Piner found guilty on all drug counts

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Kenneth J. Piner Sr. said that police “got it wrong” when they arrested him 17 months ago for being part of a drug organization that was bringing cocaine from Baltimore to Altoona.

However, after listening to 10 days of testimony, a Blair County jury took only two hours Wednesday to find the police had it right.

The seven-man, five-woman jury found Piner guilty of 28 drug-related offenses, including two counts of being part of a corrupt organization, conspiracy to bring 365 grams of cocaine to Altoona on Nov. 4, 2011, and using the money from his drug sales to buy more drugs.

The 52-year-old Altoona native did not deny he was into cocaine, selling and trading in small amounts, but he insisted he was just a small-time dealer who bought his cocaine from various sources and who didn’t know the people or the inner workings of the Altoona-Baltimore organization.

Piner last fall entered guilty pleas to his role in the organization because he feared getting a prison term like that received by Altoona drug dealer Gene “Shorty” Carter, who was sentenced to 104 to 208 years in 2012 by Blair County Senior Judge Thomas G. Peoples.

Piner initially agreed to a 19 to 38 year sentence if he cooperated with police or 25 to 50 years if he didn’t.

Days after accepting the deal offered by Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks, Piner had second thoughts.

He went public with his story, saying he was never part of an organization, that he wasn’t responsible for the many kilograms of cocaine the out-of-towners were bringing into the city and distributing through the Corner Bar and Grille at 1001 Eighth Ave.

Piner continued to fight the charges when he refused to testify in January against one of the ring’s leaders, Jermaine Samuel, who used the Corner Bar as his base. Piner was sentenced to a year in prison by Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron for contempt.

Then in March, Piner, through his attorney, R. Thomas Forr Jr., requested permission to withdraw his pleas.

Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter said Piner could withdraw after Piner told the judge when he entered his pleas, he was mourning the death of his wife. Carpenter agreed that Piner had, from the beginning, proclaimed his innocence to the most serious charges against him.

That led to the lengthy jury trial that began just before Easter.

Piner took the stand this week to tell his story, revealing that he was addicted to pain pills and noting he distributed only $50 and $100 hits of powdered and crack cocaine, but Gorman argued to the jury that Piner was trying to minimize his involvement in the multimillion dollar drug organization.

Prosecutors depicted Piner as a major dealer for the organization who relished his role. Gorman argued that the purpose of the organization, led by Damion “Benny” Floyd of Baltimore and Floyd’s girlfriend, Natasha Miller of Altoona, was not just to bring cocaine to Altoona but to distribute it on the streets, which was Piner’s role.

Members of Piner’s family, including a sister, daughters and mother, came to his trial every day, but when the verdicts were returned Wednesday, nobody from the family was in the courtroom, although a young relative sat outside.

Piner appeared relaxed but tired and drawn as he talked to Forr. He stroked his chin pensively as the verdicts were read.

He asked Forr when an appeal can be filed, the attorney replying that would occur following the Piner’s June 4 sentencing date.

Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle has imposed a gag order on investigators and attorneys associated with the “Operation Last Call” drug cases, so Gorman, Weeks and Forr declined comment after the case.

While nobody would comment on Piner’s potential sentence, he could get at least four to seven years for the 100-plus grams of cocaine police claim was brought to Altoona from Baltimore on Oct. 4, Oct. 16 and Nov. 4, 2011, according to Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines.

The corrupt organization charges could bring 20-year sentences each, according to the guidelines.

Milliron revoked Piner’s $1.05 million bail, contending he was a danger to the community.

Samuel, convicted in January as a leader of the group, will be sentenced Friday by Milliron.

The ring’s alleged Baltimore cocaine source, Rodney “Rocco” Williams, is next on the list of Last Call suspects to be tried.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.