Lots of people thought they knew Jason Miskiri.
The quiet kid from Guyana who moved to Maryland at age 5 and whose obsession with basketball led to a starring role at George Mason University and, later, to a brief appearance in the National Basketball Association.
The community pillar who donated to charities, hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the homeless and held a basketball camp each summer for local children.
The talented entrepreneur who opened a thriving, upscale restaurant and nightclub in Silver Spring, Md., and gave it a motto that suited his reputation: “Good food. Good people. Good will.”
But what made much of that possible — especially the restaurant and the narrative of financial success — Miskiri kept hidden for years: his role in a $12 million drug ring that prosecutors say involved thousands of pounds of marijuana.
This month, Miskiri, 39, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute at least 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. The charge typically carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, but if Miskiri tells prosecutors who else was involved in the crimes and details his own role — as he agreed to do — he is likely to receive a far shorter term.
As part of the agreement, however, Miskiri will lose Society Restaurant & Lounge, which he acknowledged to investigators was established with proceeds from his drug business. Government officials intend to keep the restaurant open until it is sold.
After his unpublicized indictment last year, Miskiri behaved as if a day of reckoning would never come. He built a rooftop bar — holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony seven months after his under-the-radar arrest — and named it for his daughter. He charmed in TV interviews, hosting a special segment for WTTG (Channel 5) at the restaurant just last month. He talked of his “J’s 11 spice jerk chicken,” which is named for him and nods to the number he wore as a star point guard at George Mason and Montgomery Blair High School.
“We’re just so proud of him,” a patron told the television reporter.
The restaurant’s Web site describes him as a “homegrown, local phenom” and a “crusader for social change and economic development.” Society’s Facebook page — which includes photos of Miskiri playing in games or posing in crisp suits — bills him as “Former NBA Basketball Player To Restaurant Connoisseur & Philanthropist.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stefan D. Cassella, who headed the case against Miskiri and the others involved in the drug ring, bristled at those proclamations.
“On his public Web site, he portrayed himself as a do-gooder who has improved the community,” Cassella said. “You don’t get to live a life of crime and suddenly become a respected member of the community and divorce yourself of where your money came from.”
Both Miskiri and his attorney declined to speak, and his family members did not return phone calls, but people who have known him for decades were staggered by the news.
Said Jim Larrañaga, who coached Miskiri at George Mason: “I was kind of in disbelief. There must be something wrong with this story. He’s not the kind of young man who would ever let himself get involved in these matters.”
Said Catherine Matthews, whose husband coached Miskiri in elementary school: “Unbelievable. That’s not the Jason that I know, and I’ve known him a very long time.”
Said Timothy Cooper, who met Miskiri in first grade and considers him one of his best friends: “I never seen it coming.”
Six years ago, a Texas trooper found nine suitcases in a black Lincoln Town Car. Packed inside them were more than 200 pounds of marijuana, according to court documents, and sitting in the back seat was the man who had rented the car: Jason Miskiri.
It was March 23, 2009, and Houston investigators had received an anonymous tip that two men and a woman had come to town from Maryland to buy a large quantity of marijuana. A surveillance team followed the group to a home in Sugar Land, Tex., according to court records. The team watched the car back up to a maroon SUV. The trunk was opened, and soon after, the car pulled away.
A highway patrol officer stopped the Lincoln later that evening. The trooper, who noticed a large bag in the passenger-side seat, asked the rental’s hired driver to step outside. The chauffeur then gave the trooper permission to search the car, where he found the drugs.
During the search, Miskiri blurted something to the trooper: “I’ll take the blame for all of this.”
The car’s other occupant, Ciara Cedeño, who declined to comment for this story, told an investigator that she traveled with Miskiri only because he bought her a lot of clothes.
After his arrest, Miskiri was interrogated for nearly two hours at a police station. Initially, he was “very nervous because he knew he was in big trouble,” said a Texas law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the case. But Miskiri was not prosecuted — a not uncommon outcome in a border region where authorities sometimes choose not to bring charges so that they can pursue larger cases.
Before Miskiri posted bail and returned to Maryland, the official said, he told his interrogator how he became involved in drug trafficking: through connections he made during his professional basketball career.
In the beginning, Miskiri couldn’t dribble. He could barely shoot.
A short kid with big hands and feet, he was 7 when Otis Matthews met him at the Takoma Park Boys & Girls Club.
Miskiri, the youngest of five children, was the first of his siblings to leave Guyana and join their mother in Maryland. He was shy and seldom got into trouble, even as many of those around him did. He appreciated his late stepfather, who along with his mother tried to provide the children a stable home life.
“He didn’t get everything he wanted, but all of his needs were being met,” said his longtime mentor, Calvin Avant, 64. “A lot of his other friends, economically, were not on the same level.”
For Miskiri, life revolved around the basketball court. A natural righty, he carried the ball in his left hand to improve dexterity. When teammates wanted to head to the mall, he insisted on going to the gym.
“Jason is a straight-up workaholic,” said Cooper, his lifelong friend.
Miskiri played alongside one of his closest comrades, Steve Francis. The two starred together at Blair and once served together as grand marshals in the Takoma Park July 4 parade. Francis, who played at the University of Maryland, eventually became a three-time NBA All-Star.
After high school, Miskiri spent three years at Montgomery College at Rockville, then became the first recruit to commit to Larrañaga, who had just taken over George Mason’s program.
