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Man accused of posing as Navy SEAL & POW to steal veterans benefits was convicted of arson 4 times in NJ

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

A 58-year-old Bucks County man charged by federal prosecutors with pretending to be a Navy SEAL and wounded POW to steal $300,000 in veterans benefits, was previously convicted in four separate cases of arson, including setting fire to cottages at a Roman Catholic hermitage for nuns devoted to prayers and silence.

A federal magistrate judge on Tuesday ruled that Richard Meleski, of Chalfont, would remain behind bars until his health-care fraud and stolen-valor case goes to trial or is otherwise resolved.

“Society is entitled to be protected from his criminal propensities, whether they incline him to burn things down or steal from veterans, their widows, and their orphans,” wrote Magistrate Judge Richard A. Lloret in a six-page order.

Lloret also cited a pretrial report that Meleski’s fiancée admitted to illegally purchasing two guns for Meleski in 2017. She said one of the guns had since been sold and the other was still at their Chalfont home. Prosecutors said Meleski was not forthcoming about the guns and federal investigators still did not know their whereabouts.

Nancy MacEoin, the assistant federal defender assigned to represent Meleski, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

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U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain announced Monday that Meleski had been arrested and charged with an alleged yearslong scheme to obtain health-care benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

Meleski claimed to have served as a Navy SEAL in Beirut during the 1980s. He said that during that time he was beaten, shot, and tortured while held as a prisoner of war, then heroically jumped out a window carrying a dead SEAL on his back, and awarded the Silver Star for his actions, prosecutors allege.

In reality, Meleski “never served in the United States military” and was “in the state of New Jersey, not Beirut, at the time of his claimed incidents,” according to the indictment.

It was in New Jersey where Meleski was convicted four times for arson, the prosecution wrote in a motion for pretrial detention. For just those arson cases, Meleski was sentenced to a total of 19 years in prison.

In the most serious case, in 2003, Meleski was sentenced to 10 years in prison for setting fires at Bethlehem Hermitage in Morris County.

The Star-Ledger reported at the time that the hermitage was the home of a priest and several nuns who “live in individual cottages, almost always eat alone and devote their lives to solitary prayers and chores, and silence.”

The prosecutor in the case said Meleski started living there as a guest in November 2000 because he needed a warm place to wait out the winter, not because he wanted spiritual development. In a taped confession, Meleski said he set two cottages on fire in April 2001 on his 40th birthday because he was drinking and angry.

The priest at the hermitage said Meleski worked hard doing chores but he didn’t know the rosary or daily prayers, the Star-Ledger reported. After Meleski was arrested, police found a television, police scanner, and empty wine bottles in his cottage.

Meleski also was convicted in an earlier case for setting a school on fire in Middlesex County.

Meleski was convicted of forgery in 1980 and stealing a gun in 1992. In the latter case, he was convicted of injuring two police officers during an arrest and threatening to kill them. He was sentenced to four years in prison for that case.

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Curran wrote in the pretrial motion that Meleski over the years “was required to complete anger management, mental health counseling and psychiatric counseling, yet the defendant continued to commit violent felonies.”

Judge Lloret wrote that the “depth and nature of the defendant’s criminality is revealed by his current crime.”

Lloret wrote, “The VA was established, in President Lincoln’s words, ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan,’ not as a piggy-bank for Mr. Meleski.”

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© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer