Fayette County drug kingpin seeks to speed prison release
The Fayette County drug kingpin who two decades ago was convicted of ordering the murder of a Monessen man whose heart and liver were used to save the life of Pennsylvania's governor will be back in a Westmoreland County courtroom as soon as next month asking for a speedy release from prison.
Ronald Whethers, 58, wants a Westmoreland County judge to give him credit for the six years he served in the county jail before he was convicted and sentenced for the third-degree murder of William Michael Lucas of Monessen.
Whethers also received a life sentence in 1996 in federal court on racketeering and drug charges. He is being held in a medium security federal prison in McKean County.
In late 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Joy Flowers Conti reduced Whethers' federal sentence to 37 years, meaning he could be released from custody in 2027.
In 2001, Whethers pleaded no contest to a charge of third-degree murder and was sentenced to serve a 10-to-20-year sentence that ran concurrently to the federal life sentence.
Although his state sentence will be expired by his targeted release date from federal prison, Whethers is seeking to have it terminated now based on his six years in jail before his guilty plea.
Defense attorney Tim Dawson said Common Pleas Judge Tim Krieger ordered a hearing to determine the merits of Whethers' request to receive credit for time served before his plea.
“Ron Whethers wrote me and specifically asked me to file the motion,” Dawson said.
Whethers initially was jailed on Jan. 12, 1995, two years after Lucas was beaten to death on a Monessen street. Prosecutors said Whethers at the time operated one of the largest cocaine trafficking rings on the East Coast and directed a group of men to Lucas' home on the false belief he had stolen 2 pounds of drugs from the organization.
Whethers maintained he did not order Lucas to be killed, just to have the drugs returned.
What happened after the murder brought the case to national prominence. Pennsylvania governor at the time, Robert P. Casey, was ill with amyloidosis, a rare disease in which protein deposits cause organ failure. Lucas' heart and liver were transplanted into the governor in a life-saving operation in 1993 and allowed him to complete his second term in office. Casey died in 2000.
Meanwhile, Whethers continued to serve his state and federal sentences.
According to court records, Whethers' federal life sentence was based on mandatory guidelines that were amended in 2014 to require prison terms of 30 years to life for the offenses for which he was convicted.
Adam Cogan, Whethers' defense attorney in the federal case, asked in 2016 for the life sentence to be reduced to 30 years.
Cogan on Wednesday declined to comment on the case.
In his court motion, Cogan said the charges against Whethers — he was convicted of a drug conspiracy involving 250 kilograms of cocaine — would not be unprecedented in today's environment.
“During the decades he has spent behind bars, Whethers has evolved from the head of a major cocaine trafficking organization to a man who dedicates his time and energies to trying to better the world. This is not sophistry but plain fact,” Cogan wrote in court documents.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.