Accused heroin dealer maintains innocence

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A Philadelphia man who arrived by bus in Altoona last October and was arrested within hours for selling heroin to a police informant has gone on trial in a Blair County Courtroom, maintaining that he is innocent.

According to police and the informant, the suspect, Tony Barnes, 29, was trying to find a buyer for his heroin after he arrived in Altoona early in the afternoon of Oct. 30.

He was staying in an apartment building near City Hall – his attorney said he had relatives in Altoona – and he approached an individual in the neighborhood who came outside his apartment to smoke a cigarette.

Barnes, the informant told a Blair County jury on Tuesday afternoon, approached him and asked if he knew anyone who wanted to buy heroin.

The informant said he did, but it wasn’t until a few hours later. The people who wanted to buy heroin were not drug addicts but officers of the Altoona Police Department Narcotics Unit and the West Drug Task Force.

The case became complicated, however, when the informant told Barnes he had a buyer, and a deal – $200 for 14 packets of heroin – was allegedly to take place near the Altoona Post Office on the 1200 block of 11th Avenue.

The informant arrived with a city detective who was supposed to purchase the drugs, but Barnes wanted to see some identification.

When the undercover detective said he didn’t have an ID because he’d just gotten off work, Barnes backed out of the deal.

But the informant was able to set up another alleged buy that night without the detective present.

Barnes, known to police at that time by the street name of “Maxi,” sold the heroin to the informant. The informant laid $200 on the street, and Barnes put the heroin on a rail leading to his apartment house.

The exchange took place while several police officers in undercover garb watched.

According to Altoona Detective Ben Jones, in charge of the city’s narcotics unit, police, upon hearing from the informant that Barnes was looking for a buyer, decided to put together a buy-bust operation.

The idea was to take Barnes off the streets immediately after the sale.

Barnes however went into his apartment house immediately after the sale, and police had to wait almost an hour for him to re-emerge.

He has been in the Blair County Prison since then.

Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks is trying to convict Barnes on three offenses: possession with intent to distribute heroin, possession of heroin, and criminal use of a cellphone to set up the drug deal.

“What you are about to hear is not a typical drug buy … and not a typical drug investigation,” Weeks told the jury.

Rarely does a heroin dealer approach a stranger offering heroin for sale, he explained.

Assistant Public Defender Ed Ferguson told the jury Barnes is not guilty.

One of the defense issues is the informant’s spotty criminal history involving two thefts in the past decade and criminal offenses before that, which Senior Judge John Ober of Westmoreland County will not allow into the case because of his age.

The informant, who said he no longer uses drugs, has three unfiled charges hanging over his head. He admitted on the stand he is cooperating with police in hopes he won’t be sent to prison.

Ferguson also is making sure investigators made no mistakes during the investigation.

Police had to explain how they searched the informant before sending him on the drug buy, making sure he had no drugs he could use to set up Barnes.

Ferguson also questioned procedures used by a state police forensic scientist Irina Aleshkevick, who testified what Barnes sold to the informant was in fact heroin.

The case is expected to go to the jury today.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray can be reached at 946-7468.