The son of an influential Miami-Dade lobbyist, law student Mario Melton lived a privileged life, with his family paying for his rent, his school and even funding his startup company hawking energy drinks. And after a jury convicted Melton of importing a Chinese-made drug, he issued carefully worded apologies downplaying his role in a major Molly ring.
Melton penned a letter to the judge apologizing for his “situation.” Then, during his sentencing hearing on Friday, he apologized for “allowing” drug dealers to use his family’s Miami-Dade shipping business to import some 40 kilos of the designer drugs.
But Miami federal judge Federico Moreno sought a clearer admission.
“I’m very remorseful,” Melton stammered.
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Moreno pressed him further: “For what?”
“For dealing drugs,” Melton relented.
With that, the U.S. district judge gave him a huge break, sentencing Melton to 2 1/2 years in federal prison — much softer punishment than the eight years sought by prosecutors. “It’s lower, much lower than I expected,” Moreno said in giving him credit for his “very, very late acceptance of responsibility.”
Friday’s sentencing concluded the final case of the “Miami Molly Machine,” which was featured as part of the Miami Herald’s Pipeline China series. The stories have chronicled a new breed of drug dealers ordering synthetic drugs from clandestine Chinese labs.
The wider Molly operation 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 tattooed, 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. Authorities learned about the operation after Anich’s girlfriend, a porn star known as Selena Rose, tipped off police to her boyfriend’s activities.
Federal prosecutors said that Melton, 31, met Hernandez through Peter Pereira, a male dancer and gay escort who was involved in the Molly dealing. At trial, jurors heard that it was Melton’s idea to increase the size of the Molly shipments by having them sent to his family’s shipping company. He was paid $500 a kilo.
His first trial ended in a hung jury. Afterward, Melton personally rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in probation and no prison time. In March, a second federal jury convicted Melton after deliberating less than two hours.
The judge did not have an easy decision.
The ringleader Hernandez, who testified twice against Melton and helped U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agents build cases against the rest of the ring, got four years in prison. The judge made no bones that he cut him a break because of his military service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The nine others indicted along with Hernandez all pleaded guilty, and got terms ranging from 18 months to five years in prison.
Prosecutor Marton Gyires insisted that Melton was more than a minor player, concocting fake paperwork for the shipments and misleading federal agents about Hernandez’s identity. “He used his lies to help his buddies and to help himself,” Gyires said.
As for Melton, his lawyers cast him as a socially awkward young man who struggled with his weight, bullying and a heart condition.
Melton graduated from Florida State University, then earned a master’s degree in business from St. Thomas University, where he also enrolled in law school. He also started an energy-drink company called Dolce Shot, a project that “went dormant” and led him to abuse alcohol and drugs such as Valium and Xanax, his lawyers said.
Melton’s father, longtime county lobbyist Eston “Dusty” Melton, mobilized several notable Miami-Dade figures to write to the judge seeking lenience. 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.
His mother, Mabelys Melton, insisted in her letter that her son “has never been a drug dealer.” After the hearing, she snapped at federal agents outside court: “Divine justice exists!”
Meanwhile, Eston Melton blamed himself for coddling his son and creating a lifestyle “where he had no responsibilities, no accountabilities, no challenges or obligations and no personal exposure in the ‘real world.’ ”
His lawyer, Michael Rosen, said he believed Melton could not admit to the drug dealing because he had been “living in the womb of his family.”
During the sentencing, Judge Moreno meandered at times, pointing out that Melton “has had a lot of privileges” while chastising Melton because “he tarnished his family’s name” by involving the shipping business in drug dealing.
“This is not fun and games,” Moreno said. “This can kill people, these drugs.”
But in the end, the judge handed down the lighter sentence and also ordered him to serve three years of supervised release.
“You’re going to have to work for a living, for a change,” Moreno said.