WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) – One of three former municipal police officers accused of obstructing an FBI investigation into the beating death of an illegal Mexican immigrant was convicted Thursday of the most serious charge against him.
Former Shenandoah Police Chief Matthew Nestor and subordinates William Moyer and Jason Hayes were accused of helping a group of white high school football players cover up their roles in the July 2008 attack on 25-year-old Luis Ramirez in the small, ethnically charged town.
A federal jury deliberated 14 hours over two days before reaching a split verdict in the case. The jury acquitted the defendants of conspiracy to obstruct a federal investigation. Nestor was found guilty of falsifying his police report, a charge that carries up to 20 years in prison. Moyer, who had faced five counts, was found guilty of lying to the FBI and acquitted of the others. Hayes was acquitted of both charges against him.
Prosecutors alleged that police plotted to shield the teenage assailants from being held responsible for the assault because they had close personal ties to them. The officers testified in their own defense and denied they had done anything wrong.
"I feel terrific," said Hayes, adding that he has already applied for a job with the Shenandoah police department.
Thursday's verdict came a little more than three months after two of the athletes who beat and kicked Ramirez were convicted of a federal hate crime. Derrick Donchak, 20, and Brandon Piekarsky, 19, face a maximum of life in prison when they are sentenced next month.
Ramirez was knocked unconscious and then kicked in the head as he fought with four drunken teenagers walking home from a block party late on July 12, 2008. Ramirez, a native of the small central Mexican town of Iramuco, died in a hospital of his injuries.
The cover-up began almost immediately, prosecutors said.
Dispatched to the scene of the fight, prosecutors said, Hayes and Moyer failed to detain and question the teenagers, as would be routine, giving them an opportunity to concoct a cover story in which they falsely told authorities that no one was drunk, did any kicking or used any ethnic slurs.
Piekarsky's mother told the teens they needed to "get their stories straight" because Hayes, her longtime boyfriend, had warned her of the possibility of a homicide investigation, prosecutors said. Moyer separately tried to get the parents of one teen to destroy a pair of sneakers worn during the assault and told another teen to coordinate his story with the other assailants, prosecutors alleged.
Defense attorneys called the government's allegations baseless and said there was no evidence that police officers took part in the teenagers' cover-up.
The government not only had to prove that Nestor, Moyer and Hayes took steps to shield the perpetrators, but also that they did so knowing that there would be a federal civil rights investigation. The FBI didn't get involved in the case until weeks after the assault.
Nestor, Moyer and Hayes were charged with conspiracy and filing false police reports. Moyer was additionally charged with witness and evidence tampering and lying to the FBI. Each defendant faced more than 20 years in prison on the most serious counts.
It was the third trial to stem from Ramirez's death. Piekarsky and Donchak were acquitted of serious charges in Schuylkill County Court in May 2009, including third-degree murder in Piekarsky's case, bringing an outcry from Hispanic activists. The acquittal prompted the Department of Justice to pursue a civil rights prosecution.
The fight revealed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town in northeastern Pennsylvania whose largely white population swelled with Hispanic immigrants seeking jobs in factories and farm fields.