Cover-up in Shenandoah
Republican-Herald Photos by Jacqueline Dormer Brandon J. Piekarsky
SHENANDOAH, Pa. (AP) - After taking part in a fight that left a Mexican immigrant mortally wounded on the street, teenagers Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak fled. They didn't get very far before running into two police officers responding to a 911 call about the assault.
These were no ordinary officers. Patrolman Jason Hayes dated Piekarsky's mother, and Lt. William Moyer's son played with Piekarsky on the high school football team. Their commanding officer, Chief Matthew Nestor, was a friend of Piekarsky's mother and even vacationed with her.
Rather than place the popular white football players under arrest, the officers let them go - beginning a cover-up in their racially tense coal town, federal prosecutors allege.
The Department of Justice said Tuesday that Hayes, Moyer and Nestor have been indicted on obstruction charges for trying to "impede, obstruct and influence the investigation" into the July 2008 beating death of Luis Ramirez by tampering with evidence and witnesses or lying to the FBI.
The former athletes, who were acquitted of the most serious state charges against them in May, are charged with a federal hate crime for attacking Ramirez in a park as they headed home from a party, the Department of Justice said.
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 pleaded not guilty before a federal magistrate in Wilkes-Barre and were being held until a bail hearing Wednesday. Donchak and Piekarsky have an initial court appearance scheduled for Dec. 22. Piekarsky's lawyer didn't return a call, and there was no lawyer listed for Donchak on the indictment.
State prosecutors who tried to win murder or ethnic intimidation convictions against the athletes had alleged that they 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 teenagers 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 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," said Borough Manager Joseph Palubinsky, who declined to comment on the indictment.
Barry Morrison, the Philadelphia-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the organization has visited the town several times and found evidence of racial divisions.
"There's nothing that we saw in the way that law enforcement conducted themselves to show that they were enlightened, progressive or separate and apart of the insularity of the community as a whole," he said.
Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 residents, is best known as the birthplace of big band musicians Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and the home of Mrs. T's Pierogies.
It's also got a growing number of Hispanic residents drawn by jobs in factories and farm fields. Hispanics are believed to comprise as much as 10 percent of the population. Ramirez, a 25-year-old native of the small central Mexican town of Iramuco, was in the United States illegally working at various jobs.
The confrontation began when a half-dozen high school football players were headed home from a block party in Shenandoah. They came across Ramirez and his girlfriend in a park, and an argument broke out, then a fight. Defense attorneys called Ramirez the aggressor. Prosecutors said he was punched in the face, then was kicked in the head while unconscious.
The teens gathered at Donchak's home shortly after the attack ended, the indictment said. Piekarsky's mother showed up and told them that she had been in contact with her boyfriend, Hayes, and that they needed to "get their stories straight" because Hayes had told her that Ramirez's condition was deteriorating, it said.
Moyer separately went to the home of another teen present during the attack "and told him to talk to his friends about the version of events that would be communicated to the authorities," the indictment said.
A borough official tried to get the police department to recuse itself, but Nestor refused, the indictment said.
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. They are serving their sentences at the Schuylkill County jail.
A fourth teen was found delinquent in juvenile court for his role in the beating.
If convicted on the hate crime charge, Piekarsky and Donchak face maximum sentences of life in prison. The most serious count against the officers, obstruction, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
(Matheson reported from Wilkes-Barre. Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett in Washington and Patrick Walters in Philadelphia contributed to this report.)