Jorge Ramon Hernandez, the bodybuilding exsoldier who spearheaded the largest synthetic drug ring in Miami history, pleaded guilty on Monday alongside seven associates.
All may get some prison time, but Hernandez is facing the most significant punishment — up to 15 years behind bars for importing the club drug Molly from Chinese chemical labs.
Because Hernandez is facing so much prison time, a federal judge nearly took him into custody to await sentencing in April. Hernandez, 37, a University of Miami graduate who enlisted in the military after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, caught a break by recounting his military service.
“I served in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2008,” Hernandez told U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno.
The judge immediately replied: “I will keep you out on some bond, just because of that.”
The rise and fall of Hernandez and his best friend, former U.S. Marine Matthew Anich, was chronicled last year in the Miami Herald. They embodied a new breed of South Florida drug dealers, mostly middle- to upper-class people who use the Internet to buy cheaply made synthetic drugs from overseas through the mail, an illegal trade detailed in the newspaper’s China Pipeline series.
Anich secretly cooperated with federal agents to target Hernandez, who in turn went undercover for the feds to bust nine others — including three former lovers, an interior designer and the son of a high-profile Miami-Dade lobbyist.
“If it wasn’t for him, the other co-defendants would not be here,” Hernandez’s defense attorney, Ken Swartz, told the judge.
Hernandez and Anich both had promising military careers derailed by injuries, and they later bonded over weightlifting, tattoos and the fast-paced Miami lifestyle. Federal agents say Hernandez and Anich deployed girlfriends and buddies to acquire and sell Molly ordered on the Internet from China and shipped through the U.S. mail.
Hernandez admitted to importing up to 120 kilos of Molly and laundering more than half-a-million in dirty money, prosecutor Marton Gyires told the judge.
In all, Hernandez and the seven others pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to traffic drugs. One other co-defendant pleaded guilty last week, while another importer named Josue Morales is a fugitive.
For his cooperation, Hernandez could see a significant reduction in prison time. He is expected to be a star witness next month in the trial of Mario Raul Melton, 30, a law student accused of receiving packages of Molly and steroids at his grandfather’s shipping business.
Melton, the son of Miami-Dade lobbyist Eston “Dusty” Melton, is the only one of the defendants going to trial. Anich could testify against Melton in the case, which was investigated by agents from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
“These eight members of a drug-dealing conspiracy admitted their guilt and are likely going to jail,” Melton’s defense attorney, Michael J. Rosen, told the Miami Herald. “Mario Melton, who was not a part of their conspiracy, is instead going to trial next month, where we have great confidence in the judicial system.”
Among the others who pleaded guilty:
- Ashley Sue Morales, 26, a former Hooters waitress who once dated Hernandez and was married to Morales. At the time of her arrest in September, agents went to the home of her then-boyfriend, Miami Heat center Chris “Birdman” Andersen, before eventually finding her at her job at the Coral Gables restaurant Swine.
She teared up Monday while admitting guilt.
- Carleane Berman, 21, another of Hernandez’s ex-girlfriends, who wired money to China, received packages for him and helped encapsulate the drugs. She is also an Internet adult entertainer who performs under the name Mila Maxx.
Her lawyer, Mariem Paez, said the feds had “overwhelming evidence.” “She’s 21 years old,” Paez said. “This is something that is very tough for her.”
- Jose Angel Quintana, 40, who ran a Miami interior-design business and used his wife to get packages of Molly for Hernandez.
The others who pleaded guilty: Angel Morej on, 23; Zorimar Arias Pabon, 27; Kyle Lee Pollard, 28; and Seth Daniel Murray, 28. Everyone will be sentenced on April 4.