Michael A. Conover looked like a clean-cut young businessman in Miami federal court on Tuesday, with short-cropped hair, black-framed glasses and a gray suit.
But the business he was once involved in was anything but button-downed.
The 25-year-old pleaded guilty Tuesday to attempting to possess and distribute the Chinese-made club drug known as Molly. He faces up to 20 years in prison at his sentencing on April 13.
Conover — charged in November with a single offense of buying five kilos of the synthetic drug ethylone — was not new at the drug game. He was an early player in what became one of the largest Molly importation rings in South Florida history, chronicled last year in the Miami Herald.
The operation was spearheaded by now-convicted Miami bodybuilders Jorge Hernandez and Matthew Anich, former U.S. soldiers who used a cadre of beautiful women and associates to order and receive packages of the stimulant drug in the mail from China.
Federal agents say Conover agreed to buy five kilos of what he thought was Chinese-made Molly for $17,500 from Hernandez. But the drugs were fake — and Hernandez, wired up, was secretly working with the feds.
Just before his arrest, Conover said “the drugs were beautiful,” according to a statement he signed with his plea agreement. Conover, who was recorded by Hernandez, said he wanted to break up the five kilos to avoid being robbed and was going to sell them at a $5,000 profit on the same day, according to prosecutor Jonathan Osborne.
Conover’s defense attorney, Pat Dray, declined to comment after Tuesday’s plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga.
Ordering synthetic drugs such as Molly or flakka from China has become big business in South Florida, especially for young tech-savvy men who easily find the drugs for sale through websites. The importers wire money to Chinese chemical labs, which in turn mail the parcels of drugs to P.O. boxes or homes.
The trade, which has led to dozens of successful prosecutions by federal authorities in recent years, was the subject of the Herald’s Pipeline China series.
Hernandez and eight others pleaded guilty last month and are awaiting sentencing. Hernandez’s defense attorney, Ken Swartz, told a federal judge that because of his client’s assistance in the Molly investigation, he is hoping to receive the same punishment as Anich, his one-time buddy. Anich, who was indicted in a separate case, is already serving about five years in prison for his drug dealing.
Prosecutors say that Hernandez, a University of Miami alum who served in the Army, employed a string of sex partners from his many romantic conquests to wire money to China, and accept and pick up packages from overseas. Anich, who graduated from Tulane University before serving in the Marines, enlisted strippers to sell Molly capsules to customers at their clubs. There, the two men would sometimes drop tens of thousands of dollars for fun.
Authorities got their first break when Anich’s angry girlfriend — a porn star and Hustler covergirl named Selena Rose — told them about his drug dealing in September 2012.
Inside Anich’s Brickell-area apartment, investigators found Molly, pill presses, two guns (AK-47 and Glock), a ledger, a laptop, jewelry, a stripper pole and more than $100,000 in cash.
Anich agreed to cooperate with Miami police and Homeland Security agents. He told them that Conover — who wanted to get into “the drug game” — was the one who gave him the empty capsules, weapons and cash to hold, according to his statement. Investigators also found $20,000 in cash belonging to Anich inside his Porsche Cayenne.
Anich also told investigators that Conover, at some point, was living at a Miami Beach beachside condo and stole money from Hernandez.
Conover himself was arrested in January 2013 after a home-invasion robbery in West Miami-Dade. Detectives found Molly and a .22-caliber pistol in a safe inside his bedroom.
He was charged with possessing drugs and a firearm, but the case was almost immediately dropped by prosecutors.