PORTLAND – Mathew Meineke’s life hit rock bottom in 2006, when the Colorado native helped arrange a drug deal that brought a large amount of cocaine into Maine.

He and two other men were eventually charged with trafficking, and Meineke faced the prospect of five years in prison.

But earlier this month, Meineke got a rare second chance. Federal prosecutors agreed to let him return to duty with the Army — and an upcoming second tour of duty in Afghanistan — rather than sending Meineke to prison and ending his military career.

”This has been one of the most satisfying cases of my career,” said Meineke’s attorney, Tim Zerillo, who serves as president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

”All he wants to do is to be able to serve his country,” Zerillo said. ”His highest and best use is not in a federal prison, it’s in Afghanistan protecting us and everyone else.”

In the summer of 2006, Meineke was 34 years old and living in California when he put together a drug deal with two men from Maine.

”He got involved with some people and he ended up hooking them up with over a kilogram of coke,” Zerillo said.

Soon after making the deal, Meineke decided to clean up his life, Zerillo said. He moved back into his parents’ home in Colorado, became a godfather to his brother’s son, and enlisted in the Army.

From July 2008 to June 2009, he served in Afghanistan as a forward observer for an infantry unit, scouting enemy locations and calling in artillery strikes and air attacks. He had no idea what awaited him back in the United States.

In September 2008, a federal grand jury in Portland indicted Meineke, as well as Michael Martin of Portland and Charles Scally of Cumberland, on trafficking charges for the 2006 cocaine deal.

Agents from the FBI informed Meineke’s family, but told them not to trouble Meineke with the news until he returned home from Afghanistan.

The cases against Martin and Scally were resolved while Meineke was deployed. Martin, who was charged with conspiracy to traffic cocaine and distribution of oxycodone, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. Scally was convicted after a trial and was sentenced to four years.

Meineke returned to the states in June 2009 and was arrested by the FBI a few months later. He had already re-enlisted in the Army and was scheduled to deploy again to Afghanistan in August 2010.

Zerillo asked the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Conley, to consider diverting the case. Diversion in the federal court system means that the prosecution agrees to dismiss the charges. In exchange, the defendant promises not to commit other offenses, and also agrees to follow a set of conditions for a period of time, usually 18 months.

”I said, if there is ever a case for diversion in federal court, this is the case,” Zerillo said.

But Zerillo did not like his chances. He could only recall one other case having been diverted in the last several years in Portland.

But Conley and U.S. Attorney for Maine Paula Silsby approved the diversion. The indictment against Meineke was formally dismissed Feb. 11. Meineke agreed not to use any alcohol or illegal drugs, and to submit to drug testing and any therapy recommended by a diversion officer, who is similar to a probation officer.

Silsby declined to comment specifically on Meineke’s case. She said her office does not divert many cases, but she did not have statistics available last week.

”It gives certain defendants, who have been assessed by this office as someone who engaged in behavior that is really unlikely to reoccur, an opportunity to be under supervision for a period of time,” Silsby said.

”It gives people a chance not to have a criminal charge,” she said. ”That is infrequent, but it is an option.”

Some defendants, including those with two or more prior felony convictions, are not eligible for diversion, Silsby said.

”I can’t say enough about Mike Conley, Paula Silsby and the probation office,” Zerillo said. ”It has been amazing.”

Meineke is scheduled to return in August to Afghanistan, where he will serve as a forward observer and truck commander.

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: [email protected]