The two grew close. He often ate meals and watched games at Larrañaga’s home. The coach’s wife, Liz, tutored Miskiri in a Russian history class. He called her “Mama L” and, years later, would still phone her on Mother’s Day.
In 1999, his senior year, Miskiri captained a George Mason team that won the Colonial Athletic Association championship and tournament title and gave Larrañaga his first NCAA tournament appearance.
Larrañaga called him “a one-man press,” with a quickness and intensity that compensated for any gaps in his game.
“He never took a day off,” Larrañaga said. “He never took a play off.”
Although Miskiri was a two-time all-conference player, no NBA team drafted him.
Larrañaga encouraged him to play in Europe, where he could have made a substantial salary.
“Money is not that important to me,” Larrañaga recalled Miskiri telling him. “I want to be around my family.”
Playing in the NBA was his dream, so he labored in minor leagues, awaiting his chance.
On Nov. 2, 1999, he stepped onto the court for the Charlotte Hornets. Miskiri played three minutes, committing two fouls, notching one assist and scoring zero points.
A week later, the team released him, and he never again played in the NBA.
Swathed in layers of shrink wrap, hundreds of pounds of marijuana would arrive in freight trucks every few weeks at a strip mall in Laurel, Md.
Miskiri had retired from professional basketball around 2006 and started cooking at Island Flavors, his family’s small, Caribbean-influenced restaurant at the strip mall. He used Island Flavors, prosecutors say, as the base of operations for his drug business.
Between August 2010 and May 2011, prosecutors say, more than four tons of marijuana was delivered to Miskiri’s restaurant. Court records indicate that the traffickers purchased their inventory for about $550 per pound and sold it for between $900 and $1,100 per pound. Prosecutors said that means Miskiri netted at least $3 million on the sales of those shipments alone.
Federal investigators knew nothing of the scheme until March 2011, when Oneil Foster, a drug dealer traveling under the alias Harvey Garvey, was held at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport with $240,000 in cash in a suitcase. That arrest led investigators to Garfield Mullings, who prosecutors say headed the drug trafficking organization. He later received a five-year prison sentence.
Miskiri, who was Mullings’s largest client, quickly sold off the product he bought.
“If somebody is able to move a thousand pounds in three weeks,” Cassella said, “they’re certainly a major drug dealer.”
Miskiri told investigators that around early 2012, he used the proceeds of his flourishing drug business to open Society Restaurant & Lounge. He told Washington Business Journal in April of that year that he had invested more than $600,000 in the restaurant.
Despite the steady inflow of cash from his marijuana operation, financial troubles — and blunders — plagued Miskiri. He didn’t file tax returns during any of the years in which he was trafficking drugs, investigators say. His restaurants have also been successfully sued three times.
After defaulting on a loan, the now-closed Island Flavors was ordered in 2013 to pay $101,000 to its lender, EagleBank, court records show. The next year, the restaurant was ordered to make good on $217,000 in unpaid rent to its landlord, Crystal Plaza.
Just last month, a court ruled that the company Miskiri created to oversee Society must pay Encore Construction, which built much of the interior, more than $75,000 in unpaid bills.
“We got down to the end and he didn’t have the money,” said Encore’s president, John Klakamp. “Or maybe he did but he didn’t want to pay it.”
Klakamp, who chose to sue only after he learned that Miskiri was installing a rooftop bar, was, like so many others, surprised by the news of his former client’s misdeeds.
“I never suspected anything like drugs,” said Klakamp, who noted that Miskiri didn’t flash any obvious signs of wealth.
Cooper struggles to believe what Miskiri has admitted.
“I never seen him have money,” he said. “I know for a fact he didn’t have that much money. His car kept almost breaking down.”
The knock came at Miskiri’s apartment door on the morning of Feb. 6, 2014. Along with his trafficking in Maryland, prosecutors charged him with the 2009 Texas drug buy — which was unrelated to Mullings’s ring.
Voluntarily, court records say, Miskiri showed the investigators a shoe box that contained 121/2 grams of pot. He also called his girlfriend to ask where he could find their guns. Inside a purse in the closet, investigators found two handguns, one of them unregistered.
The officers discovered $1,256 in Miskiri’s pants and $6,000 in a purse.
The question of where his millions went remains unanswered. Prosecutors will take his restaurant but found no other assets of significant value.
It was “Wine Down” Wednesday at Society Restaurant & Lounge, and Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” pulsed through the speakers. A string of soft, blue lights ran behind cushioned seats pressed against the walls as a cascade of fluorescent colors reflected off an expansive glass mirror behind the bar. A collection of bulbs above the DJ booth hung from the ceiling like tear drops.
About 50 people — almost all middle-aged African Americans — had come in by 8 p.m. Most of the men wore suit jackets, and most of the women wore dresses. The restaurant’s dress code strictly prohibits sloppy attire: baseball caps, sleeveless T-shirts, flip-flops, white tennis shoes or “ill-fitting clothing.”
Miskiri’s influence was pervasive. The menu featured the jerk chicken named for him, and the list of drinks included “Miskiri Magic,” a blend of Rémy Martin and Grand Marnier described as “Sultry and Smooth.” Two photos of Miskiri hung behind the rooftop bar.
And as the drinks flowed and the dance floor filled, all around — on the walls and on the servers’ uniforms — was Miskiri’s motto: “Good food. Good people. Good will.”
His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 14.
Jennifer Jenkins, Lynh Bui, Mike Rosenwald and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.