BEDFORD - An Altoona man has accepted a plea agreement that will place him in jail for nearly two decades because of his alleged involvement with a Baltimore-to-Altoona drug ring.
But now Kenneth J. Piner Sr. wants to tell his side of the story.
"This case is all wrong," he said last week during an interview with The Mirror at Bedford County Jail.
Piner, 51, doesn't deny being a cocaine dealer.
"Yeah, I sold cocaine ... $50 here, $100 there," he said.
His sales, and those of other members of his family or family friends, did not involve large amounts of cocaine, Piner said.
Piner is going to state prison for at least 19 years because he was linked to the drug operation that included two Baltimore men: Damion "Benny" Floyd, 33, who is already in prison for a prior drug offense, and Rodney "Rocco" Williams, 35, who is charged with providing large amounts of cocaine for distribution in Blair County.
Piner thinks his long sentence is the result of his Sept. 5 guilty plea to a charge of participation in a corrupt organization.
"Listen, like I said, I am not part of any organization, legitimate or illegitimate. I am so low," he said.
Piner, who has been in trouble most of his adult life because of drugs, said whatever he did in the drug business, he operated on his own and not as part of a gang or "corrupt organization."
"I controlled my money. I made my own decisions," he stated.
Piner said he never really knew Floyd. He said he knew of him but had no dealings with him. He said he never met Williams until he was arrested.
Moments before a jury was to hear Piner's case, Piner pleaded guilty to nine counts of possession with intent to deliver, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, criminal use of a communication facility, conspiracy to deliver cocaine and participation in a corrupt organization.
He also agreed to appear before the statewide grand jury and to cooperate with the ongoing drug investigation known as "Operation Last Call."
A tough decision
Piner said Forr was a good lawyer. But Piner said he realized there was evidence against him and if convicted of all the offenses, he faced 227 years in prison.
"They say this [227 years] is not to be considered a threat. I don't know how else to take it," he said.
A senior judge in Blair County this year sentenced another drug dealer, Gene "Shorty" Carter, to a maximum of more than 200 years in prison. Piner knew when considering the possible outcome of his case, he could end up with a 200-year sentence.
Instead, he agreed to a 19- to 38-year sentence, if he cooperates with investigators, or a 25- to 50-year sentence if he decides not to cooperate.
The public also needs to know that the initial targets in "Operation Last Call" have been given assurances they will not be indicted, if they testify against the alleged members of the organization, Piner said.
He called it a "carrot and stick" operation, and in his mind, "it's unconstitutional."
While Piner agreed to talk about his case, his attorney, R. Thomas Forr Jr., said he was under a gag order imposed by Judge Elizabeth Doyle against talking about "Operation Last Call."
Repeated attempts to get comment from police and the prosecutors involved with the 14 "Operation Last Call" cases, Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks, brought similar responses.
Corrupt organization or not?
The presentment, issued by a statewide grand jury, outlines the case against Kenneth Piner, his brother, Stephen, and other people Piner indicated were not linked to any organization such as Dannie Tallie, Michael Pendleton, Tracey Piner (a sister) and Glenn Piner II (a nephew).
Piner was dealing drugs to Tallie, Pendleton, Tracey Piner and others - usually in gram and half gram quantities of cocaine that sold for $100 and $50, respectively, the presentment stated.
"The type of drug-dealing went on almost every day except for a period of time when Kenneth Piner was in Florida where his girlfriend was undergoing drug rehabilitation," court documents state.
Police, using phone taps, said they were able to track Piner to Florida where he went in September 2011 so his girlfriend could receive treatment for an opiate habit. While there, Piner sought out and found a source who provided him with cocaine for resale.
Piner made 713 drug-related calls in less than a month, the grand jury found.
The presentment also identified Jermaine Samuel, who has yet to face trial, as a local source of cocaine for Piner. Samuel allegedly operated from the Corner Bar and Grill in Altoona - thus the name "Operation Last Call."
Piner met with investigators in October and told them that "Benny," eventually determined to be Floyd, was bringing kilograms of cocaine from Baltimore to Altoona, court documents state.
'I was born a Piner'
Piner came from a hardscrabble background.
His mother, Elmira, was the daughter of a clergyman, her mother a musician. She was a woman who served the community - being active in the Community Action Agency and in the development of the Head Start program, Piner said.
She worked hard, raising five children of her own, as well as many nieces, nephews and grandchildren, Piner said.
"I was born a Piner. ... I tell everybody I'm no different than you, I'm no better than you. I never portray I'm better than you," he said.
As he was growing up, he had an uncle who was "in and out of bouts with the law," and he said he left home at age 15, noting the first female in his life outside the home came from a hard life also. By age 16, he was "selling weed."
It was an influential year in his life, he said.
Selling marijuana "didn't make me a corrupt organization," he said.
As Piner entered his 20s. he was among four men arrested for the murder of bar owner Julius Jackson, who according to reports from the early 1980s supposedly had insulted Piner's mother.
Two of those suspects were found not guilty of the Jackson killing, and murder charges were eventually dropped against Piner.
His attorney at the time, Richard Consiglio, is now Blair County district attorney. He said Piner always denied he killed Jackson.
Consiglio, known as a tough DA, was Blair County's first public defender, and, looking back at the Jackson case, he said he believes someone other than the men arrested for the crime may have killed Jackson.
Piner called Jackson "a good man, a good friend."
Piner is also suspected in another killing that occurred in the mid-1990s when a police confidential informant, Lisa Snider of Altoona, was shot in the head and died more than a year later.
"The streets say. ... The streets say. ... I won't comment on it," he said.
The murders are important in the present drug case because prosecutors were able to obtain court permission for wiretaps based on the fact that people refused to act as confidential informants because of Piner's alleged street reputation for killing people.
He denies he was ever as a man of violence.
2012: a bad year
Piner got out of prison in 2007 and soon had a job working for an area mortgage foreclosure company.
He said he worked 70 hours a week, experienced little family time and kept up the grind for a year before getting another job.
Piner changed jobs in 2008 and moved from a seasonal worker to a full-time position, what he called a "great job."
He injured his shoulder in 2009 and underwent an operation. He became addicted to opiates, he said.
"The opiate thing cost me my marriage, my job. I ended up homeless," he said.
At that point, he moved from Johnstown to Altoona and ended up with a "significant other" who also was addicted.
At his age, he said, he'd finally had enough of drugs and was able to beat his addiction on his own. His girlfriend, however, remained addicted and that's what led to the trip to Florida a year ago, finding help for the girlfriend.
Piner was also putting together an investment group to open a soul food restaurant in Altoona, but that dream ended in November with his arrest in Operation Last Call.
Piner is now awaiting whatever comes next - his cooperation, his formal sentencing - but he admits that 2012 has been a bad year.
Piner's wife, Kristina, 40, of Johnstown died just before he was to go on trial.
"We had 18 years together. It wasn't always peaches and cream. She was a great woman, the best thing that ever happened to me. I miss her," Piner said.
He has a stepson about to go into the military, and two sons, ages 13 and 8.
He doesn't deny he should go to jail, but he said seven years would be more appropriate, rather than 19 or 25 years.
He asked "Is it fair? Is it right?"
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.