Marcos Bretón

Spotlight dims for one of the city’s most colorful – and confrontational – characters

Leonard Padilla in his office in Sacramento on July 31, 2006.
Leonard Padilla in his office in Sacramento on July 31, 2006. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

If there is one person from Sacramento in the past 40 years whose outlandish, outspoken and outsized life could be the subject of a movie, it would be Leonard Padilla.


In his 78 years, the former bounty hunter, bail bondsman, mayoral candidate, public irritant and ubiquitous gadfly has led a life of yearning and confrontation. He fought City Hall and lost more than once, but still loved the place he adopted as his own after growing up the son of Mexican immigrants in Fresno.

A colorful character in a town full of earnest plodders, Padilla, with his trademark black cowboy hat and sunglasses, relished seeing his name in the newspaper, and constantly found ways to generate publicity for himself, no matter the cost. He touched countless lives and helped the less fortunate find their footing, but he also wounded those who loved him and those whom he loved back.

After decades of making headlines, Padilla not long ago quietly slipped out of Sacramento. He had suffered a debilitating stroke, and his life today in a Denver nursing home is nothing like his previous existence. He once chased down criminals and took swings at those in power, but today he can’t walk on his own. The formerly imposing figure has withered to 140 pounds. Photos of him today evoke Al Pacino at the end of “The Godfather Part III.” The man who ruled an empire now sits and watches life pass by him.

What a life it has been, with bullet points that read like fiction or gross exaggerations. But they aren’t.

In 1981, for example, a man Padilla had befriended named Hector Rodriguez tried to kill Padilla by placing a bomb in the office building on H Street where Padilla ran his then-company Allied Bail Bonds. The explosion caused more than $100,000 damage and rattled downtown. Padilla survived, and Rodriguez was convicted of that bombing and another one that destroyed a North Sacramento home.

Rodriguez also had worked in the bonding business, and according to court testimony, he had allowed Padilla and Padilla’s brother Greg take over his shop for a time while he was on leave. But when Rodriguez wanted back into the business, he was denied. He was angered, lawsuits followed, then the bomb.

But damned if Padilla didn’t offer him a job when he got out of prison.

In 1992, Padilla decided he wanted to become mayor of Sacramento and challenge his old rival, the late Joe Serna Jr. Trouble was, Padilla happened to be in federal prison at the time for tax evasion. He ran anyway, campaigning from behind bars. Serna was elected in a landslide.

Undaunted, Padilla would seek the office again, and employ even more unconventional techniques.

Running in a crowded field for mayor in 2008, Padilla outed Kevin Johnson as an accused child molester, distributing the Phoenix police report containing disturbing allegations that Johnson inappropriately touched a teenage girl in 1995 when he was playing with the Phoenix Suns. The allegations were known by some in Sacramento for years, but they did not become public until Padilla made them so.

His sharing of the report was dismissed by some as the maneuverings of a serial publicity hound. And sure, the action was self-serving. But in light of the #MeToo movement, Padilla was more than a little prescient.

Also in 2008, Padilla posted the bond for Casey Anthony, the Florida mom accused of and eventually acquitted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. Years later, he insinuated himself into the investigation of a notorious serial-killing case by contacting Loren Herzog and Wesley Shermantine, each convicted of multiple murders and dubbed the “Speed Freak Killers” for their reign of meth-infused terror in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1980s and ’90s.

Padilla persuaded Shermantine, on death row in San Quentin, to give him maps to more buried corpses in exchange for the promise of about $33,000 – money Shermantine wanted for candy, a typewriter and tombstones for his parents.

At the time, Herzog was out on parole. (His sentence had been overturned on a technicality, and he later was convicted of lesser crimes.) Padilla “called him and told him he needed a lawyer because Shermantine was talking,” The Bee’s Sam Stanton wrote.

Herzog committed suicide not long after, and Padilla’s efforts in the case eventually led to the recovery of multiple victims.

