Man accused of faking Navy SEAL record was previously convicted of setting fire to New Jersey cottages that housed nuns


A 58-year-old Bucks County man charged by federal prosecutors with pretending to be a Navy SEAL and wounded POW to steal $300,000 in veterans benefits, was previously convicted in four separate cases of arson, including setting fire to cottages at a Roman Catholic hermitage for nuns devoted to prayers and silence.

A federal magistrate judge on Tuesday ruled that Richard Meleski, of Chalfont, would remain behind bars until his health-care fraud and stolen-valor case goes to trial or is otherwise resolved.

"Society is entitled to be protected from his criminal propensities, whether they incline him to burn things down or steal from veterans, their widows, and their orphans," wrote Magistrate Judge Richard A. Lloret in a six-page order.

Lloret also cited a pretrial report that Meleski's fiancée admitted to illegally purchasing two guns for Meleski in 2017. She said one of the guns had since been sold and the other was still at their Chalfont home. Prosecutors said Meleski was not forthcoming about the guns and federal investigators still did not know their whereabouts.

Nancy MacEoin, the assistant federal defender assigned to represent Meleski, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain announced Monday that Meleski had been arrested and charged with an alleged yearslong scheme to obtain health-care benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

Meleski claimed to have served as a Navy SEAL in Beirut during the 1980s. He said that during that time he was beaten, shot, and tortured while held as a prisoner of war, then heroically jumped out a window carrying a dead SEAL on his back, and awarded the Silver Star for his actions, prosecutors allege.

In reality, Meleski "never served in the United States military" and was "in the state of New Jersey, not Beirut, at the time of his claimed incidents," according to the indictment.

It was in New Jersey where Meleski was convicted four times for arson, the prosecution wrote in a motion for pretrial detention. For just those arson cases, Meleski was sentenced to a total of 19 years in prison.

In the most serious case, in 2003, Meleski was sentenced to 10 years in prison for setting fires at Bethlehem Hermitage in Morris County.

The Star-Ledger reported at the time that the hermitage was the home of a priest and several nuns who "live in individual cottages, almost always eat alone and devote their lives to solitary prayers and chores, and silence."

The prosecutor in the case said Meleski started living there as a guest in November 2000 because he needed a warm place to wait out the winter, not because he wanted spiritual development. In a taped confession, Meleski said he set two cottages on fire in April 2001 on his 40th birthday because he was drinking and angry.

The priest at the hermitage said Meleski worked hard doing chores but he didn't know the rosary or daily prayers, the Star-Ledger reported. After Meleski was arrested, police found a television, police scanner, and empty wine bottles in his cottage.

Meleski also was convicted in an earlier case for setting a school on fire in Middlesex County.

Meleski was convicted of forgery in 1980 and stealing a gun in 1992. In the latter case, he was convicted of injuring two police officers during an arrest and threatening to kill them. He was sentenced to four years in prison for that case.

Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Curran wrote in the pretrial motion that Meleski over the years "was required to complete anger management, mental health counseling and psychiatric counseling, yet the defendant continued to commit violent felonies."

Judge Lloret wrote that the "depth and nature of the defendant's criminality is revealed by his current crime."

Lloret wrote, "The VA was established, in President Lincoln's words, 'to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan,' not as a piggy-bank for Mr. Meleski."

©2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

REUTERS/Scott Audette/File Photo

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), has long been seen as an apologist for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom she met during a secret trip to Damascus in January 2017.

Most recently, a video was posted on Twitter shows Gabbard evading a question about whether Assad is a war criminal.

Since Gabbard is the only actively serving member of the military who is running for president — she is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard — Task & Purpose sought to clarify whether she believes Assad has used chlorine gas and chemical weapons to kill his own people.

Read More
Barrett's bolt-action Multi-Role Adaptive Design (MRAD) system (Courtesy photo)

The Army is almost doubling its purchase of new bolt-action Precision Sniper Rifles as its primary anti-personnel sniper system of choice, according to budget documents.

Read More
An A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft with the 122nd Fighter Wing, Fort Wayne, Indiana, sits on the flight line during Southern Strike, Feb. 11, 2020, at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. (U.S. Air National Guard/Staff Sergeant Rita Jimenez)

What's cooler than a single missile? How about a missile with a high-powered machine gun attached?

That's exactly what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on, according to budget documents — and it wants $13 million to make it a reality.

Read More
(U.S. Air Force photo)

Air Force officials are investigating the death of a man near the north gate of the U.S. Air Force Academy on Saturday night after the NHL Stadium Series hockey game between the Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings, military officials said Sunday.

Read More
(Navy photo / Chief Mass Communication Specialist Paul Seeber)

The Citizens of Ebey's Reserve (COER) is asking a federal judge to require the Navy to roll back the number of EA-18G Growler practice flights at Outlying Field Coupeville to pre-2019 levels until a lawsuit over the number of Growler flights is settled.

COER and private citizen Paula Spina filed a motion for a preliminary injunction Thursday.

According to the motion, since March 2019 the Navy has increased the number of Growlers at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and shifted most of its Growler operations to Outlying Field Coupeville, which is near the Reserve and the town of Coupeville.

"The result is a nearly fourfold increase in Growler flights in that area. Now the overflights subject residents in and near Coupeville to extreme noise for several hours of the day, day and night, many days of the week," said the court document.

Read More