Philly judge throws the book at drug dealer

Posted: August 27, 2011

Kensington drug dealer Joseph McGrath - who pleaded guilty to trying to solve his legal woes through hush money and a contract killing arranged over a recorded prison phone - was sentenced Friday to 20 to 40 years by a Philadelphia judge who called him heartless and selfish.

"Put yourself in the place of your victims and if you can feel the way these victims felt," Common Pleas Court Judge Karen Shreeves-Johns told McGrath as she sentenced him for stomping and critically injuring a man over a $50 drug debt, and ordering the death of a female drug customer he believed helped get him arrested.

McGrath, 27, a hulking 6-foot-5, 300-pounder whose hands were cuffed in front of him, was stunned and started interrupting the judge as she explained the sentence.

"I didn't try to manipulate anybody," McGrath protested. He turned to one of his defense attorneys, Robert E. Trimble, and complained, "I didn't think I would get 20 to 40 years."

McGrath was referring to Shreeves-Johns' comments that he manipulated presentence investigators by exaggerating stories of childhood abuse in a broken home - and then had his parents, sisters and other relatives appear to support his request for leniency.

The judge, however, seemed more impressed by McGrath's expletive-riddled prison phone call with younger sister Barbara in which he rebuffed her pleas to "get his life together and get a job" and told her he was "better off in prison."

"The way you spoke to your family, the way you talk to your family - the very people who stand here before me to ask for leniency," the judge said.

Trimble and cocounsel Edward C. Meehan Jr. argued that McGrath was remorseful and that the judge should credit his decision to plead guilty by running the sentences concurrently.

McGrath had been arrested and charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault in a March 9, 2010, incident in which he stomped on Neil Laun, 30, over a four-year-old, $50 drug debt owed by Laun's girlfriend.

Laun, a half-foot shorter and 115 pounds lighter than McGrath, was hospitalized for more than a week with multiple facial and rib fractures and heavy blood loss.

With his criminal history, McGrath could have been sentenced to seven years on just his guilty plea to aggravated assault. But once in prison awaiting trial, McGrath doubled-down in May 2010 by calling a friend and ordering the death of a regular heroin customer he believed led police to his hideout after the Laun beating.

McGrath, according to the audiotape of the call, wanted the woman to be sold heroin laced with battery acid.

The woman was warned in time, but McGrath dug his hole deeper. Suddenly realizing tht prison calls are recorded, McGrath later went to a prison lieutenant and said, "I told somebody I wanted to have somebody killed. I have to find a way to get out of it."

In addition to aggravated assault and solicitation to commit murder, McGrath pleaded guilty to witness intimidation and conspiracy for offering Laun three $500 payments if he skipped court appearances and forced the judge to dismiss the case.

McGrath's nephew Nathaniel McGrath, 19, and Leomar Arce, 27, face trial Oct. 3 on witness intimidation and conspiracy charges in the alleged payoff to Laun.

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Notaristefano called McGrath a "judicial nihilist" and asked for a 25-to-50-year prison term.

"He's beyond rehabilitation, he's shown that time and time again," Notaristefano said, adding, "He's used up his nine lives; this was his 10th."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985,, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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