Sentence for drug delivery driver upheld

Johnson charged as accomplice for his role

The state prison sentence of a 60-year-old Pittsburgh man who served as a driver for a drug dealer selling fentanyl-laced heroin in Altoona has been upheld by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

The driver, Steven W. “Bro” Johnson, was convicted by a Blair County jury last year of four counts each of possession with intent to deliver and possession of a controlled substance and three counts of criminal use of a communication facility.

Johnson through his attorney, Mark S. Zearfaus Sr., appealed his convictions to the Superior Court, contending that he never possessed the drugs and was not present when his alleged accomplice, William Devon Jones, 37, transferred drugs to his clients.

On four occasions, those clients turned out to be confidential informants.

On three of the occasions, police allege the heroin was laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid, while the fourth sale involved just fentanyl.

Police originally charged the pair with distribution of heroin but corrected the charges prior to Johnson’s trial.

Blair County Judge Jolene G. Kopriva last August sentenced Johnson to a state correctional institution for a term of three to six years. He is incarcerated at SCI Houtzdale.

Jones entered guilty pleas to similar charges and was sentenced to 15 months to 10 years by President Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle. He is in SCI Laurel Highlands.

A Superior Court opinion, issued Tuesday by Judges Jack A. Panella, Susan Peikes Gantman and Paula Fransisco Ott, stated that Jones, who is paralyzed because of a gunshot wound, needed a driver to bring him to Altoona where he sold his drugs.

Johnson, in an effort to distance himself from what was taking place, would get out of the vehicle and the client would enter.

The drug deal would then be completed inside the vehicle.

When the pair was arrested on Aug. 30, 2016, following a drug deal with a confidential informant, Johnson feigned ignorance of the drug transactions.

He was charged under the prosecution theory of accomplice liability.

While the charges were based on circumstantial evidence, the Superior Court opinion stated that was enough to uphold Johnson’s convictions.

During his trial, the informants testified they “knew Johnson and Jones worked together.”

A city police officer testified that when Johnson was arrested, he admitted he knew Jones had just completed a drug deal and had more drugs in the vehicle.

Police found five bundles, or 53 baggies, of the heroin in Jones’ possession when he was arrested.

The testimony showed that Johnson repeatedly drove Jones to Altoona, a 180-mile round trip, to sell drugs.

“The evidence clearly showed Johnson’s awareness of Jones’ drug possession and intention to deliver drugs, as well as Johnson’s willingness to aid Jones in his endeavor,” according to the Superior Court.

The appeals court pointed out that under the law a person becomes an accomplice when he aids another in planning or committing a crime.

“No agreement is required, only aid,” the opinion stated.

Johnson challenged whether First Assistant District Attorney Peter J. Weeks had presented enough evidence to warrant his convictions, but the Superior Court panel stated his “sufficiency claim is wholly frivolous.”

As part of the opinion, the court granted attorney Zearfaus’ request to withdraw as Johnson’s counsel.