Piner case headed for trial

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected further hearing on pretrial issues involving a major suspect in the Operation Last Call drug cases that began almost three years ago.

Stephen M. Piner, 54, of Altoona has been contesting the many drug-related charges brought against him by the West Drug Task Force since they were filed in November 2011.

Piner’s attorneys since his arrest have claimed the charges constituted “double jeopardy” because he had been arrested on a prior drug offense that allegedly was “part of the same criminal episode” as later charges brought against him and that taped recordings of his telephone conversations were approved by the Superior Court based on false information.

Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle denied Piner’s pretrial motions Jan. 11, 2013. The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld Doyle’s opinion Feb. 18, 2014.

The Superior Court panel consisting Judges Jack A. Panella, Judith Ference Olson and John L. Musmanno, rejected Piner’s double jeopardy claims and upheld Doyle’s rejection of his argument that he should be granted bail because he has not been given a speedy trial.

An inmate is supposed to be tried within 180 days of the filing of the complaint against him, but the speedy trial clock stops when a defendant and his attorney file motions that end up delaying the trial.

This has been the situation in the Piner case because of the length of time it has taken to dispose of his pretrial issues at the Superior and Supreme Court levels.

Piner’s present attorney, Thomas M. Dickey of Altoona, requested a review of the case by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but that was denied in a one-page order released Friday afternoon.

Operation Last Call refers to an investigation of a Baltimore-to-Altoona cocaine ring, which operated out of the Corner Bar & Grill at 1001 Eighth Ave. from 2009 -11.

Police shut down the operation with a drug sweep that unfolded early Nov. 4, 2011.

Stephen Piner, his brother, Kenneth, and others were charged for helping distribute cocaine throughout the community.

Kenneth Piner was convicted 19 months ago of all offenses and was sentenced to 36-72 years in prison.

The leader of the group, Damion Floyd of Baltimore, is serving 23-60 years. His girlfriend, Natasha Miller of Altoona, was sentenced to 16-32 years.

Another key figure, Jermaine Samuel of Altoona, was sentenced to 46-103 years, and Rodney Williams of Baltimore received 21-42 years behind bars.,

The Stephen Piner case remains outstanding because his first attorney Ed Blanarik of Centre County, appealed Doyle’s ruling to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Blanarik, in the winter of 2013, suffered a fatal heart attack while shoveling snow, and Dickey picked up the case.

The decision by the Supreme Court means the case will be coming back to Blair County for trial, according to Blair County Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks, who is one of the prosecutors of the Last Call cases.

Weeks said he would like to try the case in September, but that appears unlikely, according to a spokeswoman in the Blair County Court Administrator’s Office.

A trial date won’t be set until the case arrives back in Blair County, and that could take weeks.

Also, Dickey is representing suspects in two first-degree murder cases, including the retrial of Paul Aaron Ross, whose trial date is set for October.

The cases for Kenneth Piner, Samuel and Williams all went before juries, with each case taking more than two weeks to try.

Stephen Piner faces two sets of charges involving drug offenses that occurred between April 9, 2010, and Aug. 15, 2011, and between Sept. 15, 2011, and Nov. 4, 2011.

Piner contended he was arrested after a search warrant was served on his for drug offenses in August 2009.

The defense contended that case, disposed of before he was arrested on the Last Call charges, was part of the same criminal investigation which led to the other charges, but Doyle ruled it was not.

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