Friday, February 23, 2018
News Roundup

Child porn defendant travels freely with Florida judge's approval

TAMPA — Six years ago, a computer technician alerted Kenneth City police to a customer's graphic images of sexually exploited boys.

Federal charges followed in 2010, threatening a minimum five-year prison term.

Had the child pornography case proceeded in typical fashion, Michael D. Meister, 57, might now be a felon with his name and face on a sex offender registry. He doesn't deny his crime, his lawyer has told the court.

But instead of doing time, Meister has traveled to Savannah, Ga., Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Grand Canyon — all with a judge's approval — while his case gets slow-walked to judgment.

What sets the pace? His predicted death. The Pinellas Park man has multiple myeloma, court records state. The blood cancer turned up six months after his federal indictment.

"I may not be an oncologist," U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara, 67, told attorneys in the case not long ago. "I know people who have had cancer. I know how it metastasizes. I don't know the point of trying him and incarcerating him."

At a hearing this month, Meister reported that his Moffitt Cancer Center doctor gives him six months to live. Dr. Melissa Alsina's prior letters to the court corroborate a poor prognosis.

For the 20th time in three years, Meister was asking Lazzara to let him travel.

In 2011, his attorney told the judge that Meister might have just one Christmas left. Lazzara approved a family reunion in the Florida Keys.

In 2012, the judge allowed a monthlong sojourn, described by defense attorney Michael Rosen as a "farewell trip," including Yellowstone, Yosemite and five other national parks.

This time, Meister wanted to go to Savannah on business, the most common of his requests.

Meister's cancer and his criminal charges arrived while he was engaged, on behalf of a real estate developer, in a high-stakes fight over impact fees in Effingham County, Ga., near Savannah.

His presence is "critical," Rosen told the judge. One reason: Meister is helping Rosen to meet potential plaintiffs in a developing civil lawsuit, Rosen said.

Early on, the government didn't oppose travel and consented to Meister's release on bail. But with repeat trips piled on top of medical procedures and trial delays, patience thinned.

"If the defendant is well enough to travel repeatedly and work as a 'critical' consultant, he should be well enough to go to trial," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kaiser wrote July 9.

• • •

Meister is charged with two counts of possessing child porn and one count of distributing it. If he's found guilty of the latter, the law requires five years in prison, Kaiser advised the judge.

A trial is scheduled for Sept. 23. Meister agreed to a bench trial, meaning that Lazzara, not a jury, will decide the case.

The judge is on record noting that if he finds Meister guilty, he won't make it official until sentencing. That often doesn't occur for months after trial. It would keep Meister free on bail.

He wears an ankle monitor.

"Judge Lazzara has at every stage balanced his rulings fairly and impartially, yet with compassion," defense attorney Rosen told the Tampa Bay Times.

Lazzara declined to comment about the case, invoking a judicial code of conduct regarding pending matters. The U.S. Attorney's Office also declined.

Rosen characterizes Meister as a successful businessman who raised two kids in a 30-year marriage before viewing and sharing "inappropriate pictures."

Meister describes his own behavior as "disgusting," Rosen said at a hearing last year.

"It has torn his family apart, and he has been using every minute of his life that he has to try to explain to his children his conduct, his wife his conduct and himself," Rosen said.

Meister has no prior criminal record, and he is not charged with making porn.

But laws enacted by Congress take a hard-line stance on any child porn activity, seeking to punish those who support an industry that feeds off violent acts against children.

In a recent federal case, former Tampa police Officer Jonathan Gamson was sent to prison for nearly five years after admitting to one count of possession.

Gamson's case took seven months, from indictment to sentencing. Meister has been in court for nearly three years.

Since he has never spent a night in jail, no booking photo exists.

• • •

His troubles date to July 2007. That month, a hyperactive man in shorts entered a Pinellas County computer shop with a battered Dell laptop, shop owner Todd Zadnik told the Times.

The customer paid for a new laptop and provided the name of a folder to be transferred.

"He didn't want anything on the computer except for that," Zadnik said.

The man said he would pick up the new laptop the next day.

Partway through the transfer, a technician glanced at a monitor and saw a file name referring to 14-year-old boys. He alerted Zadnik, who decided he ought to know what they were installing. The two told police they saw sexually explicit images of boys as young as 5.

"We had never seen anything like this," Zadnik said.

A state cybercrimes investigator got involved. Next, it became a federal matter.

The U.S. Attorney's Office explored a case against Meister in 2009. Rosen produced experts who blamed Meister's ingestion of diet pills and other medications.

Unconvinced, prosecutors took it to a grand jury.

That history came up this month when Meister asked to go to Savannah.

Prosecutor Kaiser responded with a 12-page retrospective touching on diet pills, a dropped insanity defense, ankle monitor tampering — and a seemingly spontaneous gesture by Meister to donate a kidney as Kaiser attempted to bring him to trial.

Meister, post-indictment, had prayed and decided to give up a kidney as "penance," Rosen said.

A screening test turned up low protein levels. Meister was referred to an oncologist. Then came the diagnosis of myeloma.

When it was revealed to Judge Lazzara, he asked Kaiser about the government's intentions.

"Your honor, I think that the government is still going to pursue the charges," the prosecutor said. "We have people all the time that commit crime and get sick and the Bureau of Prisons treats them. So, then, the question would be what treatment would he get at Moffitt that he wouldn't get at BOP."

After two years of MRIs, chemotherapy and stem cell transplants, that question was partially answered in March, when Jeff Allen, BOP's chief of health programs, was heard by Lazzara.

A patient like Meister would likely go to the prison system's medical center in Butner, N.C., Allen told the judge.

"We have a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist on staff there," Allen said.

Chemotherapy, radiation, MRIs, PET scans, CT scans — Butner has it all, he said.

"They can provide a whole host of services that Mr. Meister would need. And that's where we send the vast majority of our cancer patients — including ones that have multiple myeloma."

The judge expressed concern that a road trip to North Carolina might be too difficult, given that Meister would travel at the pleasure of U.S. marshals.

That was four months ago.

Since then, Meister has placed two travel requests for Savannah.

At the hearing nine days ago, he told Lazzara that cancer afflicts parts of his skull, neck, spine, hip and femur.

The judge couldn't see what he looked like. Meister attended the hearing by phone, as dogs barked in the background.

When it was Kaiser's turn to speak, she brought up a topic barely noted that day: child porn.

The images were "not just erotica," she began.

Rosen objected.

"Excuse me, why are we going through this, Ms. Kaiser?" Lazzara asked.

His voice grew harsh. There was no reason to deny the travel request, he said. He didn't want to hear about the facts of the case, he said. He knew them.

Kaiser said the facts are important in determining whether it's safe to allow Meister to travel, or even remain on bail.

"He's got pictures of children tied up, okay," she tried again. "He's got videos of 7-year-olds engaged in sex, okay."

Responding to the Times, attorney Rosen said the government's "repeated allegation of sadistic and masochistic pictures is actually one child shown tied to a chair in two pictures."

In his latest court filing, Rosen said Meister has never denied his crime and accepts responsibility.

"Michael is acutely aware of both his pending incarceration and his impending demise."

Trip request No. 20?

Approved.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or [email protected]

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