Pa. police accused of cover-up in hate crime case
WASHINGTON — Four police officers in this Pennsylvania coal town are accused in a federal indictment of orchestrating a cover-up in the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant, an attack that resulted in the acquittal of two popular high school football players of serious state charges.
The former Shenandoah High School athletes, 19-year-old Derrick Donchak and 18-year-old Brandon Piekarsky, have been charged with a hate crime, accused of beating Luis Ramirez while shouting racial epithets at him in July 2008, the Justice Department said Tuesday in Washington.
Separate indictments accuse Police Chief Matthew Nestor and three officers under his command with charges including witness tampering and lying to the FBI.
Nestor, Lt. William Moyer, and Officer Jason Hayes were charged with conspiring to obstruct justice during the investigation into the Ramirez beating. Moyer was charged with witness and evidence tampering, as well as lying to the FBI.
The police chief and his second-in-command, James 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.
No one answered the phone at the Shenandoah Borough Police Department on Tuesday. Piekarsky's lawyer didn't immediately return a call, and there was no lawyer listed for Donchak on the indictment.
Reaction among residents to the indictment was mixed.
"Why come in and stir it up again? Why stir it up?" said George Dambroski, 61. "The town is stirred-up enough."
Shawn Grady, 35, agreed with the new charges.
"The feds did what they should have done. No one deserves to die. At least, not like that. Justice should be done," he said.
Donchak, Piekarsky and a third teen were previously charged in state court in Ramirez's death and cleared of all serious charges. State charges were dropped against a fourth suspect in exchange for a guilty plea to a federal civil rights count.
Piekarsky was acquitted 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, which carry possible one- or two-year prison sentences.
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.
The May verdicts were decried by Hispanic advocates who say Ramirez's death was part of a rising tide of hate crimes against Latinos.
The confrontation began when a half-dozen high school football players were headed home from a block party in Shenandoah, once a nearly all-white town 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia that has attracted Hispanic immigrants with jobs in factories and farm fields. 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 a small piece of metal to give his punches more power; defense attorneys denied he had a weapon.
The fight wound down, but the argument continued. Ramirez charged the group. He was knocked out by a punch to the face. Prosecutors said he was killed by Piekarsky's 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.