Three white teens were charged Friday in what officials said was an epithet-filled fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant in a small northeast Pennsylvania coal town. Brandon J. Piekarsky, 16, and Colin J. Walsh, 17, were charged as adults with homicide and ethnic intimidation in the July 12 attack on Luis Ramirez.
A third teen, Derrick M. Donchak, 18, was charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other offenses. All are from Shenandoah, where the attack occurred.
Additional charges are expected in the case that has roiled Shenandoah, a small, economically depressed town where police have reported friction between whites and a growing Hispanic population.
The suspects played football at Shenandoah Valley High School; Donchak, now enrolled at Bloomsburg University, was the quarterback last season.
"As a result of this crime, a young man has lost his life. Many other lives have been devastated, and the borough of Shenandoah has been filled with tensions between many ethnic groups," Schuylkill County District Attorney James Goodman said.
"Now that the criminal charges have been filed, we must let this case be handled in the criminal justice system," he said.
According to a police affidavit, the defendants and three 17-year-olds encountered Ramirez, 25, and a teenage girl in a park the night of July 12.
The youths goaded Ramirez and the girl, saying, "You should get out of this neighborhood" and "Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here," documents said. After Ramirez and the girl began walking away, someone yelled an ethnic slur at him, court documents said. He responded, "What's your problem?"
A fight ensued, during which, police said, Walsh punched Ramirez in the face. The victim fell and hit his head on the street, leaving him unconscious, after which Piekarsky kicked him in the head, police said.
All three suspects used ethnic slurs during the fight, which ended with Ramirez in convulsions and foaming at the mouth, authorities said. The attackers fled the scene; Ramirez underwent surgery but died July 14 of head injuries.
Piekarsky and Walsh were being held without bail, while Donchak was held on $75,000 bail.
Lawyers for Piekarsky and Walsh said their clients are not guilty and that there was no evidence to support the homicide charges. They also said they would try to have the case removed to juvenile court.
Roger Laguna, Walsh's lawyer, said the police affidavit "pretty much describes chaos, and what you have then after the fact is somebody trying to sort through that and attribute certain acts to certain individuals."
He said that although slurs might have been used, the fight was not motivated by ethnicity.
"I think any time there's a fight and any time you have one ethnic group fighting another, there's going to be racial slurs," he said. "I've seen that since I was a kid on a playground 20 years ago, but they never called it ethnic intimidation until very recently."
Frederick Fanelli, Piekarsky's lawyer, said he is "surprised and disappointed" that his client faces a homicide charge, attributing Ramirez's death to a "street fight that ended tragically."
Donchak declined to comment.
Fiancee plans to move
Ramirez, who entered the U.S. illegally about six years ago, worked in a factory and picked strawberries and cherries.
Crystal Dillman, the victim's 24-year-old fiancee, who is white and grew up in Shenandoah, has said Ramirez was often called derogatory names and told to return to his homeland. The couple had two children together, and Dillman also has a 3-year-old who thought of Ramirez as her father.
"I plan on moving out of this town as fast as I can. Not because I'm scared. I just don't want to see my children have to deal with what their father dealt with," Dillman said.
Preliminary hearings for all three suspects were set for Aug. 4.
Goodman said a fourth teen will be charged as a juvenile with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation and that charges also will be filed against a man who provided alcohol to the defendants hours before the attack.