Take The Money And Run

Leigh Sprague is a lawyer in Moscow working for a billionaire. He figures he can hold himself above his peers, make some money and get out. Leigh soon finds out that there is no honor among thieves.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

OK, so, you know how it goes - the best laid plans. You're on the strict, wonder, vacation diet everyone's talking about. Got to look good at the beach, right? Then one day, on the way to the gym, you stop by your neighbor's barbecue. You promised you'd pop in for a second, and then skinny, perky, made-up Shelly asks if you'd like a tiny slice of cake. She made it herself. Surely you can enjoy just a taste, just a - a mouthful, an inconsequential bit of sweet, confectionary goodness. What is the harm? She hands you over a piece of sugary temptation, and it looks just as moist and delicious as she promised. And you know you can't eat the whole thing. So your little fork peels off a tiny bit, and you bring that tiny bit to your lips and taste everything you've been missing for weeks concentrated in a single thunderclap.

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WASHINGTON: Who knows what actually happened next? Memory's a funny thing, but the next thing you can recall is sitting under the bushes, shoving fist-fulls of frosting into your mouth, swimsuit season be damned. Oh, we know. We understand, and we do not judge. And that's why today, on SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR we proudly present "Slippery Slope." Amazing stories from real people, where one small decision leads to something else entirely. My name is Glynn Washington. I'll be your host. But first, please do lick the chocolate from your fingers because this is SNAP JUDGMENT.

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WASHINGTON: Now, then, SNAP JUDGMENT'S Julia DeWitt is going to kick off with an unlikely tale of what happens when a young fellow from the heartland gets in slightly over his head. SNAP JUDGMENT.

JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Yeah, so do you want to just start from when you first figured out that maybe something had gone wrong, and then we'll kind of...

LEIGH SPRAGUE: Work our way back?

DEWITT: Yeah.

SPRAGUE: Yeah, OK.

DEWITT: This is Leigh Sprague.

SPRAGUE: All right, I'll try. I don't like to talk about it. I'm from Wisconsin. I don't like to talk about myself. So - but I'll make an effort. (Laughs) You know it's Midwest people?

DEWITT: But it's a very interesting story.

SPRAGUE: I guess so, yeah. I wish it weren't mine, though.

DEWITT: Leigh was a lawyer married to a Russian woman named Katya. One day a while back, Katya and Leigh decided to move with their kids to Russia, where Leigh landed a job working for a guy we'll just call Oleg.

SPRAGUE: Oleg was a multibillionaire. He was ranked, for most of the time when I worked for him, as the richest Russian in - on Forbes magazine - assets of 20, 30 billion. You know, he was one of what's called the old card oligarchs.

DEWITT: Is oligarch what people actually call them?

SPRAGUE: Yeah. They don't like to call themselves oligarchs, you know. They want to be called businessmen. And even in Russian, there's a word, taken directly from English, called (imitating Russian accent) businessmen (laughing).

DEWITT: When Leigh applied to work for Oleg's company, Oleg offered him a salary five times the amount he was asking for. But Leigh was warned that that salary came with a price.

SPRAGUE: When I went over there, there was one other foreigner. And he warned me, you know. He sat me down and said, you're not going to like this place. You're going to see things that, you know, compromise you ethically, see things that you feel like you should say no to, but you'll be forced to say yes. But he was ruthless. I mean, it was like working for - I wasn't in the Army but it was - it was like basic training every day. Like, there were all these witch hunts. You know, he would get up in front of a room and yell and scream. He'd single people out, you know, fire them on the spot or belittle them. It was really sort of an intense, troubling atmosphere. And I hated working for him.

DEWITT: Why were you working?

SPRAGUE: (Laughing) Good question. I always thought of myself as a good, moral guy. I'd held myself apart from the people I worked with for that very reason - not that I was looking down my nose at them, but I considered my morals and ethics to be better than theirs. And I felt like I could just be a trusted advisor, you know, make some money and then escape.

