An aspiring lawyer and energy-drink purveyor was found guilty Monday of helping two ex-soldiers run one of the largest synthetic drug rings in Miami history.
After deliberating a little more than an hour in the evening, a federal jury convicted Mario Melton, 30, of conspiring to import the popular club-drug Molly from chemical labs in China.
The verdict in Melton’s second trial stood in sharp contrast from his first trial last month — when a jury deadlocked after deliberating more than 20 hours over four days, forcing a judge to declare a mistrial.
Melton, the son of Miami-Dade lobbyist and former Miami Herald reporter Eston “Dusty” Melton, was immediately taken into federal custody because he faces over a decade in prison when he is sentenced in May. “He’s a flight risk,” U.S. Judge Federico Moreno told his lawyer.
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When the clerk read the verdict, a crowd of Melton’s relatives and supporters gasped. His grandmother lowered her head onto the courtroom bench and cried softly.
“Divine justice!” Melton’s mother snapped at the prosecutor before the family left court. “There is a God.”
The case was being closely watched in South Florida’s legal community because federal prosecutors had lost three straight trials for men accused of helping order synthetic drugs from China. Melton was convicted of conspiracy to import controlled substances and possession of drugs with intent to distribute.
Ordering Chinese-made chemicals via the Internet has become a new and lucrative wrinkle in South Florida drug dealing. The importers — some tech-savvy South Florida college students — simply wire money to Chinese chemical labs, who in turn mail the drugs through the U.S. mail in discreet packages.
Bodybuilding ex-soldiers Jorge Hernandez and Matthew Anich 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.
Their ring began to unravel when Anich’s girlfriend — a porn star known as Selena Rose — told Miami police about his drug operation after her arrest during a domestic squabble.
Eleven defendants, including Hernandez and Anich, have all pleaded guilty. The only one to go to trial was Melton, a one-time St. Thomas University law student who headed a start-up company selling an energy drink called Dolce Shot.
Federal prosecutors said that Melton met Hernandez through Peter Pereira, a male dancer and gay escort who was involved in the Molly dealing. They said Melton came up with the idea to use his family’s freight forwarding company to ship bigger and more lucrative loads from China.
“This case is about Mario Melton, the essential cog in the Molly machine,” prosecutor Vanessa Snyder told jurors Monday during closing arguments in the man’s trial.
Hernandez, Anich and a web-cam porn entertainer named Carleane Berman were all witnesses at Melton’s trial.
Prosecutors also introduced text messages, jail phones calls from Melton and Hernandez to Pereira, who was in jail on an unrelated case. Also shown to the jury were records that the government said showed at least 12 boxes of Molly were ordered to the company, Transfreight International.
The star witness was Hernandez, 37, a heavily tattooed former U.S. Army soldier and Arabic linguist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an only-in-Miami moment, both sides sparred over the meaning of the smiley-faced “poop” emoji in a text from Hernandez to Melton — with the government insisting it was sent to indicate alarm over law-enforcement scrutiny on their operation.
Berman testified that she once picked up a large load of Molly from Melton, who put it in her trunk outside the warehouse. Melton alerted Hernandez and Berman to the delivery by texting them that the 32 pounds of “snapper” had been caught, the government said.
“He knew exactly what was in the boxes,” prosecutor Tony Gonzalez told jurors Monday.
On the other side, the defense insisted Melton knew nothing about illegal drugs — but had his family’s shipping business co-opted by the group of hard-partying Molly dealers now spinning lies to cut time off their prison sentences.
“This is a guy who has spent every day of his life lying,” defense lawyer Michael Rosen said of Hernandez, adding: “He has no moral compass.”