By Jack Holland
“Why do I have the feeling that I don’t know as much about this case as I normally do when I sentence someone?” Judge Federico Moreno asked last week as he sentenced the defendant, Belfast-native Bernard Maserati Meli, to one year in prison on gun-smuggling charges. “I’m telling you point blank: I want to know more.”
The judge was to be disappointed as Meli, who was arrested by the FBI anti-terrorism unit on Nov. 26 last year in Miami, told him there was no more to know. Meli had immediately pleaded guilty to the charges, but had then refused to collaborate. He maintained that the two handguns he had purchased using false documentation, and the 22 others he was engaged in the process of purchasing, were meant for the self-protection of friends in West Belfast to whom he said he planned to sell them at a profit.
Police suspicions of a wider conspiracy, perhaps involving the IRA, had been aroused by some resemblance between this case and that of the so-called Florida Four, who were charged with arms-running for the IRA in 1999 and later convicted.
However, Meli steadfastly refused to go further than admit his guilt and deny any links to the IRA. Sinn Fein and the IRA also said he was not involved with the republican movement. Meli, whose family is of Italian extraction, lost his wife, Sandra, to loyalist gunmen in December 1972.
Federal authorities contacted INTERPOL and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in an attempt to unearth more about the 59-year-old Meli. But all they could find was charges against him in connection with running a brothel in Belfast and forgery.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The credit card used by Meli had been issued by a bank in one of the Gulf states.