DEWITT: Not long after Leigh was hired, the financial crisis hit, and he had to help move millions of dollars around from one account to another. More and more, he felt like the business they were in was just one big shell-game and he had to play it. It got harder and harder to hold himself apart from the people that he worked with. As he helped shuffle these million-dollar piles of money around, Leigh got to thinking. There was one investment in particular that only Leigh and one other guy knew about, and it was rapidly losing value. No one would even notice if a little extra disappeared.

SPRAGUE: I sort of liken it to, you know, walking through the forest and seeing a pot of gold off the path or something. With that added component of it losing its value anyway, that sort of pushed me over the edge. My own little devil voice says, it's the answer to all your dreams, you know, all your festering anxiety.

DEWITT: To be clear, Leigh was making plenty of money. His family wasn't wanting for anything. But sitting there at his desk, watching the money trickle away little by little - well, it'd just be so easy to skim a little off the top. So that's when he decided, Leigh was going to steal $10 million from Oleg.

SPRAGUE: I almost justified it like I'm Robin Hood, not that I gave to the poor. But it's easier to do something bad to a person you demonize. It made me feel less guilty.

DEWITT: When Leigh and the guys he was working with were handling hundreds of millions or sometimes billions of dollars, it's hard to believe the $10 million would hardly be noticed. Where that money would be noticed was in his bank account. So next, Leigh had to figure out where he would put it.

SPRAGUE: I was using the tools - the tricks that I'd learned from how the oligarch did his business for my own little business. You know, I thought that I could hide everything.

DEWITT: Over the course of a few weeks, using what he had learned on the job about how to hide money, Leigh set up a Swiss bank account in a company in the Cayman Islands. The last thing he had to do was call for the wire transfer of $10 million.

SPRAGUE: I mean, that was crossing the real bridge of no return. And I sent off that first email to the bank, and they responded with, you know, one line, sure (laughing). A day after that, I looked in my Swiss bank account and saw 10 with six zeros after it, and like, wow (laughing). You know, that day was - the day before was scary, but the next day was a good feeling. You know, I never - not like we were poor, but I had never seen that much money in one place before. My wife didn't know, so I couldn't go out and be too blatant about it. I brought home a bottle of wine, and I said I got a little bonus at work. So I didn't - I mean, it was just a bottle of wine. But then soon after, I started getting this obsession with cars, classic cars. I bought a Bugatti, I bought a bunch of Mercedes. I bought a Peugeot. There are only five of them in the whole world. And I hadn't seen any of these cars. They were all just things I found on the Internet. They were spread out all around the world, and I'd wire, like, $100,000 here and then try and figure how to get that car to California.

DEWITT: Leigh and Katya were already planning on moving their family to California eventually, so the cars were shipped ahead. And once the cars were in the states, Leigh knew his money was safe. Katya eventually discovered pictures of the cars, and Leigh had to cop to what he did. Surprisingly, she wasn't mad, and they started spending the money together. Katya wanted some new art. They planned a remodel of their house, and Leigh kept buying new cars.

SPRAGUE: But then I did start worrying about money, which is a crazy thing. Three hundred - you know, $500,000 on house renovations. You know, it started going down and down and down.

DEWITT: After the art and remodels, just the storage fees for those cars...

SPRAGUE: You know, you spend a $1,000,000 on cars, and then you've only got 9 million. I started getting worried that it wasn't enough, basically. You know, and that's when I was really getting greedy, I guess. And that's why I went back for that other 5 million.

DEWITT: So Leigh did it again. He called the bank, and said Oleg wanted 5 million more dollars. And again, they said, sure, no problem. And then Leigh took his kids on a weekend trip to Paris. When they got back, his wife was waiting for them on the front steps of their apartment.

SPRAGUE: You know, I could tell from how she was standing that something was really wrong - like an unnatural - she had an unnatural look, like - like a brick was about to fall on her.

DEWITT: Leigh's bosses had been calling, and then Leigh remembered incriminating paperwork he left on his desk. So in a panic, he rushed to the office to destroy the evidence.

