HOLLIDAYSBURG - Brian Stroh was a local businessman, the owner of The Corner Bar at 1001 Eighth Ave., Altoona. But what many didn't know, he said in court Friday, was that for years he was a cocaine user.
Testifying in the trial of Jermaine "Shawn" Samuel, Stroh said his drug habit led him to an association with Damion Floyd of Baltimore, a man he knew as "Benny." He said that association led to him losing his business and facing time in a state correctional institution for drug offenses.
Samuel, 33, has been charged as one of the leaders of a cocaine distribution ring headed by Floyd.
Stroh testified that he befriended Floyd in 2008 or 2009. He said Floyd supplied him with cocaine, and he also rented an upstairs room from Stroh at the bar.
After Floyd was arrested by state police in 2010 after a routine traffic stop in Bedford County and he was preparing to go to prison, he told Stroh he'd like to keep the room. He told Stroh, "Shawn needs that room," referring to Samuel.
By that point, Stroh said, he wanted Floyd's group out of the bar and he suggested he wanted to clean out the room and remodel it.
Stroh, known as "Bubba" or "Big Homie," told the jury a harrowing tale of what happened next. He said he was visited by Stephen Piner of Altoona, nicknamed "Buck," who has been charged as a major dealer for the cocaine ring that reportedly operated out of the bar.
Piner said he wanted to talk to Stroh in private and asked why Stroh was "messin' with my living."
Stroh said Piner became "real aggressive," shoved him and said it may be in his best interests not to interfere with what was going on in the bar.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman asked Stroh what he thought Piner meant by his "living," and Stroh replied the cocaine business.
Stroh said after the encounter, he basically stayed away from the bar, allowing one of his employees to run it.
"I pretty much figured there was a whole lot of drug activity and not much I could do about it," Stroh testified.
Stroh said he felt powerless since he had used cocaine for 18 years and didn't think he could go to police.
According to Stroh, he is working on a deal with the prosecution in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation of Operation Last Call. He said his deal may include a prison sentence of 2 to five years.
Friday was the fourth day of the Samuel trial, which is expected to last most of next week.
The prosecution, led by Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks, has presented text messages, phone calls and video surveillance tapes to the jury to show how the cocaine operation was uncovered little by little.
Using nonconsensual phone taps approved by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, drug investigators were able to focus on the street dealers, distributors and leaders of the operation who reportedly brought cocaine from Baltimore for resale in Altoona.
Police were desperate to find out where distributors like Stephen Piner and his brother, Kenneth, were obtaining their cocaine for sale on the street and to determine the extent of the organization.
On Nov. 3, 2011, police followed an employee of the bar, Shonda L. Hicks, to Baltimore. Phone conversations involving Samuel, the Piners and others indicated that Hicks was on a drug run.
As police arrested Hicks during her return trip and took possession of 368 grams of cocaine, search warrants were served and suspects were arrested throughout Blair County.
One of the warrants was for the upstairs room at the bar, where police found a kilo press, chemicals for cutting and packaging cocaine, and equipment used to convert powdered cocaine into crack.
Investigators have charged that this room is where Samuel prepared powdered and crack cocaine for distribution.
The trial in Judge Daniel J. Milliron's courtroom will resume Monday morning.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.