HOLLIDAYSBURG - An officer who helped to conduct the investigation into a Baltimore-based drug ring on Tuesday aired a litany of violence and threats that he said led police to ask the Pennsylvania Superior Court to approve the use of electronic taps on telephones and cellphones being used by the alleged drug dealers.
Now Edward S. Blanarik of Centre County, attorney for one of the accused mid-level dealers, has asked Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle to find that the affidavit police used to gain approval for the phone taps was faulty.
If Doyle determines that police violated the rights of the people they arrested, she could bar the use of the phone conversations for trial, which in effect would gut the prosecution's case.
Blanarik is representing Stephen M. Piner, a 53-year-old Altoona man who is awaiting trial on multiple drug-related offenses.
Piner was one of 14 people arrested in February for operating a drug ring dubbed by police as Operation Last Call, because dealers did business out of the Corner Bar & Grill at 1001 Eighth Ave.
Police listened to thousands of calls and, according to Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman, were able to figure out who in Baltimore was supplying kilos of cocaine to mid-level and street-level drug dealers throughout Altoona.
Police cannot obtain court approval to tap phones unless other means of getting information about the drug organization, such as the use of confidential informants, are not practical.
The use of confidential informants in Operation Last Call was not penetrating the drug ring's operation, according to Gorman and Agent Albert Adams of the Attorney General's Office.
Stephen Piner, his brother, Kenneth Piner, and others used threats and violence to frighten potential confidential informants, Adams testified.
Under questioning from Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks, Adams related an instance in which a female informant was beaten up. The woman who did it told the informant, "This is for the Piners," Adams said.
A male who was dealing along with other members of the ring, but who also was working with police, was told he would be killed by another member of the ring if it was learned he was working with police.
Gorman also argued that the Piners let it be known, for the purposes of their "street cred," that they had been involved in two unsolved murders that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.
One of those people killed was Lisa Snider, who was a police informant and who had at one point testified against a Piner family member.
Blanarik pointed out to Doyle that Stephen Piner and his brother were never convicted of the 1987 murder of bar owner Julius Jackson and were never arrested for the mid-1990s death of Snider.
Gorman said the investigation into the Snider murder is ongoing.
Blanarik emphasized that Stephen Piner was not involved in the beating of the female informant nor the making of threats to the male informant and others.
Doyle will likely make her decision about the phone taps soon, because Stephen Piner is scheduled to be tried in January with two other drug ring members, Jermaine Samuel and Michael Pendleton, both of Altoona.
Samuel and Pendleton have challenged the use of phone taps in their cases, which are before Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron.
Blanarik said he most likely won't be prepared to go to trial in January, noting he had 10,000 pages of evidence to read first. He said the prosecution intends to call "a zillion" witnesses, for whom he must prepare.
Doyle said the plan proposed by the county's judges is to try the trio in January and then bring the men accused as the Baltimore connection - Damon "Benny" Floyd, 33, and Rodney "Rocco" Williams, 36 - to trial in March.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.