HOLLIDAYSBURG - In a dramatic turn of events in the Operation Last Call drug case, Kenneth Piner of Altoona refused Thursday afternoon to testify for the prosecution, because he said he and his family have been threatened with violence.
Piner, already in prison for drug activities, refused to change his mind, even though Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron offered him immunity for his testimony.
Milliron sentenced Piner to an additional six to 12 months behind bars for refusing to testify under the grant of immunity, and ordered that he remain in prison until he purges himself by agreeing to tell his story in court.
Piner told the judge he is in the process of attempting to withdraw guilty pleas he entered to 13 charges when he appeared before Judge Hiram A. Carpenter on Sept. 5.
At that time, the 51-year-old Piner said he would testify about the inner workings of a Baltimore-to-Altoona cocaine ring.
Under the deal he and his Altoona attorney, R. Thomas Forr, struck with Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman, Piner was to cooperate with law enforcement in the continuing Last Call investigation. If he cooperated, he was to receive a prison term of 19 to 38 years. If he decided not to cooperate, his prison term was to be 25 to 50 years. He has yet to be sentenced.
Piner followed through on his agreement for the reduced sentence, testifying before a statewide grand jury in September. He appeared ready to testify this week during the trial of Jermaine Samuel, 33, of Altoona, whom police claim is one of the leaders of the drug organization that operated out of the Corner Bar in Altoona.
That intent wavered last weekend, said Gorman, when Piner reported he and his family have been threatened. He would not reveal what the threats were or who made them.
Piner was transported to the Blair County Courthouse just after noon Thursday under heavy guard, including several sheriff's deputies and narcotics investigators.
While his hands were shackled, he was dressed in a dark, pin-striped suit and brown tie.
He appeared subdued as he sat in the courtroom surrounded by officers, not far from Samuel, who police are trying to show was in charge of supplying major street dealers like Piner with cocaine.
When word came that Piner was refusing to testify, Milliron scheduled a hearing. For Piner's protection the courtroom was closed, with sheriff's deputies denying entry or exit as Gorman, Forr and Samuel's attorney, Matt Gieg, discussed the situation.
Milliron was thinking of having the jury present for the hearing but Gieg objected, suggesting it may prejudice jurors against his client.
Piner took the witness stand and the judge asked him, "You don't want to testify?"
"Absolutely," Piner replied.
Gorman asked if it was because of threats, to which Piner stated, "One hundred percent."
Although Piner would have been a substantial prosecution witness, the case will go on against Samuel and eventually against other major players in the drug organization, including Damion Floyd and Rodney Williams of Baltimore.
Thursday was the third day of Samuel's projected nine-day trial.
Prosecutors Gorman and Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks are methodically presenting hundreds of phone calls and text messages to the jurors to show how law enforcement worked their way up the ladder and eventually broke up the large cocaine ring that was distributing many kilos of cocaine and crack each month.
A break for investigators came in 2011, when court-authorized taps were placed on phones used by Kenneth Piner and his brother Stephen Piner and then on phones used by Samuel and Natasha Miller, Floyd's girlfriend. The prosecution maintains that Samuel and Miller were operating the drug ring under the direction of Floyd, who is serving a short jail term in a state correctional institution for drug offenses.
Miller was sentenced late last year to 16 to 32 years in prison by Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle.
Floyd and Williams, his alleged Baltimore drug source, remain to be tried.
In an interview with the Mirror in September, Kenneth Piner contended he was not part of a "corrupt organization" as charged. He said he was someone who sold cocaine in small amounts - "$50 here, $100 there."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.