“He had a way of getting right down to the nitty-gritty, and he didn’t like to sugarcoat it,” said Alex Padilla, 47, one of Leonard’s three children from his first marriage.

Leonard Padilla came up the hard way in the 1950s and ’60s, when discrimination toward people of Mexican descent was open and raw. He anglicized the pronunciation of his last name. He served in the Air Force. He believed that being tough and working relentlessly was the only way for him to live with self-respect.

He made a lot of money in the bail bonds business, but his heart always was open to people on the margins. He would bail people out and let them live in his house. They were not always the most virtuous souls. When Alex was 4, one of these visitors attacked him, and he briefly ended up in a coma.

“My dad played it too close to the edge,” Padilla’s daughter Julie said. “He thought he could control people. He thought he could handle people, but he welcomed danger too closely.”

Now a school administrator in Denver, Julie said her father would take her hunting for people who had skipped bail when she was young. “I would be 8 years old, and he would tell me to ring the doorbell and pretend my Frisbee was in their backyard,” she said.

Her father instructed her to scan the home, make mental notes and then report back to him. “We laugh about it now, but I do wince when I think about it,” she said.

But Padilla also infused his kids with self-confidence. “He made us feel anything was possible,” Julie said.

In 2000, Julie ran for mayor of Sacramento. In 2002, she ran for Congress. Alex raced cars and now is an actor. Their older brother Lenny lives and works in Spain.

“Lenny said he wanted to leave the circus that was in Sacramento,” Julie said.

Their private lives did play out in the press. When Leonard and his wife Rose divorced in 1983, it was ugly and acrimonious. A Bee story said the couple fought over shared assets valued at $21 million. The Bee later reported that Rose had settled the case with her husband for $1.7 million.

In the late 1990s, Leonard had a falling out with his sibling Greg. There were lawsuits, and the brothers who once did everything together became estranged.

But the guy often accused of being shady by detractors used to admonish his kids if they ever fudged on the truth, even slightly. Once when young Julie returned home with too much change given to her by a confused McDonald’s employee, her father excoriated her for accepting money that wasn’t hers, she said. She was forced to march back to the restaurant, return the money and apologize.

There is so much more to the man: He started a downtown law school named after Lorenzo Patino, the first Latino municipal court judge in Sacramento. He sued a local bank he felt was purposely hard on minority businesses. He was featured in a BBC documentary on bounty hunters. He was a fixture on crime shows.

Then, two years ago, he had the stroke. He moved to Denver so Julie could care for him. He was near death just a week ago, suffering terrible seizures and had to be rushed to the emergency room.

“He wouldn’t want live as he does now in Sacramento,” Julie said. “He’s softened a bit. He depends on people now.”

Padilla recently reconciled with his brother Greg, who chokes up at the memory of their rift. Greg’s son Topo, who also feuded with his uncle, now speaks to him affectionately by phone several times a week. Julie said even his ex-wife Rose has traveled from Mexico to care for him.

It’s all in the past now, as is the Sacramento that Padilla once enlivened and confounded. Ironically, the bail bonds business once synonymous with Padilla is under legislative assault. The ACLU wants it abolished because they say it favors the wealthy and results in poor people remaining incarcerated while they await trial because they can’t afford bail.

“My dad would be up in arms (about it),” Alex said.

What is left of the man here in town are years of memories stored in the same H Street building where the bomb went off. The place is filled with animal heads, framed photos of Padilla with famous people and files of the people he hunted down and captured, among other mementos.

“My dad was a hell-raiser, but not just for the sake of hell-raising,” Julie said. “There was a lot of truth, a lot of social justice. I think later on it became less about that. (But) I think Dad always hungered for validation.”

Ernest Hemingway, who certainly would have respected Padilla’s swagger, once said: “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”

By that measure, few Sacramentans have lived a life more memorable than Padilla. And there has to be some validation in that.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton