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Once-top lawyer home from prison

There was a time when George N. Meros was the lawyer to call. Some people signed him up even before they told their spouses they wanted a divorce.

For decades, prominent residents of St. Petersburg considered it that important to have Meros on their side.

But that part of Meros' life came to an end in 1985. In a reversal of fortune that shocked the community, Meros was convicted of drug smuggling and money laundering and packed off to prison for a 35-year sentence.

He initially insisted on his innocence, admitting his criminal conduct only after exhausting his appeals.

He became a model prisoner and wrote of his experiences in an effort to steer young lawyers away from his mistakes.

Despite his conduct, and serious health problems, Meros was not granted parole until he had served nearly a third of his sentence.

Now, at 73, Meros is once again living with his family in the upscale Snell Isle neighborhood of St. Petersburg. He declined to discuss his experience with a Times reporter, saying he and his family "think it best that I decline a public interview."

Indeed, Meros has kept such a low profile that some people who once were quite familiar with him were surprised to hear that he had been released from prison.

As a disbarred felon, the man who once had the highest rating for ethics and legal ability that Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory provides may no longer practice law.

All he would say to a reporter is that he is thankful to be home among family and friends and looks forward to the future.

A lawyer takes

road to ruin

Meros moved to St. Petersburg in 1924, when he was about a year old. His late father was a Greek immigrant who owned and operated a downtown St. Petersburg restaurant for many years.

After military service during World War II, Meros went to law school at the University of Florida, where he graduated in 1953. He and his wife, Anne, had four children, three of whom now practice law.

In addition to his civil practice, Meros handled criminal cases. By the 1970s Meros had begun representing a few drug smugglers.

Meros' life began unraveling in 1982 when federal investigators listed Meros, a number of other lawyers and a federal judge in Georgia as part of a group of lawyers and accountants that had been helping drug smugglers launder their illegal profits.

The Georgia investigation stemmed from the 1979 seizure of the Mis Vicki, a shrimp boat loaded with marijuana that authorities seized off Georgia. Byron Davant Wever, a St. Petersburg resident who was Meros' client, was arrested and later accused Meros of bankrolling the drug shipment with $140,000.

Meros was arrested as he visited Wever in Georgia. Federal authorities moved in and took him into custody after a breeze blew Wever's shirt aside, showing the recording device he wore during the meeting.

Client's testimony

helps open prison door

Meros and other Florida lawyers got into trouble at a time when the prospect of tougher prison sentences prompted some drug smugglers to turn against their attorneys and strike deals with prosecutors.

The lawyers who got into trouble, like Meros, often were those who began defending their clients against criminal charges and then began to handle their other affairs, buying boats and property, depositing their money into trust accounts and establishing social relationships.

At trial in 1985, Meros admitted handling some of the money that came from Dixie County drug smuggler David Capo and Mark Knight, the younger brother of Michael Knight, a St. Petersburg Beach smuggler who drowned off Indian Rocks Beach in 1978.

Capo and other drug smugglers who gained fame in record-breaking marijuana arrests during the early 1970s testified against Meros. One witness was David Strongosky, a St. Petersburg Beach man who was arrested in 1973 at Steinhatchee with 9 tons of marijuana in a case that came to be known as "The Steinhatchee Seven." Strongosky and the others said Meros invested in several drug importations and helped them launder millions in drug profits and hide assets from the IRS.

Capo testified against Meros after federal agents showed him the records of a Swiss bank account that Meros had opened for Capo. The smuggler thought there was about $400,000 in the account; there actually was just $2. Capo said the revelation had a lot to do with his decision to testify.

Meros personally delivered drug cash to Switzerland, deposited it in bank accounts and took title to land in his name so his clients could avoid tax problems, according to testimony at his trial.

At the trial, Meros accused federal investigators of "reaching an unforgivable conclusion."

He continued to insist on his innocence during his early years in prison. But after losing his appeals, he changed his tune.

Meros admitted his criminal conduct and offered to become a speaker at community drug education and awareness programs.

"The best that I can ask and hope for is that you will recognize something in my life before my outrageous conduct, or something meritorious in my conduct after imprisonment to justify a reduction," Meros argued in a letter written to U.S. District Judge Ben Krentzman.

Friends and officials such as Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice wrote on his behalf during a 1990 effort to win Meros early parole.

Federal prosecutors vehemently opposed any reduction in his prison term. They said Meros had agreed to testify against some of his former clients but refused to provide information on corrupt law enforcement officers who helped smugglers. Meros said he had no such information, but the judge refused to reconsider.

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