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Bribes. Murder. Suicide. The death of South Carolina’s Mexican combo-plate king

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There are falls from grace, and then there’s the story of Gregorio Leon.

The Mexican immigrant became a multimillionaire through San Jose, a Mexican restaurant chain with nine locations around the Midlands area of South Carolina, the type of spots where encyclopedic menus offer massive margaritas and combo plates inundated with cheese sauce. He went by “Greg,” and became a regional icon for Latinos, a regular at South Carolina Gamecocks football games, and a hero in his hometown of San Jose de la Paz, a pueblo in the state of Jalisco whose townspeople run over 700 Mexican restaurants across the American South and defined what Mexican food was in the region for decades.

But Leon’s rise was hardly a feel-good story. And now, Leon is dead — found hanging in his prison cell after a jury found him guilty just a week earlier of murdering his wife’s lover after catching the two of them in the backseat of a truck the night of Valentine’s Day 2016.

I wrote about Leon’s sordid saga in 2020, while his murder trial kept being delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His was a cautionary tale of the American dream, of someone who became rich by exploiting his paisanos and mocking the law — but kept getting passes from his community again and again.

In life, Leon was involved in a cockfighting ring that brought down a South Carolina agriculture commissioner, saw his family’s San Jose restaurants pay nearly $400,000 in back wages to their employees, and paid an $180,000 federal fine for hiring undocumented workers. Leon was able to avoid a harsher sentence in that case because he admitted to state prosecutors that he sent bribes to Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, who was the longest-serving sheriff in South Carolina history, to release San Jose employees that deputies had arrested.

The restaurateur was on probation for that crime when he found his wife, Rachel, and her lover, Arturo Bravo, with their clothes off in the Toyota Tundra she had bought for Bravo three days earlier. He fired two shots at Bravo with a .357 Smith and Wesson revolver, killing the construction worker.

Greg would testify in court that he told a half-naked Rachel “What the f— have you done?” before leaving her at the scene to toss the firearm in the woods, then meeting with his personal attorney at a gas station before surrendering to law enforcement.

Read more: The dark side of the South’s Mexican combo-plate dream

He wouldn’t face a jury for killing Bravo until this June. Free on bail and confined to his home and running his San Jose restaurants after serving six months in federal prison for violating his probation in the bribery case, Leon nevertheless acted like nothing had happened. Photos on Facebook showed him attending the high school graduations of his children and playfully cooking at his restaurants.

Meanwhile, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division charged him with perjury in 2022 after a San Jose employee was caught on tape instructing Ruby Sierra, Bravo’s roommate and former lover, to tell authorities that Bravo was a gang leader, a rapist and pedophile. In exchange, Sierra said, she went to a San Jose restaurant and received $500.

Some of South Carolina’s most prominent defense attorneys vouched for Leon. State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who recently represented fellow Palmetto State attorney Alex Murdaugh in a murder trial that drew national attention, filed pre-trial motions on behalf of Leon that claimed Bravo was member of the Zetas cartel, which wanted to assassinate Leon. At a preliminary court hearing, Leon’s personal attorney, Eric Bland — who played a major role in Murdaugh’s downfall by exposing his financial misdeeds — praised his client’s charitable ways as vital to hundreds of Mexicans in South Carolina and San Jose de la Paz.

“The arms and the tentacles that spring from this San Jose restaurant,” Bland told a judge in 2017, “are extraordinary.”

When Leon’s trial finally started in June, he had another South Carolina legal legend on his side: Jack Swerling, nicknamed “Mr. Murder” for having represented hundreds of accused killers during his 50-year career. The defense attorney described Bravo in his opening arguments as a “gigolo” who had essentially turned Rachel into a concubine.

“He took advantage of Rachel Leon,” Swerling told jurors. “He knew she was married, and he knew she was married to Greg Leon. He milked her.”

On the witness stand, Leon bragged about his vigorous sex life with his wife, with whom he had seven children ranging from mid-40s to 14. Yet he claimed there was no reason to suspect she was cheating on him, even though a neighbor once told Leon that he thought Bravo’s daughter was sneaking a man into Leon’s house. Leon did admit he was worried Rachel, who had lost 40 pounds and was turning distant, was using drugs and thought she was buying them when he found his wife in the parking lot with Santos.

He fired the shots at Bravo, Leon said, after he heard Rachel scream and Bravo moved his arm as if to reach for something.

