Two former high school football players who witnessed the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant in Pennsylvania testified Thursday that a third member of their group kicked the victim in the head as he lay unconscious in the street.
Brandon Piekarsky, now 18, and Derrick Donchak, now 20, are charged with a federal hate crime in the July 2008 attack on 25-year-old Luis Ramirez, who died after brawling with a tight-knit bunch of white athletes in Shenandoah, an old mining town riven by ethnic tensions between whites and a burgeoning Hispanic population. Donchak is also charged in a plot with Shenandoah police to cover up the crime.
Prosecutors allege that Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head, a theory bolstered Thursday by testimony from two of the defendant's childhood friends.
The fight began late July 12, 2008, when a half-dozen drunken teens, all Shenandoah residents who played football at Shenandoah Valley High School, were walking home from a block party and came across Ramirez and his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park.
Brian Scully, who has already pleaded guilty in juvenile court to aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other offenses for his role in the attack, testified Thursday that he asked the girl, "Isn't it a little too late to be out?"
That enraged Ramirez, who began yelling in Spanish and dialing friends on his cell phone.
"I didn't understand him," Scully said. "So I didn't like it."
Scully testified that he shouted ethnic slurs. The verbal sparring turned into a physical altercation as Ramirez and Piekarsky — and then Donchak and Piekarsky — traded blows.
As the brawl ended, Scully testified that he told Ramirez, "Go home, you Mexican (expletive)!" He said Donchak yelled, "(Expletive) you, spic!"
He said he was walking away when Ramirez jumped on top of him and started pummeling him. Another teen, Colin Walsh, who has pleaded guilty to federal charges in the case, delivered a knockout blow that caused Ramirez to hit his head on the pavement.
Scully said he tried to kick Ramirez in the head but lost his balance and struck him in the shoulder instead. That's when, he said, Piekarsky's foot connected with Ramirez's head.
"He started shaking and everyone then started running," Scully said.
Another teen, Ben Lawson, also testified that Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head. The defense accuses Scully of being the kicker, and Scully was to undergo cross-examination Thursday afternoon.
After the fight, the teens got together and concocted a cover story, Scully and Lawson said.
Lawson, who has enlisted now in the Navy, testified that the teens got together and agreed to say "that nobody kicked him, we weren't drinking, and there were no racial slurs."
That night and again the next day, "Brandon said, 'Don't tell them I kicked,'" Scully said.
An all-white jury cleared the defendants of serious state charges last year. Piekarsky was acquitted of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, while Donchak beat aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation charges. Both were convicted of simple assault. The 2009 verdict angered civil rights groups and Gov. Ed Rendell, who asked for a Justice Department prosecution.
Ramirez's death exposed simmering ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia that attracted Hispanics drawn by jobs in factories and farm fields.
Both Scully and Lawson said it was commonplace for white students at Shenandoah Valley High School to use ethnic slurs against Hispanics, admitting they did so themselves.
"Is it fair to say there were a lot of white people using racial slurs because of the Hispanics moving into Shenandoah?" asked Gerard Hogan, a Justice Department prosecutor.
"Yes," Lawson said.
Both teens admitted they initially lied about the attack to protect their friends.
But Scully insisted he eventually told the truth.
"I was scared and it was something I thought I had to do," he said. "It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I couldn't hide it any more."