Bartender testifies against alleged dealer

An Altoona woman who made repeated trips to Baltimore to pick up large amounts of cocaine said Monday she would bring it back to Altoona and give it to Jermaine Samuel, manager of the Corner Bar and Grille.

Samuel, 33, is on trial for his part in a Baltimore-to-Altoona drug ring.

Shonda Hicks, 27, a bartender, took the witness stand Monday to discuss her many trips to Baltimore at Samuel’s request.

She would receive $500 for each trip but testified she had to pay $200 of it to Natasha Miller, who purchased a car for Hicks.

On the night of Nov. 3, 2011, police, after more than a year’s investigation, made their move, stopping Hicks and friend Kisha Hoover at the Blair-Bedford County line and confiscating 365 grams of cocaine from their vehicle.

According to Altoona Detective Sgt. Troy Johannides, the cocaine that Hicks was bringing to Altoona for $300 had a street value of $200,000.

Police contend that when Samuel received a drug shipment, he would take it to Room 7 at the Corner Bar and “cut it” with Inositol, a sugary-like substance to make a kilo or 1,000 grams.

He would mix the kilo of diluted cocaine with acetone to moisten it, making it easier to place into a pan and onto a “kilo press” used to pack the product into a square block.

Some of the cocaine would be mixed with baking soda and cooked to create “crack,” a more potent and addictive cocaine-based substance.

Hicks testified she often sat with Samuel as he processed the drugs for distribution to midlevel dealers like Kenneth and Stephen Piner, brothers from Altoona.

Police were able to delve into the inner workings of the drug gang by tracing thousands of calls the Piners made and received on their phones. Police, with court approval, recorded the conversations and that led them to Damion Floyd, now 34, an inmate in a state prison.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks are trying to prove that Floyd, the drug gang leader, knew he was going to prison for five to 10 years after being stopped for a traffic violation in 2010. State police found drugs in his vehicle.

Floyd wanted to keep his operation going and enlisted the aid of Samuel, Miller and others who reported to him while he was behind bars, prosecutors alleged.

Hicks said she began driving Floyd to Baltimore in 2009. He would get another ride back to Altoona.

At the time, Hicks said, she didn’t know why he was traveling to Baltimore, but she said he had two children there. Eventually Floyd confided in her he was transporting cocaine.

After Floyd went to prison, Hicks was sent alone to Baltimore, where she would meet with Rodney Williams, known as Rocco, the cocaine source.

She said she would carry money in a Louis Vuitton shoe bag and then return home with large amounts of cocaine. She finally said “no” to carrying the thousands of dollars for the drug purchases.

Miller took over transporting the money to Williams. Hicks would follow the next day to pick up the drugs.

The police were ready on the evening of Nov. 3, 2011, to crack down on the operation.

Johannides and county Detective Thomas Brandt put a GPS tracking device on Hicks’ car, knowing from recorded phone calls she was about to make a drug run.

Things didn’t go as planned. Hicks drove to a local motel where she got into Hoover’s car. The two got gas money from Samuel and then began driving to Baltimore.

Officers followed the car and also used an attorney general’s plane to track the women as they made their way to Baltimore.

As Hicks and Hoover neared Baltimore, a team of Baltimore narcotics officers picked up the surveillance and followed Hicks to the Williams’ home.

Narcotics Detective George Vigue, who helped identify Williams as the drug source “Rocco,” watched as the women went inside and returned to their vehicle within five minutes.

Hicks and Hoover were followed back to Blair County and were stopped by officers at the King-Claysburg exit of Interstate 99.

In addition to following Hicks by car and airplane, police also recorded their conversations with Samuel and Miller as they traveled between Altoona and Baltimore.

As Hicks was placed under arrest, members of the West Drug Task Force entered the Corner Bar. Samuel gave them the key to Room 7 where they collected bags of evidence, which was shown to the jurors Monday.

Altoona Patrol Officer Christopher Moser took the stand to open the bags and show the jury the evidence. Many of the items were still caked in powdered cocaine.

After five days of testimony, the prosecution is expected to wrap up its case against Samuel today.

The jury also heard Monday from Shirley Thompson, who told of occasionally purchasing an ounce of cocaine from Samuel and selling it to several users who used her as a source.