seeing other photos that showed Ganpot having a grand old time in England, Spain and France.
Other photos started showing up on friends' profiles, but often were soon removed —- though not before Burgess could download them.
"They thought nobody was looking when, in fact, someone was looking all the time," Burgess said.
Ganpot is making funny faces at the camera in some photos. He is enjoying absinthe on a gorgeous beach in Spain in another.
Burgess thought to himself: "I'm going to wipe that smirk off your face."
"That's one of the things that kept me going. It just wasn't right that his buddy has 25 years in (prison) and he's over there having a grand old time partying with his friends," Burgess said. "He was living the high life while he was on the run."
Burgess searched online property records in London to determine where Ganpot was living. He found other information on-line, including an add for a gig in which Ganpot, a talented drummer, was performing.
Burgess also learned that Ganpot frequently traveled to other countries to perform or to attend soccer matches. Burgess found out he had an upcoming show in Spain.
Burgess worried that if Ganpot had any inkling he had been located, he would flee to France because it's tougher to extradite fugitives from France than England.
Burgess asked the U.S. Embassy to pressure the British authorities to arrest Ganpot, and in June they did.
Ganpot fought extradition, but was returned to Pinellas on Monday. He is being held without bail and must appear again before Farnell. The generous deal is off the table: Ganpot faces as much as 105 years in prison, Burgess said.
"It's almost like a spy story," Burgess said. "For me it was kind of a sport. I enjoyed it. It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed the hunt and the capture. I was just determined we were going to bring him to justice.
"The moral of the story," Burgess added, "is it's really tough to hide with the Internet out there."