Federal prosecutors charged three police officers in a racially tense Pennsylvania coal town with orchestrating a cover-up in the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant by altering evidence or lying to the FBI in a case against two white high school football players.
A federal indictment announced Tuesday in Washington revealed close ties between the officers and defendants: One dated the mother of an accused player, and another had a son on the team.
The former athletes themselves, ages 18 and 19, are now charged with a federal hate crime in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in a park on a night in July 2008 as they headed home from a party.
State prosecutors who tried to win murder or ethnic intimidation convictions against the athletes had alleged that the attackers 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 suspects 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."
Stream of Hispanic immigrants
The indictments accuse 19-year-old Derrick Donchak and 18-year-old Brandon Piekarsky of a hate crime. Donchak is also accused of conspiring with police to cover up the crime and giving false statements to police.
They also accuse Police Chief Matthew Nestor, Lt. William Moyer and Officer Jason Hayes of conspiracy and falsifying documents "with the intent to impede, obstruct, and influence the investigation." Moyer is further accused of witness tampering, destroying evidence and lying to the FBI.
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 all pleaded not guilty before a federal magistrate and will be held until a bail hearing Wednesday. Donchak and Piekarsky have an initial court appearance scheduled for Dec. 22.
Hayes dated Piekarsky's mother, and Moyer's son played on the football team, according to the indictment, which alleges that the officers took actions on behalf of the teens, especially Piekarsky.
‘Get their stories straight’
Nestor, Hayes and Moyer failed to record incriminating statements made by Piekarsky and wrote "false and misleading official reports ... that intentionally omitted information about the true nature of the assault and the investigation," the indictment said.
The teens gathered at Donchak's home shortly after the fight, the indictment said, and 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.
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.
Moyer allegedly advised another teen to get rid of the sneakers he wore during the fight. Hayes and Moyer also tried, in their reports, to "falsely exaggerate" the culpability of a teen identified in court papers as "Participant 2" and minimize Piekarsky's role, according to court papers.
A borough official tried to get the police department to recuse itself, but Nestor refused, the indictment said.
Football a major attraction
Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 about 80 miles (128 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia, is best known as the birthplace of big band musicians Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and the home of Mrs. T's Pierogies. Football, along with the town's many block parties and ethnic festivals, is a major attraction. Home games at Shenandoah Valley High School typically draw thousands of fans.
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. 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 the metal; defense attorneys denied he had a weapon.
The fight wound down, but the argument continued. Ramirez charged the group, and Walsh knocked him out with a punch to the face. Prosecutors said he was killed by Piekarsky's subsequent kick to the head; defense lawyers said another teen delivered the fatal blow.
Almost from the beginning, Nestor, one of the now-indicted officers, had tried to play down the notion that race was involved, telling The Associated Press the attack "wasn't racially motivated" and "looks like a street fight that went wrong."
Tension in the community
Still, Nestor acknowledged some tension between the town's growing Hispanic population and some of its white residents, including racially tinged graffiti and slurs yelled at Hispanics.
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. Both are serving their sentences at the Schuylkill County jail.
A fourth teen was found delinquent in juvenile court for his role in the fatal beating.
If convicted on the hate crime charge, Piekarsky and Donchak face a maximum of life in prison. The most serious count against the officers, obstruction, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.