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Man who failed ‘at the finish line’ off to prison

60-year-old sentenced to 20 years on drug counts

WAILUKU — A man who “stumbled right at the finish line” after being offered a chance at probation if he completed a long-term residential drug treatment program was sentenced Thursday to prison terms totaling 20 years.

Vernon Vierra, 60, was facing prison in three felony drug cases when he was given the chance to participate in the Habilitat substance abuse and vocational training program on Oahu in 2016.

Vierra proposed a plea agreement that would allow him to be put on probation if he completed the program, said Deputy Prosecutor Kenton Werk. “If he failed, he agreed to ask this court to sentence him to a minimum of 15 years in prison,” Werk said.

After entering the program in February 2016, Vierra spent almost two and a half years at Habilitat before graduating Aug. 1, 2018. Then he was placed in an after-care phase, which required him to remain alcohol- and drug-free for six months.

In February, Habilitat notified the court of Vierra’s noncompliance when he tested positive for amphetamines on Jan. 28.

“It was a very big hammer Mr. Vierra put over his own head,” Werk said. “The state was willing to give him a chance. Unfortunately, he stumbled right at the finish line.”

In June 2014, Vierra was among four men arrested when police raided a Waiehu home.

Class A felony drug charges were pending against him when he was arrested in two additional Class A felony drug cases, Werk said.

The last arrest was on Jan. 23, 2015, when police reported recovering nearly a half-pound of methamphetamine and marijuana in a search of a home on Lono Avenue in Kahului.

Werk said Vierra was “a drug dealer poisoning our community.”

Werk argued for the maximum 30-year prison term that the prosecution could seek under the plea agreement.

With some charges reduced and others dismissed, Vierra pleaded no contest in 2016 to five counts of second-degree promotion of a dangerous drug, three counts of third-degree promotion of a dangerous drug, first-degree promotion of a detrimental drug and six counts of possessing drug paraphernalia.

“Right at the finish line, I wen’ fall,” Vierra said in court Thursday. “I have been through the hardest part of the program. I fought tooth and nail for get out of that place. I don’t know how I made ’em out of that part of the program.”

He said he had been doing well since participating in the Habilitat program.

“If was before, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be gone,” he said. “I’m doing good. I work every day. I get one family, too, who talking to me now.

“That’s the best I ever did.”

In sentencing Vierra, 2nd Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza said he considered factors including whether the defendant would “affirmatively respond to probation.”

“Respectfully, that’s not the case here,” Cardoza said.

He said Vierra “is not a stranger to the courts.”

Cardoza imposed consecutive sentences, ordering that Vierra serve prison terms for his two 2014 cases at the same time but separately from prison terms in his 2015 case, for a total of 20 years.

According to the Hawaii Criminal Justice Data Center, Vierra has 34 convictions, including second-degree robbery, second-degree assault, third-degree promotion of a dangerous drug and drunken driving.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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