Estimating that the defendant's cocaine distribution ring provided enough of the drug to feed the habits of tens of thousands of people in Western Pennsylvania over a dozen years, a federal judge yesterday sentenced Terrance L. Cole to spend the rest of his life in prison.
In pronouncing the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas M. Hardiman called it "a tragic day."
Mr. Cole, 38, of Hazelwood, was convicted of two counts -- conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to commit money laundering -- by an anonymous jury in August.
It was the first time in Western Pennsylvania that an anonymous jury was used, and it has become an issue on which Mr. Cole has appealed.
He was found guilty of distributing more than 5,500 pounds of cocaine -- valued at $50 million -- across the region in a well-organized, highly successful business, of which he was clearly the boss.
Judge Hardiman called Mr. Cole a "strong, charismatic, intelligent" man who could have been highly successful had he pursued a life within the bounds of the law.
"Mr. Cole is a very talented man -- someone, I think, who could have made millions in legitimate business," the judge said. "This day is particularly tragic for that reason."
Mr. Cole ran his drug business based on concerns for customer satisfaction, market-based pricing, on-time delivery and strong management, Judge Hardiman said.
"The amount of cocaine in this case is extraordinary," he said.
If the average dose of cocaine was 1 gram, he said, that meant that Mr. Cole was responsible for distributing 25 million doses.
In asking for a life term, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory J. Nescott admitted that such a sentence should be rare in a drug case, but in Mr. Cole's situation was necessary.
Mr. Nescott offered the judge "snapshots" of Mr. Cole's life, saying that he lived an illicit American dream.
Mr. Cole pulled himself up by his bootstraps, Mr. Nescott said, making his way up from a street-level dealer in the Longview Heights section of Hazelwood to a man who wore $2,000 alligator shoes, went to Super Bowls, owned Rolex watches and rented presidential suites.
All that, he said, "while the cocaine he was distributing was washing through the streets of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County."
To launder the cash he collected, Mr. Cole would purchase real estate, buy lottery tickets and go gambling, sometimes playing three $100 machines at a time, Mr. Nescott said. No matter how much money he lost, it didn't matter. Each time he won, Mr. Cole would receive tax claim forms, showing him to have some legitimate income.
Mr. Cole also proved to be a violent man, Mr. Nescott said, citing as examples when he slapped one of his cohorts off a stool and stuck a gun in his sister's mouth when he accused her of stealing 5 kilos of his coke.
Mr. Cole was tried once before on the charges -- in March -- but that case ended in the jury being split 10 to 2, because those two members would not deliberate. There were allegations of jury tampering, which led to the anonymous jury being seated. An investigation of those allegations is ongoing.
Defense attorney Marcia G. Shein, from Decatur, Ga., asked Judge Hardiman not to consider the jury tampering allegation in fashioning Mr. Cole's sentence.
Calling the charge "outrageous and unfounded," she said it makes Mr. Cole look "much worse than he might be."
"This is a mercy plea," Ms. Shein said. "A life sentence should be reserved for people who rape and murder."
But federal sentencing guidelines call for a life sentence for anyone who is convicted of distributing 150 kilograms or more of cocaine. Mr. Cole distributed more than 16 times that amount.
In addition to the life sentence, Judge Hardiman ordered that 17 properties, three vehicles and seven bank accounts belonging to Mr. Cole be forfeited.
Several of Mr. Cole's family members spoke briefly in court, including three of his sons and his sister, who asked permission to read from the Book of Psalms.
Mr. Cole also spoke to the judge, saying simply that it had been a very difficult time for him and his family.
"I'm a very good dude in a time of need," he concluded.
As Mr. Cole was led from the courtroom by some of the dozen U.S. marshals stationed in the courtroom to provide security, several members of his family shouted encouragement to him.
"They can't break nobody," said one.
Paula Reed Ward can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1455.