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City man’s sentence vacated

Kruge contends he would have taken plea deal had he known about lengthy term

Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan has vacated a long prison term for an Altoona man who was convicted two years ago of robbery, but who went to trial not knowing the possible sentence that faced him upon conviction.

The defendant, Nicholas Todd Kruge, 31, is presently serving a 15 -30 year sentence for the March 28, 2015, robbery of FeFi’s grocery store on the 1200 block of Second Avenue.

He is incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Montgomery County.

Kruge was convicted by a jury of conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery and terroristic threats.

It was alleged he conspired with another man, Lance J. Phillips, to carry out the robbery.

Phillips negotiated a plea to the charges and was sentenced to a term of 3.5 to 25 years.

Kruge, who initially confessed to the robbery and cooperated with police, decided he wanted a jury trial and rejected a plea offer from the prosecution of three to 10 years.

Against the advice of Assistant Public Defender Julia Burke, his original attorney, and Mark Zearfaus, his trial attorney, Kruge decided to take the case before a jury.

As he entered the courthouse the day of his sentencing in February 2017, Kruge learned that the prosecution was seeking a minimum 10-year mandatory sentence because of a prior record of aggravated assault.

The judge eventually imposed a 15- to 30-year sentence.

As recent testimony showed, Kruge was not aware he faced that much time behind bars when he rejected the plea offer of three to 10 years.

Both Burke and Zearfaus warned Kruge that he could face a stiff sentence if the jury convicted him, but Zearfaus testified that he was not aware that Kruge faced a minimum of 10 years behind bars.

Kruge, in a post-trial petition filed by Hollidaysburg attorney Paul M. Puskar, contended that his trial attorney was ineffective for not advising him of the mandatory sentence.

The defense proposed Kruge’s sentence be vacated and the defendant resentenced to three to 10 years.

Sullivan on Thursday issued a 26-page opinion in which he found Kruge went to trial not knowing he stood the chance of receiving a very long sentence if convicted.

During hearings in the case, Kruge testified he reviewed sentencing guidelines with his attorney but contended he wasn’t told any number of years he could receive.

He testified his attorney only talked to him “a little bit” about the strength and weakness of his case.

The judge stated in his opinion he did not believe Kruge on those points.

However, he found Kruge credible when the defendant said had he known about the mandatory sentence, he would have taken the plea bargain “in a heartbeat.”

Sullivan concluded the critical issue he had to decide was whether Kruge would have accepted the plea offer if he known about the 10-year mandatory.

He concluded that neither Kruge nor his attorney had knowledge of the 10-year mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement until just prior to sentencing.

As a result, he found that Kruge “has suffered prejudice” due to his counsel’s error (not informing him).

The judge ordered Kruge resentenced.

“At the time of such resentencing hearing, it is the Court’s intention to impose a three- to 10-year sentence … consistent with the last plea offer,” the judge ruled.

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