Pa. police accused of lying in probe of fatal attack on immigrant by high school athletes

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pa. police accused of cover-up in immigrant attack

SHENANDOAH, Pa. — Federal prosecutors charged three police officers in a racially tense Pennsylvania coal town with orchestrating a cover-up in the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant by altering evidence or lying to the FBI in a hate crimes case against two popular football players.

The former Shenandoah High School athletes, ages 18 and 19, have now been charged with a federal hate crime, accused of beating Luis Ramirez in a park on a night in July 2008 as they headed home from a party, the Justice Department said Tuesday in Washington.

State prosecutors who tried to win ethnic intimidation or murder convictions against the athletes had alleged that the attackers yelled racial epithets at Ramirez and that one gripped a piece of metal to give his punches more power.

The federal indictment brought praise from those who had long argued that the case was blatantly a hate crime and were outraged when the suspects won acquittals on the most serious charges.

“This is what our family, friends, and ongoing supporters have prayed for,” said Crystal Dillman, who had two children with Ramirez, in a statement released by the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund. “I truly believe in my heart that Luis can now rest a bit more peacefully knowing that these criminals and accomplices are being charged.”

The indictments accuse 19-year-old Derrick Donchak and 18-year-old Brandon Piekarsky of a hate crime. Donchak is also accused of conspiring with police to cover up the crime and giving false statements to police.

They also accuse Police Chief Matthew Nestor, Lt. William Moyer and Officer Jason Hayes of conspiracy and falsifying documents “with the intent to impede, obstruct, and influence the investigation.” Moyer is further accused of witness tampering, destroying evidence and lying to the FBI.

The police chief and his second-in-command, Jamie Gennarini, were charged with extortion and civil rights violations in a separate case. The two are accused of extorting cash payoffs from illegal gambling operations and demanding a $2,000 payment from a local businessman in 2007 to release him from their custody.

The officers all pleaded not guilty and will be held until a bail hearing Wednesday.

No one answered the phone at the Shenandoah Borough Police Department on Tuesday, and the door was locked. Piekarsky’s lawyer didn’t immediately return a call, and there was no lawyer listed for Donchak on the indictment.

Among residents of the town, once a largely white but working-class coal town and now a magnet for Hispanic immigrants attracted by cheap housing and plentiful factory and farm jobs, reaction was mixed.

“Why come in and stir it up again? Why stir it up?” said George Dambroski, 61. “The town is stirred-up enough.”

But Shawn Grady, 35, agreed with the new charges.

“The feds did what they should have done,” he said. “No one deserves to die. At least, not like that. Justice should be done.”

The arrests left the borough with only three active-duty police officers.

Borough officials have asked the state police to help out “until we work through this dilemma,” Borough Manager Joseph Palubinsky said Tuesday. “It’s a temporary resolution until we are in a position to staff our police department again.”

He declined to comment on the indictment.

Donchak, Piekarsky and a third teen, Colin Walsh, were previously charged in state court with Ramirez’s death. Walsh later pleaded guilty in federal court to violating the victim’s civil rights and took the stand against Donchak and Piekarsky at their trial in the spring.

Piekarsky was acquitted in May by an all-white jury of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation; Donchak was acquitted of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Both were convicted of simple assault.

Piekarsky was sentenced in June to six to 23 months in prison, and Donchak was sentenced to seven to 23 months. Both are serving their sentences at the Schuylkill County jail.

A fourth teen was found delinquent in juvenile court for his role in the fatal beating.

The confrontation began when a half-dozen high school football players were headed home from a block party in Shenandoah, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. They came across Ramirez, 25, and his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park.

An argument broke out, and the football players hurled ethnic slurs, although lawyers disputed who said exactly what. Defense attorneys called Ramirez the aggressor.

Soon Ramirez and Piekarsky were trading punches. Donchak jumped in — his lawyers said to break up the fight — and wound up on top of Ramirez. Prosecutors said he pummeled Ramirez while gripping the metal; defense attorneys denied he had a weapon.

The fight wound down, but the argument continued. Ramirez charged the group. Walsh knocked him out with a punch to the face. Prosecutors said he was killed by Piekarsky’s subsequent kick to the head; defense lawyers said another teen delivered the fatal blow.

Ramirez, a native of the small central Mexican town of Iramuco, was in the United States illegally working at various jobs.

Matheson reported from Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Associated Press writer Devlin Barrett contributed to this report from Washington.

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