SPRAGUE: You know, I sat outside in the car, looking up at the windows. You know, I was shaking by this point. I had these nightmare images of, like, being thrown in a Russian prison. There are National Geographic specials and stuff that show them. Like, they're really awful. Then I went in, there was an entryway and then a guard who sat out in front. And I knew the guy who was sitting there, one of the few friendly people. And he was sort of my first line of defense. But I walked in, the guy smiled at me, you know, (Russian Spoken), he asked, how are you, (Russian Spoken). You know, just normal talk. Then I relaxed, and I walked through. I went up to my office, closed my door, turned off the light and just sat there for a while (laughing). And then I turned on my computer, looked at my emails, and then, I mean - then, I saw that it was what I had feared.

There were all these emails from different people, like the kind that you're scared to open, like the ones where the subject line is all in capital letters with a bunch of explanation points. You know, I could tell just from scrolling through that it was really bad. So in pure panic, I started rushing around my office, grabbing up documents and smashing them into my bag. And then there was a knock on my door. I hid behind my desk. I didn't even know if I had locked the door or not. Then nothing, nothing quiet. Another. And then nothing. I came back out, I started stuffing documents again. Another five minutes probably went by, and then I hear a key turning in the lock. The door opened and the guy was, he was a new guy, he had just been hired. I stood there and smiled and pretended (laughing) I don't know what, I don't know what I was trying to do. He said I didn't expect to see you here, everyone's looking for you. So he asked me to come to his office. I followed him. He picked up his phone and said I'm going to call Oleg. (Laughing) And then, you know, I said I have to go to the bathroom. And I got up and started walking out the door. He said don't leave, don't leave because he was suspicious, right? Sorry, I have to go, I'll be right back. I went out the door and ran and ran as fast as I could. He came out and he chased me. Now, it was a long hall and he chased me down and he was screaming out, like at the top of his lungs, to the guy, the security guard at the front. Like (Russian Spoken) stop him. So he jumped up but he didn't know what to do or why he was being yelled at like that. So I just ran out, ran through the foyer and out to my car. Like, I was just getting in my car when they both came out the door and then I drove off the stairs I could and that was that. And I just drove to the airport, where else to go when you're a wanted man?

DEWITT: Why didn't you just go home and talk to your wife?

SPRAGUE: I mean, my fear was I would go home and then an hour later there'd be like 100 policemen and the oligarchs security forces and, you know, that would have been a huge mess. My kids would've witnessed all of that. Like me being hauled off. But that's only part of the excuse because I didn't even call her. I was too ashamed. I wanted to get out.

DEWITT: So without telling anyone, Leigh sped to the airport. He ran up to the first desk he saw and got the next flight out to anywhere, happened to be to Berlin.

SPRAGUE: When I first got on the plane to Berlin, it was like this feeling of relief. Like, I'm going to leave, this whole huge mess that I created is going to be behind me. My family will follow along. But then the relief turned into some, like, terrible anxiety. You know, I just could feel my life falling apart. Should of happened way before that but that was when I really, I first felt pangs of regret for stealing the money in the first place.

DEWITT: When Leigh landed in Berlin, he e-mailed his wife and waited up all night for a reply.

SPRAGUE: You know, it was a hysterical e-mail, basically saying she couldn't know where I was, she didn't want to know where I was, she hated me. All those things, like hard things to hear, but I guess I understood.

DEWITT: But still, Leigh just thought he had to get to the States and he'd be home free. His family could follow him, they could start over. The next morning, he flew to LA. But even though Moscow is now thousands of miles away, it was hard to get comfortable. Sometimes he was sure that he was being followed. To distract himself, he started preparing the house for his family. He even got his kids the dogs he promised them.

SPRAGUE: I'd walk them around the neighborhood and when people asked me where my family was I said they'll be here soon. And I had a few of those old cars by then, and I'd drive them around in the evening by the ocean sort of imagining my boy sitting next to me.

DEWITT: But while Leigh was holding tight to that money and preparing for a new future with his family, his wife was back in Moscow filing divorce papers. And two months after he arrived in the U.S., Leigh was served.