Leon’s supporters packed the courtroom every day to support their man, who wore a red crucifix around his neck that shone against his light brown skin and salt-and-pepper mustache and hair. They remained silent as the prosecuting solicitor, Rick Hubbard, and deputy solicitor Suzanne Mayes easily dissected Leon’s narrative.

The prosecutors showed evidence that Leon had searched dating sites like localmilfselfies.com to see whether Rachel was using them, and had left one of his San Jose restaurants in a rage after a GPS app tracked his wife to her parking lot tryst. Jurors saw records of Bravo calling Rachel just hours before they met on the night of their last Valentine’s Day, while she and her husband enjoyed dinner at an Italian restaurant with friends. They also viewed multiple photos of a smiling Bravo and Rachel together posted on social media, and others of her posing in a leopard-print dress.

Investigators said there was no gun found in the Tundra, as Leon insinuated. Instead, investigators found Valentine’s Day gifts in the Tundra where Bravo died: a teddy bear, flowers, a bottle of Champagne and Lindt chocolates in a box shaped like a heart.

And Hubbard played the call Leon made to 911 right after he killed Bravo. “They were sitting in the car messing around and I pulled up, and I found them and I shot ‘em,” Leon had told the dispatcher. “I found my wife cheating on my ass, I shot them both.”

The case lasted three weeks. Swerling continued to insist in closing arguments that the dead Bravo was a “predator” who ruined the Leon household.

“Who shattered [their] dream?” Swerling said. “Did Greg Leon shatter the dream? No.”

“Greg Leon already knew his wife was having an affair,” Hubbard retorted in his closing argument. “He took steps, leading up to Valentine’s Day, knowing that he wasn’t just going to catch his wife, he was going to catch them, and his plan was to kill two people, his wife and her lover, and he succeeded with killing one person.”

A vertical head-and-shoulders frame of a man with a graying mustache.

Gregorio Leon booking image. (South Carolina Department of Corrections)

The jury took less than three hours to find Leon guilty of murder and possession of a firearm during a violent crime. Seven people pleaded with presiding Judge Walton McLeod IV for leniency, including two of Leon’s sons, a sister, and a former Lexington council member. Also offering his support: Bland, the attorney who met Leon at a gas station shortly after the death of Bravo.

Bland told Judge McLeod that Leon was “one of the most giving men I’ve ever met in my life.”

The jurist nevertheless sentenced Leon to 30 years in prison, with no chance of an early release. The 56-year-old wept, just like in 2015, when a judge sentenced him to 200 hours of community service and five years of probation in a plea deal for his role in bringing down Lexington County Sheriff Metts.

“If I had known all this would have happened,” Leon said then, “I never would have done it.”

On Friday afternoon, authorities at Kirkland Correctional Institution, an intake center in Columbia, found Leon hanging in his cell just minutes after a security check. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where more than 100 people — friends, family, San Jose employees and others — went to visit and hope for his recovery.

Leon died just before midnight.

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On Twitter, Bland wrote “Grown men who have worked for Greg for 25 years were on the floor, crying like babies.” In a separate tweet, Bland also disclosed that Leon “told me God has a plan for him and that somehow he believed some good will come to him.”

Accompanying his words was a photo of Leon praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was dated the day of Leon’s conviction.

A Spanish-language radio DJ praised Leon on Facebook as a “great businessman whom many described as a great friend” who left a “great legacy” in Lexington. And Paul Kirby, editor of the online Lexington Ledger, wrote Leon was an “inspiration to thousands who knew him and loved him.

“Although it’s easy for many to say he was a cold blooded murder[er] who took an innocent man’s life in a fit of rage,” Kirby’s editorial continued, “it’s hard for any of us to say what we would have done had we been in his shoes that cold February night.”

John Monk is a reporter for The State newspaper, and has covered crime and political corruption in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. Although he wasn’t able to cover the Leon murder trial, Monk has reported on Leon’s triumphs and stumbles for years and so isn’t surprised the restaurateur is getting eulogized the way he is.

“He was a man who did a lot of crimes, but a lot of good,” the reporter said. “He grafted himself onto the [non-Latino] community. To have that kind of savvy and ability to get along with the gringos, that’s an amazing ability.

“In certain circles, his story will be told and retold,” he continued, concluding with a nod to how many will interpret the tale: “It’s such a unique saga. As King Lear said: ‘A man more sinned against than sinning.’”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.



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