Pa. cops accused of cover-up faced other abuse suits
SHENANDOAH, Pa. — A police chief charged with trying to cover up the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant by white teenagers was named in a 2006 civil suit that made a startling claim: Borough police beat to death a Hispanic teenager, then hung him from the bars of his holding cell to make it appear a suicide.
Police Chief Matthew Nestor was never charged, but the allegations contained in the lawsuit, in Tuesday's indictment and in other civil claims depict a police department with pervasive hostility to minorities and a penchant for using excessive force.
Police "acted as feudal warlords in this coal town community that people were afraid of," said attorney John Karoly, who represents the parents of 18-year-old David Vega in their federal lawsuit against the borough. "I would not suggest they were not abusive to everyone and anyone, but I would say the pattern certainly starts to appear that minorities took the thrust of their abuse."
The suit names Nestor and Capt. Jamie Gennarini as defendants, as well as the borough of Shenandoah. The officers have denied wrongdoing. A civil trial is scheduled for next summer.
Nestor and two other officers were charged Tuesday with orchestrating a cover-up as the FBI investigated the fatal attack on Luis Ramirez by a group of high school football players. Gennarini and Nestor were indicted separately in a scheme to extort money from illegal gambling operations.
The officers pleaded not guilty before a federal magistrate in Wilkes-Barre and were being held until a bail hearing Wednesday afternoon.
A third federal indictment charges teenagers Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak with a hate crime in connection with the July 2008 attack on Ramirez, 25, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Donchak and Piekarsky have an initial court appearance scheduled for Tuesday. Their lawyers did not return phone messages Wednesday.
Donchak and Piekarsky were previously charged in state court with Ramirez's death.
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 is scheduled to be released from jail Thursday. Donchak remains locked up.
Early in the Ramirez investigation, Schuylkill County prosecutors determined that they had a serious problem with the Shenandoah police, District Attorney James Goodman said Wednesday. No Shenandoah officers were called to testify at the trial.
"We determined the police did not do their job and they were partly involved with this cover-up," said Goodman, adding that he asked the Justice Department to investigate the force.
"It was pretty troubling and it obviously caused problems with the prosecution in the case and made the case more difficult," Goodman said.
Police in this blue-collar town of 5,000, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, face other accusations of wrongdoing.
Gennarini and Capt. Raymond Nestor - the father of the police chief - arrested David Vega at his home shortly before 8:55 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2004, while responding to a report of a domestic dispute, according to court documents.
"While in police custody ... Vega was beaten to death and then hung from the bars of a holding cell to make it appear as if he had committed suicide," the lawsuit said.
Vega was pronounced dead at 10:50 p.m.
His father, Carlos Vega, said Wednesday that he had no doubt what happened to his son. Vega, a retired chef who moved to Shenandoah 19 years ago, said he's afraid to leave his own house for fear of the police.
"A big group of Spanish people moved into Shenandoah, and they didn't know how to react to that," said Vega, who was born in New York and is of Puerto Rican descent.
"Were they fair to us? No. They're fair to their own kind. The outsider always had to pay."
An autopsy conducted by the county coroner determined Vega's son committed suicide, but Karoly said the coroner accepted Nestor's explanation that Vega's bruises had come earlier as he resisted arrest. A second autopsy arranged by the family confirmed Vega "suffered extensive, massive injuries consistent with a profound beating. ... The defendant did not die of hanging," the suit said.
Vega had a new girlfriend and was meeting with military recruiters about earning money for college, Karoly said.
"He had everything to live for," he said. "The kid was on top of the world and had no reason to commit suicide."
Nestor's attorney insists otherwise, writing in court papers: "The only credible independent evidence to date establishes that David Vega committed suicide."
Nestor faces yet another lawsuit, this one filed by a Shenandoah man arrested by the chief and another officer on a drug charge March 11.
David Murphy Sr., who is also represented by Karoly, claims Nestor and another officer made him turn over his prescription blood thinner at the police station, then refused to allow him to take his evening dose. Nestor also punched Murphy in the back, where he had recently undergone spinal fusion surgery, the lawsuit said.
The officers left Murphy in a holding cell overnight. He "started to experience severe pain in his chest and arm ... but there was no one in the station to hear his cries for help," the suit said. He passed out; Karoly said he suffered a heart attack. He spent four days in a hospital.
Murphy, who is black, claims Nestor threatened to kill him if he filed suit.
The chief told Murphy he would not "make it out of the Shenandoah jail alive ... that (he) would end up like that Mexican who 'hung' himself," the suit said.