A one-time law school student is imploring a Miami federal judge for a lenient sentence after being convicted of importing loads of illegal synthetic drugs from China through his family’s shipping business.
Mario Melton, 31, is hoping U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno on Friday will give him a two-year prison term, urging him to take into account his difficulties as a bullied youth and his substance abuse as an adult. Prosecutors, however, are seeking much harsher punishment — up to 15 years — arguing he played a key role in one of Miami’s largest Molly rings.
In March, a federal jury convicted Melton, the son of an influential Miami lobbyist, of conspiring to import the designer drugs from China for a ring headed by two former U.S. soldiers. Melton was the only one of 11 defendants to try his luck at trial.
His first trial ended in a hung jury, but a second group of jurors convicted him after less than two hours of deliberations. Before the second trial ended with his conviction, Melton personally rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a probationary sentence with no prison time.
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“I hugely regret my poor choice in friends and associates, which has led to this devastating situation for my family, my friends and me,” Melton, who was arrested last fall while attending St. Thomas University Law School, wrote in a letter to the judge.
For his sentencing, Melton’s father, longtime county lobbyist Eston “Dusty” Melton, mobilized several notable Miami-Dade figures to write the judge seeking lenience for his son. Among them: former county manager and schools superintendent Merrett Stierheim, former state senator and attorney Daryl Jones, and former county and Miami city manager Sergio Pereira.
Last year, the ring was featured in a story, “Miami Molly Machine,” as part of the Miami Herald’s Pipeline China series, which chronicled a new breed of drug dealers ordering synthetic drugs from clandestine labs overseas.
The ring was headed by Jorge Hernandez, a former U.S. Army intelligence specialist who returned home from war and became a fast-living Molly dealer. He was joined by his best friend, Matthew Anich, a former Marine.
The two tatooed, body-building friends ordered hundreds of kilos of the club drug Molly, using strippers and other young women to sell the pills, pick up the packages or wire the money.
Federal prosecutors said that Melton met Hernandez through Peter Pereira, a male dancer and gay escort who was involved in the Molly dealing.
Prosecutors said the illegal business run by Hernandez and Anich took off when Melton came up with the idea of using his family’s shipping company to import the synthetic drugs from China. Melton helped them import numerous shipments of ethylone, aka Molly, and steroids through his grandfather’s Medley shipping business, TransFreight, getting paid by the kilo, prosecutors said.
“Trial evidence demonstrated that Melton’s involvement enabled the conspirators to send larger quantities of drugs at a time to one place, namely Melton’s family’s freight-forward business called TransFreight, making the operation more efficient and more successful,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Marton Gyires.
“The only reason it stopped is because they were caught by law enforcement.”
Once he was caught, Hernandez proved to be an ace undercover operative — making drug deals that helped agents bust 13 other people. “The best I've seen in my experience,” Gyires told Judge Moreno at Hernandez’s sentencing last month.
That cooperation, combined with Hernandez's impressive service in the military — he served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Arabic-speaking translator — Moreno to shave some time off what could have been a sentence of at least 10 years in prison.
The end result: Hernandez, 37, is serving only four years.
“It wasn't just service. It was combat duty,” Moreno said.
In all, the judge sentenced Hernandez and seven others last month to terms ranging from 18 months to five years in prison, nearly ending the legal case against Miami's "Molly Machine.”
Only one defendant, Melton, remains to be sentenced. Hernandez testified twice against Melton.
Hernandez and his best friend, Anich, ran the lucrative Molly operation, a business model that has proliferated in South Florida in recent years. Like others in the emerging drug game, the two ordered the drugs through Chinese websites, which in turn mailed the packages through the U.S. mail and private delivery services.
Together, the group is believed to have imported hundreds of kilos of methylone and ethylone, synthetic drugs marketed as Molly in South Florida clubs. Retail profits could run as high as $30,000 to $40,000 a kilo.
Authorities got their first window into the operation after police were called to a scene involving Anich's girlfriend, a porn star named Selena Rosa, who in a fit of anger had climbed atop his Porsche naked. She alerted officers to her boyfriend's drug business. Anich, who is serving a nearly five-year prison term, cooperated against Hernandez, who in turn helped Homeland Security Investigations agents build their far-reaching case.
In all, over a dozen people have been convicted in various cases, with all but Melton pleading guilty.
In a letter to the judge, Melton’s mother, Mabeyls, said her son is not like Hernandez and the other criminals in his ring.
“I saw in your courtroom and was sickened listening to self-serving criminals lie about my son in order to obtain lighter sentences,” Mabelys Melton wrote Judge Moreno. “I had to stomach prosecutors point at my son and call him a drug dealer. ... My son, who today sits in prison awaiting his fate, has never been a drug dealer or been involved in any type of criminal behavior or lifestyle.”
As a child, Melton struggled with his weight and bullying, and later a heart condition, according to court documents filed by his defense lawyers. He later turned to alcohol and prescription drugs “to deal with school-related stress.”
Melton graduated from Florida State University, then earned a master’s degree in business from St. Thomas University. He also started an energy-drink company called Dolce Shot, a project that “went dormant” and led to him to further abuse alcohol and drugs such as alcohol, Valium and Xanax, his lawyers wrote.
Melton was only involved for four months in the Molly operation and “was among the least, if not the very least culpable defendant,” defense lawyer Michael Rosen wrote in a court filing.