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Alleged drug leader seeks clemency

Hidalgo’s sentence subject of article in USA Today

The alleged leader of a drug organization that operated in the Altoona area in 1999 is seeking clemency from a minimum sentence of 60 years.

At the time, it was the longest non-homicide sentence in Blair County history and possibly among the longest drug-related sentences in Pennsylvania.

Since that sentence was imposed by former Blair County Judge Norman D. Callan, Efrain G. Hidalgo Jr., 48, of Buffalo, N.Y., has served more than 22 years in a state correctional institution. He is seeking clemency through Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons.

No date has been set to hear Hidalgo’s request, which, if granted and approved by the governor, would make him eligible for parole.

The board last week heard a commutation request from one of Hidalgo’s associates, Felix Ocasio, 41, who was arrested for distributing large amounts of heroin in the Altoona area in early 1999.

He is serving 39 to 78 years at the State Correctional Institution at Benner Township, Centre County.

Ocasio was considered Hidalgo’s second in command.

The Board of Pardons voted 2-2, with one member not present.

Because it was a tie vote, Ocasio can resubmit the request, according to a board spokeswoman.

Hidalgo’s request for commutation was the subject of an article published Tuesday by USA Today.

The article raised the question whether Hidalgo’s lengthy sentence was based on his ethnicity.

He is a member of the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario, Canada,

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections classifies Hidalgo as an American Indian.

The article pointed out that Altoona is located in a “mostly white county” also indicating Blair is a “deeply Red County.”

It stated that “Criminal Justice Advocates say Hidalgo’s sentence is excessive and emblematic of the U.S. criminal justice system’s harsh treatment of people of color.”

The article published a 25-year-old photograph of a Ku Klux Klan demonstration at the former Highland Annex in Blair, inferring the county’s justice system and its judges are somehow swayed by white supremacy.

Officials who were aware of the Hidalgo case and the article disagreed with this depiction.

“I don’t regret the sentence,” Callan stated.

During sentencing in 2000, the judge stated the long sentence imposed on Hidalgo was in reaction to his organization’s distribution of “poison” throughout the community.

The amount of heroin being distributed by Hidalgo, Ocasio and a younger relative of Hidalgo’s, Kenneth Monture, alarmed police to the point that they initiated an investigation, not through normal channels such as a statewide grand jury, but by arresting addicts and other local individuals who were selling for the organization.

Eventually, they worked their way up the ladder to arrest, try and convict the organization’s three leaders.

Investigators estimated the Hidalgo group took in between $400,000 and $800,000 in the few months it operated.

Hidalgo was tried and convicted by a Blair County jury and was sentenced in 2000 to a prison term of 60 to 150 years.

The sentence shocked Hidalgo’s attorney, Edward Blanarick, who said a more appropriate sentence would have been 10 years. He considered Hidalgo’s sentence a de facto life sentence.

Callan gave his reasons for imposing the sentence — Hidalgo’s organization spread “poison” throughout the community and ruined many lives.

“The quality of life in our community has been lessened by you and your organization,” he told Hidalgo.

One of the prosecutors, Blair County Assistant District Attorney Jackie Bernard, who now serves as a Blair County judge, pointed out after the trial that Hidalgo did not use his own product.

“He had arrogance. He wanted to be the leader. He enjoyed the suffering of the addicts who used his product,” she said.

Hidalgo and Ocasio made fun of the addicts as they experienced drug sickness and practically begged for drugs.

Deputy Attorney General Michael Madeira, who was also a prosecutor in the case, contended the group’s leaders were interested in making money and used others to bring in the dollars.

The Hidalgo sentence was not the first long sentence imposed by a Blair County judge on a drug dealer.

In 1996, Blair County Judge Hiram A. Carpenter sentenced Richard Rickabaugh, a white male from Altoona, to a minimum term in prison of 40 years for several drug-related offenses. Rickbaugh died while in custody.

And while Hidalgo’s drug-related sentence was called “harsh” by critics, his long sentence was eclipsed a few years later by Blair County Judge Thomas Peoples, who sent serial drug dealer Gene “Shorty” Carter of Philadelphia, an African American, to prison for 104 to 216 years.

Carter’s sentence was eventually lowered to 37 to 74 years.

More recently, Jermaine Samuel, an African American from Altoona, and one of the leaders of a Baltimore-to-Altoona cocaine ring, was sentenced to 46 to 103 years by Judge Daniel Milliron. Samuel’s sentence has since been lowered to 20 to 40 years.

Callan this week said the “underpinning” of the USA Today article bothered him because, “How do you defend yourself against being called a racist.”

The charge against him is, “We were wrong in finding him (Hidalgo) wrong for doing wrong.”

A person’s color does not factor into the county’s stiff sentences for drug dealers, Callan said.

Bernard said that sentencing is to be “individualized.”

She looks at the crime that was committed, the impact on the community and other factors. Gender, ethnicity or skin color are not appropriate factors to consider, she said.

Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks believes that stiff sentences for drug dealing are appropriate, particularly for serial offenders, and when he is sworn in for his first full term in January, Weeks intends to continue his attempts to make it “costly” for drug dealers to do their business in Blair County.

He believes that law enforcement should be proactive in removing drug dealers from the public because illegal drugs are the cause of so much crime — domestic violence, aggravated assault, murder and theft.

He stated in an email to USA Today, “During my tenure as a prosecutor, I have taken the approach that most first-time trafficking offenders are offered a sentence that focuses on rehabilitation and supervision outside of long-term incarceration.”

“I would disagree with any claim that Blair County disproportionately sentences people of color to longer sentences for drug crimes. While we take an aggressive approach to drug trafficking prosecutions, we are equally tough with repeat offenders regardless of their ethnicity.”

In an interview this week, he said, “I’ve always thought of myself as an equal opportunity prosecutor.”

He said that the justice system has to make the cost of selling drugs higher than a professional drug dealer is willing to pay.

When it comes to Hidalgo’s request for commutation, the Blair County DA’s office is opposing it.

In a letter to the Board of Pardons written by Blair County Detective Randy Feathers, who worked for the DA’s office and who was the lead investigator in the breakup of the Hidalgo organization while employed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General, it stated that after discussing the issue with Bernard and retired Detective Norman Young, “all three people are opposed to any type of clemency for Mr. Hidalgo.”

The letter gives reasons:

— The devastating impact that Hidalgo’s drug trafficking organization had on the community.

— The many drug deaths and ruined lives that can be attributed directly to his drug distribution network.

— Hidalgo’s threats of violence during his reign as a drug kingpin.

— Hidalgo’s lack of remorse and cooperation.

— Hidalgo’s use of juveniles to conduct drug transactions.

The letter concluded, “Mr. Hidalgo should be applauded for his positive accomplishments since his incarceration and he should be encouraged to continue along that path.”

Hidalgo has never been charged with any drug deaths, but the Pennsylvania law addressing “drug delivery resulting in death” was not in effect in 1999.

Pennsylvania’s Inmate locator lists more than 500 inmates from Blair County in the state prison system.

More than 100 of those are classified as “black,” and this apparent disproportionate number of African Americans in the justice system was a concern repeatedly raised by Donald Witherspoon, the longtime leader of the Blair County NAACP, who passed away last winter.

Witherspoon over the years addressed that circumstance with the county judges, and often met with the judges concerning specific cases.

Bernard said that as a prosecutor and a judge, she listened to what Witherspoon had to say.

The Inmate Locator also shows that Hidalgo and Monture are the only American Indians from Blair County in the state system,

Ocasio is classified as Hispanic. There are less than 10 Hispanic inmates from Blair County in the state system.

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