A federal judge on Tuesday declared a mistrial in the case against aspiring attorney Mario Melton, a law student accused of playing a key supporting role in a Miami drug ring that imported Molly from China to his family's shipping business.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno ordered a new trial to start on Wednesday after the 12 jurors failed to reach unanimous verdicts on charges alleging Melton conspired to import and possess with intent to distribute the popular party drug.
Signs of a deadlocked jury first surfaced on Friday, after four days of trial last week. On Monday, jurors continued to deliberate, then asked the judge for transcripts of three witnesses and inquired about the meaning of the legal terms “reasonable doubt” and “conspiracy.”
Moreno told them to return for more deliberations on Tuesday, rely on their recollection of the testimony and follow his jury instructions. By mid-morning, the jury was unable to come to an agreement on any of the four counts, including the importation of the Chinese-made stimulant ethylone as well as the steroid oxymetholone in 2014.
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If convicted, Melton, 30, a law student at St. Thomas University, could have faced up to 20 years in prison. The mistrial, a temporary victory, means a new federal jury will have to decide his fate again.
During closing arguments on Thursday, prosecutors and the defense sparred over Melton’s alleged role in a Molly ring that ordered synthetic stimulants over the Internet from Chinese labs and imported the loads through the U.S. mail and private carriers to Miami.
Melton’s defense attorney argued the ringleader — bodybuilding ex-soldier Jorge Ramon Hernandez — took advantage of his client by using his grandfather’s freight company to receive the illegal synthetic drug shipments without his knowledge.
But prosecutors said the notion was “crazy” that Melton was unaware that Hernandez was sending more than 40 kilos of Molly over a five-month period to the family’s freight business in Medley.
“Of course, Mario knew they were sending packages there,” argued prosecutor Vanessa Snyder, saying witnesses testified that the defendant ripped open the packages to make sure he got his due, $500 in cash for every kilo.
She said that three convicted cooperating witnesses — Hernandez, his one-time girlfriend, Carleane Berman, and his partner, Matthew Anich, also an ex-soldier — truthfully testified that Melton was “in on it,” citing incriminating meetings, phone calls, text messages and coded language.
But Melton’s defense attorney countered that while Melton came to know Hernandez through a mutual friend on South Beach, the defendant was not involved in his ring and knew nothing about the drugs being shipped to the grandfather’s company, Transfreight International.
Attorney Michael Rosen argued there was no “physical evidence” — drugs, invoices or payments — linking the Molly loads to Melton. Indeed, federal jurors submitted a note to the judge during their deliberations seeking more detailed information about deliveries of the alleged multiple kilos to the shipping business between January and May of 2014.
Rosen also called Melton’s grandmother, who worked at Transfreight, and others as witnesses to raise doubts about his client’s role in the minds of jurors.
“The government says he had to know,” Rosen argued. “He didn’t know.”
Rosen tried to persuade the jurors that the prosecution of his client — the lone defendant among a dozen charged in Miami’s biggest Molly case — was about “family,” even asking Melton to stand by him for a moment in front of the jury during closing arguments.
Rosen also accused the prosecution’s three cooperating witness of being “liars” who are seeking to gain shorter prison sentences.
But Snyder, the prosecutor, countered that the case was not about family, but drugs, and accused Melton’s grandmother of lying on the witness stand to distance the defendant from the shipping scheme. She said testimony showed that Melton, a Florida State University graduate, came up with the idea of letting Hernandez use the family’s business to receive larger loads of Molly.
Fellow prosecutor Marton Gyires said Melton turned the family’s “freight-forwarding” business into a “drug-forwarding” enterprise by holding multi-kilo shipments for Hernandez to pick up — until Homeland Security agents got wind of the scheme and intercepted a shipment on May 14, 2014. Gyires said the defendant was paid roughly $20,000 by Hernandez, who would be arrested a year later after his buddy, Anich, went undercover for investigators to target him.
The trial offered the first courtroom testimony detailing the rise-and-fall of Miami's largest synthetic drug ring. Hernandez, 35, a University of Miami grad and U.S. Army veteran, and his partner, Anich, 30, an ex-Marine who attended Tulane University, illustrate a new breed of South Florida drug dealers. They are tech-savvy young men who use the Internet to buy Chinese-made drugs that are shipped to the United States through the mail.
The trade was highlighted in the Miami Herald's Pipeline China series. Hernandez and Anich, both Miami fitness instructors whose military careers were cut short by injuries, were also profiled last year in the newspaper.
The two are among over a dozen in the case who have been charged and convicted for smuggling hundreds of kilos of Molly from China. Only Melton, the son of lobbyist Eston “Dusty” Melton, is fighting the charges of conspiring to import ethylone, an offshoot of the popular club-drug ecstasy, as well as steroids.
“It was the classic sex, drugs and rock 'n 'roll - all played out in Miami,” Snyder told jurors during opening statements last week.
For Hernandez and Anich, the Molly trade fueled their appetites for nightclubs and bombshell women, some of whom wired money to China and accepted packages for the operation.
One of them, a heavily tattooed web-cam porn entertainer named Carleane Berman, 21, testified last week that she accompanied Hernandez, her boyfriend, in his white Audi to pick up deliveries of Molly from Melton at his grandfather's shipping company, Transfreight International.
She said that Hernandez once received a text message from Melton, whose code name was “PB&J,” saying that he had just “caught a 15-pound snapper.” She said he gave her his smart phone and car to go on her own to the shipping business to make the pick-up.
She testified that she sent Melton a text message when she arrived, saying “I’m here.” She said “he came out with the package and put it in the trunk.”
Investigators caught a break in the sprawling Molly probe in 2012 when Anich’s angry girlfriend — another porn actress known as Selena Rose — tipped off Miami police to the operation after a domestic squabble in which she stripped nude and jumped atop his white Porsche.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Anich recalled on the witness stand. “She said, ‘If you want to treat me like animal, I’ll act like one.’ ”
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this story.