HOLLIDAYSBURG - A former Altoona police officer involved in a brawl at Pellegrine's Lounge more than two years ago faces probation or a light jail sentence after pleading guilty Thursday afternoon to charges of simple assault and conspiracy to obstruct a law enforcement investigation.
Eric Kriner, 32, of Brockport will be sentenced March 13, Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan said.
The guilty pleas by Kriner represent a major step in bringing an end to the ongoing investigation. Kriner's plea agreement will not require that he testify against former officer Duane J. Eichenlaub, who faces trial in the case.
The incident occurred in the early morning hours of Memorial Day 2010.
Kriner and Duane J. Eichenlaub, 30, of Altoona were charged after a statewide grand jury investigation.
They are charged with entering a restroom to beat Herman "Bo" Lardieri, 40, the man who allegedly touched Eichenlaub's wife. Earl Eshelman, 60, of East Freedom came to Lardieri's aid and was beaten about the face, suffering severe injuries to an eye.
The pleas absolve Kriner of the assault to Eshelman, Deputy Attorney General Christopher Jones said.
His plea of simple assault is an admission that he struck Lardieri, but not Eshelman, Jones explained.
The two officers then conspired with another officer, Jack Kuhn III, who eventually resigned from the city force, to keep their names out of the official police investigation of the fracas.
A jury will be selected for the Eichenlaub case on Jan. 14, and his trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 22.
Had Kriner not entered his guilty pleas, he would have gone on trial with Eichenlaub, Sullivan said.
Jones explained after the hearing that simple assault and conspiracy to commit obstruction are each punishable by probation up to a one-month jail sentence.
The prosecutor was asked if that means Kriner, at the most, could get two months in prison.
Sullivan could impose a longer jail sentence, based on the outcome of a presentence investigation, Jones said. The Blair County Adult Parole and Probation Office will prepare a presentence report.
Kriner has no prior record, Jones said.
Eichenlaub, who faces charges of aggravated assault and conspiracy, faces a much stiffer sentence if he is convicted, Jones said.
Kriner was accompanied to the hearing by attorney Roger R. Laguna Jr. of Harrisburg.
One point of the agreement seemed to cause a snag. The judge said that the agreement indicated Kriner would not withdraw his guilty plea prior to sentencing.
Sullivan explained that some defendants "play games" with the court, avoiding trial while pleading guilty then withdrawing their guilty pleas at a later time.
Laguna said Kriner has no intention of withdrawing his pleas, but Kriner maintained, "I don't understand the crux of it. I don't understand that part of it."
The lawyers huddled with Sullivan at his bench, and Laguna then took Kriner to the back of the courtroom for a confidential discussion about the provision he not withdraw his guilty plea.
The reason for not withdrawing the pleas "makes sense," Kriner said after talking with his attorney.