Piner receives up to 72 years

HOLLIDAYSBURG – An Altoona man who spent most of his adult life dealing drugs might spend his remaining days behind bars because of a stiff sentence handed down Friday by Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron.

Kenneth Jon Piner Sr. was sentenced to 36 to 72 years in a state correctional institution after being found guilty in April of 28 drug-related offenses.

Piner was arrested in November 2011 as the West Drug Task Force ended an 18-month investigation called Operation Last Call. Police used confidential informants and phone taps to break up a Baltimore-Altoona drug ring.

The judge also imposed $192,000 in fines on the 52-year-old Piner.

Piner’s cocaine dealing, Milliron said, brought “unfathomable torture” to drug addicts, their families and the community.

Several members of Piner’s family, including his mother and a daughter, were in the courtroom. But, like Piner, they had little visible reaction to the sentence.

Late last year, Piner accepted a plea agreement in which he would be sentenced to 19 to 38 years in prison if he cooperated with police and 25 to 50 years if he didn’t.

Piner did cooperate for a time, but when called to testify, he refused.

Piner then asked to withdraw his guilty plea, and Blair County Judge Hiram A. Carpenter agreed.

Represented by Altoona attorney R. Thomas Forr Jr., Piner went on trial and took the stand to tell his story. Piner admitted he sold small amounts of crack and powdered cocaine but denied he was part of a major Altoona/Baltimore drug organization.

He strongly averred he was never part of a corrupt organization and knew nothing of the large amounts of cocaine being brought from Baltimore to the former Corner Bar and Grille at 1001 Eighth Avenue, where it was cut and packaged for street sales.

A jury found him guilty of being part of the Corner Bar organization.

Milliron addressed Piner’s claim of innocence on Friday, saying, “I do not buy you have no responsibility to the overall scheme.”

Piner had nothing to say to the judge, but he will continue to challenge the jury’s verdicts.

Last week he filed a handwritten appeal to his conviction, which Milliron rejected, stating it must be included in a more formal appeal prepared by a lawyer.

When asked by Milliron if Piner wanted his appeal handled by Forr, he replied, “At this time I would have it no other way.”

The defense has contended that police didn’t follow proper procedure in recording drug deals Piner had with confidential informants and used unproven assertions that Piner was involved in two murders over the years to gain Superior Court approval for wiretaps.

Piner’s alleged violence has been an issue that has lurked on the periphery of the case from the beginning, and it arose again during the sentencing hearing.

A presentence investigation quoted Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman as indicating Piner was involved in the deaths of bar owner Julius Jackson in 1983 and confidential informant Lisa Snider in 1999.

Gorman said Piner “used” those homicides to bolster his street reputation.

Piner has not been convicted of either homicide.

Milliron said mention of the murders had no place in the presentence report, and he said they were not factors in his sentence.

Milliron said he spent Thursday night putting together the Piner sentence, and he was not going to consider the inferences of Piner’s violence.

The judge did consider Piner’s background. Gorman said Piner was a longtime drug dealer and that “he is immersed in the drug culture and drug distribution.”

Forr argued for a lesser sentence, stating that Piner always told the truth, not denying he dealt drugs, but insisting he was not part of a major distribution network.

The judge said he had a tough time deciding where Piner fit into the organization.

He recently sentenced one of the leaders of the cocaine operation, Jermaine Samuel, 33, to 46 to 103 years behind bars. Milliron said Piner did not warrant a sentence as long as Samuel’s.

Two major Operation Last Call trials remain, those of Stephen Piner, Kenneth’s brother, and Damion “Benny” Floyd, the alleged founder of the drug organization, who oversaw its operation from a state correctional institution.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.