Kelly Mathis was in line at a fast food restaurant when he noticed a man kept looking at him.
As they were both leaving, the man stopped Mathis in the parking lot and surprised him with words of encouragement.
“Hey man, I just want you to know I know who you are and everything’s going to be OK,” he told Mathis. “I think everything’s going to be OK.”
It was one of the many times Mathis received an unexpected pep talk during the four years he spent living under the dark cloud of his arrest and conviction in the Allied Veterans of the World $300 million gambling case.
One of the many “God touches,” as he called them. Little pieces of encouragement and strength when Mathis most needed them.
Strangers sent him Christmas cards. A former banker in Colorado reached out to him. People from all over the country he had dealt with in the past shared words of support.
Just a few weeks ago, Mathis was in the grocery store when someone recognized him from the news coverage of the high-profile case and told him, “It’s going to be OK.”
Mathis was the lawyer for Allied Veterans, which Attorney General Pam Bondi declared in March 2013 was operating illegal internet cafes. Mathis contended the businesses were legal under Florida’s sweepstakes law.
The other 56 defendants either reached a deal with prosecutors or had their charges dropped, leaving Mathis as the lone man standing.
The former Jacksonville Bar Association president faced six years in prison after being convicted in October 2013 by a Seminole County jury.
Those convictions were overturned three years later by an appellate court that ruled Mathis was prevented from introducing evidence that would have supported his theory of defense.
The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Bondi’s office of that ruling, leaving the decision of whether to retry the case up to prosecutors.
Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox said Wednesday there would be no second trial. The charges against Mathis were dismissed.
That was the news Mathis had long hoped for, though he was not confident it would come. But a text Wednesday from his defense attorney, Mitch Stone, told him he was in the clear.
His first call was to his 75-year-old mother, whose health has been deteriorating to the point that Mathis feared she would not live to hear the news. Not get the chance to learn the youngest of her three children no longer faced six years in prison.
“Believe it or not, Mom, it is finally over,” he told her.
Mathis then called his four daughters, who are now 15 to 26, in order of their ages. It was the girls who provided inspiration to him along the way as they focused on their education and tried to do well.
“I always told myself that even with all the crap I’m going through, my daughters are doing very well and I’m very proud of them,” he said.
Next up for Mathis is pursuing the reinstatement of his law license, which was suspended by the Florida Supreme Court after his conviction on 103 gambling-related charges.
Brian Tannebaum, who is representing Mathis in that effort, said he immediately notified The Florida Bar on Wednesday that the criminal case was over. The Bar will inform the Florida Supreme Court of the dismissal.
Once Mathis’ suspension is dissolved, Tannebaum said, “Within 30 seconds he can go practice law.”
Even when he’s allowed to be a lawyer again, Mathis knows the Allied Veterans case will be there.
He’s thought several times about the first jury selection when he will have to ask what people remember about the Allied Veterans case and how it may impact their feelings.
“I’m concerned it may be a stigma I can’t shake,” Mathis said.
He knows starting over at 53 won’t be easy, especially after the emotional roller coaster of the past four years.
Mathis said he knew from the beginning he was right, but he didn’t expect it would take that long and be that difficult to prove it. He now understands why people charged with a crime will sometimes plead guilty to something they didn’t do.
“How can they fight it?” he said. “I’m fortunate that God gave me the strength and financial ability and support to do that.”
Mathis admits there were many times he thought about giving up, leading him to pray for strength.
“It was like being an alcoholic,” he said, “Lord, let me get through the day.”
Invariably, those days were bolstered by an act of kindness.
That includes Nov. 18 when Stone was guest speaker at the JBA’s monthly meeting. Mathis was in the audience among many lawyers who had shared their support for him.
But that backing was even stronger than Mathis realized. When Stone introduced him that day, the crowd rose to its feet in a standing ovation.
Again, Mathis said, a God touch.