Suspected drug leader asks for mercy | News, Sports, Jobs

The alleged head of an anti-drug organization operating in the Altoona region in 1999 is asking for a pardon with a minimum sentence of 60 years.

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

Since this sentence was handed down by former Blair County Judge Norman D. Callan, Efrain G. Hidalgo Jr., 48, of Buffalo, NY, has spent over 22 years in a state correctional facility. . He seeks clemency through the Pennsylvania 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 request to switch from one of Hidalgo’s associates, Felix Ocasio, 41, who was arrested for distributing large amounts of heroin in the Altoona region at the start. from 1999.

He is serving a sentence of 39 to 78 years at the Benner Township State Correctional Facility in Center County.

Ocasio was considered the second in command of Hidalgo.

The Pardon Council voted 2-2, with one member absent.

Because it was a tie vote, Ocasio may resubmit the request, according to a board spokesperson.

Hidalgo’s request to switch was the subject of an article published on Tuesday by USA Today.

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

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

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

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

He stated that “Criminal justice lawyers say Hidalgo’s sentence is excessive and emblematic of the harsh treatment the US criminal justice system has inflicted on people of color. “

The article published a 25-year-old photograph of a Ku Klux Klan protest in the former Highlands annex to Blair, inferring that the county’s justice system and its judges are somehow influenced by white supremacy.

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

“I don’t regret the sentence” Callan said.

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

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

Eventually, they rose through the ranks to arrest, try, and convict the organization’s three leaders.

Investigators estimated that the Hidalgo group had cashed 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 lawyer Edward Blanarick, who said a more appropriate sentence would have been 10 years. He viewed Hidalgo’s sentence as a de facto life sentence.

Callan gave reasons for sentencing – Hidalgo’s organization has spread “poison” throughout the community and ruined many lives.

“The quality of life in our community has been diminished by you and your organization” he said to Hidalgo.

One of the prosecutors, Blair County Assistant District Attorney Jackie Bernard, who is now 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 appreciated the suffering of drug addicts who used his product ”, she said.

Hidalgo and Ocasio made fun of drug addicts as they suffered from drug disease and practically begged for drugs.

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

Hidalgo’s sentence was not the first long sentence imposed by a Blair County judge on a drug trafficker.

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

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

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

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

Callan said this week the “Underlying” of the USA Today article bothered him because, “How do you defend yourself from being treated as a racist?” “

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

A person’s color is not factored into the county’s harsh sentences for drug traffickers, Callan said.

Bernard said that the penalty must be “Individualized”.

It examines 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 harsh drug trafficking sentences are appropriate, especially for serial offenders, and when he is sworn in for his first full term in January, Weeks intends to continue its attempts to achieve this. “Dear” for drug dealers to do their business in Blair County.

He believes law enforcement should be proactive in removing drug dealers from the public, because illegal drugs are the root cause of so many crimes – domestic violence, aggravated assault, murder and theft.

He said in an email to USA Today, “During my tenure as a prosecutor, I took the approach that most first-time trafficking offenders are offered a sentence focused 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 offenses. While we take an aggressive approach to drug trafficking prosecutions, we are just as tough on repeat offenders, regardless of ethnicity. “

In an interview this week he said, “I have always considered myself to be an equal opportunities attorney. “

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

Regarding Hidalgo’s commutation request, the Blair County District Attorney’s Office is opposed.

In a letter to the Board of Pardons written by Blair County Detective Randy Feathers, who worked for the DA’s office and was the lead investigator in the break-up of the Hidalgo organization while employed by the prosecutor General of Pennsylvania, he said that after discussing the matter with Bernard and retired detective Norman Young, “The three people are opposed to any kind of leniency for Mr. Hidalgo. “

The letter gives the reasons:

– The devastating impact that the Hidalgo drug trafficking organization has had on the community.

– The many drug-related deaths and ruined lives that can be directly attributed to its drug distribution network.

– Hidalgo’s threats of violence during his reign as drug lord.

– Hidalgo’s lack of remorse and cooperation.

– The use by Hidalgo of minors to carry out drug transactions.

The letter concluded, “Sir. Hidalgo should be applauded for his positive achievements since his incarceration and he should be encouraged to continue down this path.”

Hidalgo has never been charged with drug-related deaths, but Pennsylvania law “Delivery of drugs causing death” was not in force in 1999.

The Pennsylvania Inmate Finder lists more than 500 Blair County inmates in the state prison system.

More than 100 of them are classified as “noir,” and this seemingly 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 died last winter.

Witherspoon over the years has raised this circumstance with county judges and has often met with judges regarding specific cases.

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

The detainee locator also shows that Hidalgo and Monture are the only American Indians in Blair County in the state system,

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

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