Piner asks to withdraw guilty plea

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Kenneth Piner of Altoona admitted Monday he sold small amounts of cocaine and crack, and he said he knew the drug dealers he was involved with at Altoona’s Corner Bar in 2011 were “heavy hitters,” but he said he was not part of the organization that brought thousands of grams of cocaine from Baltimore to Altoona.

Piner, 52, was in court trying to convince now Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter to let him withdraw his guilty pleas to several serious drug charges, including being an employee of a corrupt organization, laundering drug money and possession with intent to deliver large amounts of cocaine, that were presented in court on Sept. 5.

At times, Piner shed tears in memory of his deceased wife, and at other times he lashed out at the prosecution in the Operation Last Call drug cases, saying, “Listen, you guys are trying to spin this whole conspiracy thing.”

“I admitted from day one I was willing to take responsibility for my actions. I’m not guilty of no corrupt organization of bringing thousands of grams of cocaine from Baltimore to Altoona,” he said when questioned by Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks during a contentious three-hour hearing.

When he entered his guilty pleas, Piner accepted a plea agreement under which he would receive 19 to 38 years in prison if he cooperated with Operation Last Call investigators.

If he didn’t cooperate, his sentence would be 25 to 50 years.

After initially accepting the plea agreement, Piner testified before the statewide grand jury. But in January, when called to testify against Jermaine Samuel of Altoona, one of the leaders of the cocaine ring operating out of the Corner Bar and Grille at 1001 Eighth Ave., he refused to testify and was sentenced to an additional year in prison for contempt of court. He said he did not know details of the drug organization headed by Samuel, Natasha Miller of Altoona and Damion Floyd and Rodney Williams of Baltimore.

Testimony in the Samuel case showed the cocaine was cooked to make crack, or diluted, pressed and prepared for sale as a powder, in a second floor room at the bar.

It was then distributed to dealers like Piner.

On Monday, Piner said he bought his cocaine for his small operation from many sources, including Samuel. He said he did not know of or participate in the details of the Baltimore operation. He said he did not know Floyd or Williams, the main links to Baltimore, and he had no idea about the money the organization was making.

Gorman challenged Piner, contending that if he sold the cocaine from the Corner Bar, by law he was part of the conspiracy.

Piner angrily retorted that he didn’t have the legal intent to bring thousands of grams of cocaine from Baltimore but that his intent was to feed his own drug habit and the habits of the people around him.

He called the prosecution “vindictive,” saying agents were trying to link him to a cold case murder from the 1970s.

“Just because I buy something at Walmart doesn’t mean I’m part of the organization,” Piner argued.

Piner said the day he agreed to plead guilty he was mourning for his wife, Kristina, who died two weeks earlier.

When asked by his attorney, R. Thomas Forr, about his wife and their two children, Piner choked up, and said, “Ah, I need a minute.” He was provide with tissues to wipe away his tears.

Gorman argued that Piner and his wife were estranged at the time of his arrest. He questioned the emotional impact his wife’s death had on Piner, because he was living with another woman at that time.

The veteran prosecutor also presented Carpenter with a written answer to Piner’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. It said that “any claim of innocence now asserted by Kenneth Piner to some of the charges is disingenous, self-serving, and an attempt to perpetuate a fraud upon the court.”

He argued Piner was upset over the 25-year sentence he agreed to, but he said that cannot serve as a basis for the withdrawal of the guilty plea.

Carpenter said Monday he may rule on Piner’s request this week. If he grants him permission to take back his guilty plea, a jury could be selected for trial as early as next week.

Piner could be tried with his nephew, Glenn Piner, who has been in jail awaiting trial since November 2011.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.