SPRAGUE: So I mean, this is the part that's hard to talk about. The next day, I gathered what pills I had together, made a little pile and I realized it wasn't enough to do what I wanted to do. So I drove with my pills to my grandparents' house and they were out, so I went in through the back door. And they had, like a lot of old people, they had piles of old pill bottles around. And I gathered them up and put them together with mine and swallowed them all down. I started driving home and at that point I still felt fine as I guess they hadn't been absorbed. So I drove and drove but sometime when I turned through Santa Monica, down onto the PCH, I started to not feel so fine. And I kept getting worse and worse and worse. And I have just these little snippets of memory like swerving into the opposite lane. I don't know how I made it that far, but in Malibu town, there's a, one of the first stoplights on the PCH and I stopped there and then I felt arms on me, or hands on me. And they ripped me out like, I don't remember it all very clearly, but the next thing I knew, I was face down in the gravel on the side. And after that I just don't remember anything, until I woke up in a hospital bed. I mean, I wish I hadn't had to almost die to have a new outlook, but I woke up. I don't know. I mean, it's trite, I was happy to be alive. Determined to live. Determined to focus as much as I can on righting the wrongs I caused and felt like I had a chance for some sort of a redemption to do right again.

DEWITT: Once he got out of the hospital, Leigh called Oleg directly. And even though Oleg was obviously furious, he wanted his money back. He put Leigh in touch with his lawyers in America and Leigh started paying back the money. He moved home with his parents and got a job. His kids even came to stay with him for the summer. It seemed like things were on track.

SPRAGUE: Even my worst, in my worst, sort of, imaginings of all the possible outcomes, I didn't think of myself sitting in a U.S. court before a U.S. judge and waiting for a U.S. sentence.

DEWITT: Turned out that Oleg was under investigation by the FBI, which means attention was drawn to Leigh. And the FBI didn't care if Leigh was trying to undo what he did. Leigh was living with his parents when he got e-mail, the feds were moving to indict.

SPRAGUE: To this day, I resist saying that it was about greed, but it was. Yeah, yeah. I fell down the slippery slope.

DEWITT: Do you think of yourself as a bad guy?

SPRAGUE: I do. I justified what I did by demonizing him. By saying, setting myself up as a good guy and him as bad and telling myself I was stealing from a thief so it doesn't sound so bad, right? But over time, I realized that by stealing from a thief, I'd become a thief top, just like him.

DEWITT: When I caught up with Leigh, he was living in an apartment in Beverly Hills. It was Thursday when I did this interview. On Monday, Leigh was going to federal prison.

SPRAGUE: My lawyer said I'm actually going to a really high level place but I think she's wrong. I hope she's wrong.

DEWITT: I figured Leigh would be busy these last few days seeing people. But he said no, his schedule was pretty wide-open. Not many people to see these days. His apartment was empty, just a couple of couches and a T.V. His kids are still back in Moscow. He won't get to see them before he goes in. What do you tell your kids now, then, about stealing?

SPRAGUE: (Laughing) Not much.

DEWITT: All of Leigh's cars, the Bugatti, the Peugeot, all $1.4 million of them had been repossessed by the FBI. He had to borrow money from his parents just to cover basic amenities in prison.

SPRAGUE: Yeah, well, thank you for coming.

DEWITT: At the end of our interview, Leigh walked me to the garage and watched me as I pulled out. I saw him wave goodbye in the rearview mirror. In a few days, his mom was going to drop him off at prison. As of the air-date of this show, Leigh has 49 months to go.

WASHINGTON: Staying strong on the inside. Leigh Sprague, stay strong. That peace was produced by Julia DeWitt and Mark Ristich, with sound design by Leon Morimoto.

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WASHINGTON: Now when SNAP JUDGMENT comes back after this break, we come back hard. A player shows us that you don't need money to get the girl. And one of the most sacrosanct areas in professional sports, please know, the fix is in. All that once SNAP JUDGMENT, "Slippery Slope" episode continues. Stay tuned.

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