Normally in life, people get a second chance after screwing up only once.
Jorge Ramon Hernandez got a “ ‘second’ second chance,” as a federal judge told him on Thursday, when she cut him a sweet break on his prison sentence.
Twice convicted of importing and dealing the club-drug Molly, Hernandez was sent to prison for three years instead of up to five years. U.S. District Judge Marcia took his tumultuous history into account: A stellar military career, two tours of duty in the Middle East and a back injury from a helicopter accident, leading to internal battles with pain killers and PTSD as a civilian struggling to refocus his life in Miami.
But when the sentencing hearing ended, Cooke gave his defense attorney, Kenneth Swartz, a piece of advice: “Please tell him not to blow it this time.”
Hernandez, a working-class guy from Hialeah, is not a typical drug dealer. He graduated near the top of his class in high school, obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and joined the Army just before the 2001 terrorist attacks. He distinguished himself as an Arabic linguist on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, then rose to the rank of lieutenant before his career was cut short by the back injury. On Thursday, he choked up when he apologized to the judge.
“For the last decade of my life, I have honestly felt truly ruined, and I don’t mean financially but rather physically, mentally and spiritually,” Hernandez, 41, told Cooke. “Last time when I got out of prison, I was at rock bottom.”
Hernandez said that when he was released into a halfway house in March of 2018, he finally reached out to his mother, who was in hospice care, after a decade of silence between them. “I told her the truth, that my life was destroyed and I felt scared and hopeless … that I felt like God had abandoned me,” he said. “But she told me that no, I was wrong. God hadn’t abandoned me. …. I was the one who had abandoned God.”
In October, Hernandez pleaded guilty for a second time to charges of importing the popular club drug Molly from China through the U.S. mail. The heavily tattooed Hernandez, who had been working as a personal trainer, said he was treated for mental health problems at the Veterans Administration Hospital and prescribed antidepressants. He was diagnosed not only with PTSD but also a bipolar condition, according to his attorney, Swartz.
When Hernandez was arrested in June of last year for his latest offense, he had already completed a two-and-a-half-year sentence for running a much larger Molly ring that included a dozen suspects who sold variations of the synthetic stimulant MDMA imported from suppliers in China. He received a short sentence the first time because he cooperated with federal agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in building a solid case against the other defendants. U.S. District Federico Moreno also gave him credit for his military service.
Hernandez and the others were part of a new breed of narco-traffickers — far different from the cocaine cowboys of the “Miami Vice” era — who ordered synthetic drugs over the internet and had them delivered through the mail.
At Thursday’s hearing, federal prosecutor Stephanie Hauser said that while she recognized Hernandez’s psychological problems with PTSD stemming from his military service, she reminded the judge that he started importing and dealing Molly again as soon as he was released from prison and placed in the halfway house.
“He was immediately going back to what he was doing before,” Hauser said, as she sought a stricter prison sentence for Hernandez.
But Cooke said that although she wasn’t “excusing his conduct,” she saw a “cause and effect” between Hernandez’s military combat duty, his struggle with PTSD and his criminal conduct. She was persuaded by Swartz’s argument that his life had become a “mess” and it wasn’t entirely his fault — that he deserved a “ ‘second’ second chance.”
In the latest case, Hernandez used an email account, “[email protected],” to order more than 1,000 grams of the MDMA stimulant ephylone from China and paid for the shipments through Western Union between March and August of 2018 while he was living at the halfway house, according to court records. Agents with Homeland Security Investigations learned about his internet transactions from a confidential source and targeted him until his arrest last summer.
Five years ago, Hernandez had skyrocketed to notoriety for running one of the largest synthetic drug rings in South Florida history — then going undercover for the feds to bust a dozen others.
The story of Hernandez and his best friend, fellow military veteran Matthew Anich, first came to light in November 2015 as part of the Miami Herald’s Pipeline China series. The series chronicled the new breed of South Florida drug dealers importing synthetic drugs via the mail from China, including fentanyl, the powerful drug that has fueled a nationwide epidemic of opioid addiction.
Hernandez frequented strip clubs, employed a cadre of romantic conquests to wire money to Chinese suppliers, drove a $100,000 Bentley paid for in cash and lived in various waterfront condos.
Their Miami lifestyle came crashing down when Anich’s angry girlfriend, a porn star named Selena Rose, got into a fight with him, then tipped off police to the Molly operation.
Anich secretly cooperated against Hernandez, who in turn helped Homeland Security agents build their far-reaching case.
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