LARGO — Emmanuel Ganpot pinpointed the darkest day of his life in court Thursday.
"March 9, 2001, was the worst incident I have ever been a part of."
That day, he was charged with possessing or selling ecstasy, GHB, ketamine and cocaine. He wound up pleading no contest for a milder sentence — about six years.
Judge Dee Anna Farnell gave Ganpot three weeks to get his affairs in order. She warned him what would happen if he didn't show up for sentencing.
"You could be looking at many, many, many, many years in the Department of Corrections," she said then.
Ganpot split for Europe anyway.
Six years later, discovered and sent back to America, he was in court facing the very same judge whose orders he bucked.
She identified a new day as his worst.
"I beg to differ with you," Farnell said. "The worst day of your life was April Fools Day 2003, when you made the decision to get on a plane and leave the jurisdiction of this court."
This time, she sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
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Was Emmanuel Ganpot a good human being caught in a web of bad influence?
Or was he a con artist who hid his true self from everyone?
Ganpot is now 36. He's a British citizen who attended Eckerd College on a student visa. He was an avid musician and soccer coach with many friends. But by age 25, he admits, he was caught up in club life and drugs.
In 2001, Pinellas sheriff's deputies got a tip about a drug deal in the parking lot of Storman's nightclub — 3,500 doses of Ecstasy going for $33,250. They found that and more.
Ganpot was an ancillary player caught in the middle, he said. He took the plea deal to avoid a much harsher sentence. He fled because he felt threatened and scared, he said.
He lived in Paris and London in expensive homes, according to a sentencing memo written by Assistant State Attorney Bill Burgess. He played music in clubs, traveled with friends and even changed his name to Neo Niji Masuro, so he didn't sound "alarm bells" every time he signed his name, he said.
"I made some very bad choices and consequently lost everything at one point and had to start over," said Ganpot, who wiped tears and caught his breath, taking a five-minute recess at one point to calm down. "Your honor, I ask for forgiveness."
Friends and lawyers debated his character for three hours Thursday. His father traveled from Grenada, too shaken to speak. His friends from England spent two days traveling to speak on his behalf.
The media ruthlessly painted Ganpot as a shameless party boy, they said, when he really worked in pubs, held a marketing job, became a personal trainer, lived modestly and cared for young people with epilepsy and autism. He didn't spend recklessly, they said.
"I can't tell you how far from the truth that is," said Stephen Peacock, an elementary school teacher in England. "He's never been extravagant in any way with spending money."
Others weren't buying it.
Ganpot has been buffered by "people who are willing — because he's charming, entertaining, likeable — to go out on a limb for him," said Burgess, who tracked him down in Europe. "This is an individual who has skated around trouble for years. … He's the problem, and he'll continue to be the problem."
Farnell was similarly unflinching.
"You want me to believe how different you are, how much you've changed, what wonderful things you've done. … You leave a path of destruction, and it started with putting into commerce in our community pills that are deadly."
Ganpot's friends shook and cried as she delivered the sentence.
"I'm saddened, very saddened by someone with such a wealth of promise, such athleticism, such giving of spirit, someone who could have contributed to our country, heck with the country, could have contributed to our world," Farnell said.
She felt bad for his friends, too. Perhaps they had also been misled.
Peacock said that was unlikely.
"He's so far from this person he's been portrayed to be," he said. "I can't stress that enough. … He must have moved on from that life. It would be pretty hard to hide the person you are for six years."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.