HOLLIDAYSBURG - Just minutes before a Blair County jury was to begin hearing testimony in his drug case, an Altoona man pleaded guilty Wednesday to 13 charges and agreed to go to state prison for at least 19 years.
Kenneth J. Piner Sr., in entering his guilty pleas, said he was willing to appear before a statewide grand jury that continues to investigate a Baltimore-to-Altoona drug ring, and he said he would testify against any and all individuals about whom he has knowledge.
In the plea agreement accepted by Blair County Judge Hiram A. Carpenter, Piner, 51, said he was aware that if he decided not to cooperate with investigators, his sentence would go from 19 to 38 years to 25 to 50 years.
"You have a decision here about what's being offered to you," Carpenter said.
Piner was dressed in a gray pinstriped suit with a white shirt and tie, and he carried a briefcase containing papers about his case as he entered the courtroom prior to what was to be the start of his trial.
The decision occurred after Carpenter spent most of the morning holding one-on-one meetings with the jury selected Aug. 27 to hear the Piner case. He wanted to determine if any of the 16 jurors read news articles or received information about the case in the last nine days.
No juror was dismissed for cause, and Carpenter convened court.
By the time Carpenter was ready to give his opening instructions to the jury and allow Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman and defense attorney R. Thomas Forr to give their opening statements, he sent the jury to lunch.
During the lunch break, Forr, Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks hammered out the plea agreement. Gorman and Weeks had no comment after the Piner hearing because of a gag order issued this year by Judge Elizabeth Doyle.
Piner entered guilty pleas to nine counts of possession with intent to deliver cocaine, as well as being a member of a corrupt organization, dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activity, criminal use of a communications facility and conspiracy to deliver cocaine.
Without the plea deal, Piner, if convicted, would have faced 247 years in prison.
In Blair County, such a sentence is a possibility.
Senior Judge Thomas G. Peoples sentenced drug dealer Gene "Shorty" Carter of Philadelphia to 104 to 218 years behind bars in January.
Piner was one of 14 individuals named by the Blair County Drug Task Force as leaders of the drug ring who were garnering kilograms of cocaine in Baltimore for packing and distribution at The Corner Bar and Grill at 1001 Eighth Ave.
Police said they conducted an investigation called "Operation Last Call" through much of 2011 and into this year using surveillance, wiretaps and video. They worked with Baltimore City police to identify the alleged Baltimore cocaine source, identified as Rodney "Rocco" Williams.
The state Attorney General's Office took an interest in the case when it became evident through the phone taps that Damion Floyd of Baltimore, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, was allegedly part of the drug distribution ring.
Investigators over the next two weeks were planning to present hundreds of recordings of phone calls as they attempted to show that Piner was a key member of the ring.
They were also going to attempt to show that Piner was a man concerned with his "street cred," that he used his reputation as having killed two people many years ago, Julius Jackson, a bar owner, and Lisa Snider, a confidential police informant, to intimidate people.
Piner was charged with Jackson's homicide, but charges were dismissed and the case remains open.
Nobody has ever been charged for Snider's homicide. Snider was shot in the head but lived for many months after the shooting.
After Piner's guilty pleas were accepted by Carpenter, Forr was asked what the defense would have been had a trial been held.
"Look at the chart," Forr said, referring to a picture montage of the 14 leaders of the alleged ring.
Forr pointed out that Piner, his brother, Stephen, and Stephen's son, Glenn Piner II, were near the bottom of the chart, indicating their lesser importance in the ring.
The picture display showed Williams at the top. The largest picture in the display was that of Floyd, followed by Jermaine Samuel of Altoona.
Who comes next to trial will be discussed during a review at the end of the month.
Piner won't be sentenced until other members have been tried.
Piner was permitted by sheriff's deputies to hug a sister and to converse with his mother, both who were watching as events unfolded.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.