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Immigrant’s Beating Death, Police Cover-Up Shake Pennsylvania Community

The murder of a Latino immigrant in an aging Pennsylvania coal town was a tragedy. But was the town in some way responsible?

SHENANDOAH, Pa. — The four white football players — stars of the Shenandoah Valley High School Blue Devils — wandered away from a party celebrating the Polish heritage of this rough borough in coal country. They were drunk and rambunctious, spoiling for a fight. After coming upon a Mexican man walking with his fiancée's younger sister, they began taunting both with racial slurs and threats.

"Tell your Mexican friends to get the f--- out of Shenandoah," one yelled to Luis Ramirez, whose nickname was "Caballo," Spanish for horse. Ramirez raised his fists like a pugilist, bracing for a fight.

While the handful of eyewitness accounts differ over who threw the first punch, one horrific fact remains: Ramirez was ruthlessly beaten and left unconscious, foaming at the mouth. His eyes rolled backward as terrified onlookers called 911 for help. Days later, he would die from the blunt-force head wounds he suffered that night. "It was," said Crystal Dillman, Ramirez's fiancée, stammering briefly in search of a word during an interview, "overkill."

Luis Ramirez
Luis Ramirez

Ramirez's death after the July 12, 2008, beating drew attention to what FBI statistics suggest was a nationwide surge of anti-Latino hate crime that began in the early 2000s. Five months later and 170 miles away, another gang of teenagers in Patchogue, N.Y., killed Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero as part of a "sport" they called "b------hopping."

Both killings came amid a powerful anti-immigrant movement cresting across the country — a movement that has produced civilian border patrols, draconian city and state laws designed to drive away undocumented immigrants, and even the home-invasion murders of a 9-year-old Latina girl and her father by border vigilantes in Arizona.

Was Ramirez a victim of this nativist rage? The teens accused of committing a hate crime claimed they weren't motivated by hatred or bigotry toward Latinos, a pivotal question in the case against them. But the vitriol and outright bigotry surrounding the immigration debate, coupled with the racial slurs used that night, make it hard to escape the conclusion that the tragedy was the fruit of hatred and resentment toward Latino immigrants. Shenandoah, a once-thriving coal town in decline for almost a century, is just 20 miles down the road from Hazleton, which in 2006 became the first community in America to pass its own anti-immigration ordinance.

The town's reaction to Ramirez's death — charges of a police conspiracy to protect the four white teens and a local jury's highly controversial verdict in a criminal trial — did little to squelch the notion that the killing was the result of racism. To civil rights groups and Latino advocates, these developments exposed a pattern of disregard for Latinos in an out-of-the-way fiefdom ruled by a powerful group of local politicians and law enforcement officials who, when faced with outside scrutiny, circled the wagons.

Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky
Slap on the wrist: Derrick Donchak (left) and Brandon Piekarsky were acquitted by a local jury of the most serious charges against them. But a federal jury later sent each of them to prison for nine years.

Murder as Misdemeanor Assault
Two weeks after Ramirez died, Schuykill County prosecutors charged Brandon Piekarsky, then 16, Derrick Donchak, 18, Colin Walsh, 17, and Brian Scully, 17, with state hate crime charges. The following April, U.S. attorneys announced they also would pursue hate crime charges against Walsh. That helped the state's case, because Walsh agreed to testify against his friends in exchange for a prison sentence of about four and a half years.

It looked to be a swift path to justice for the Ramirez family. But then, in 2009, an all-white state court jury in Schuykill County acquitted Piekarsky of third-degree murder and Donchak of ethnic intimidation. Both were found guilty instead of misdemeanor assault. They each received a sentence ranging up to 23 months.

The verdicts shocked and enraged Latino and civil rights groups, reminding many of the jury nullification that once freed white killers of civil rights activists in the South despite overwhelming evidence of guilt. More than 25,000 people signed an online petition asking for a Justice Department investigation, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting an intervention.

The Justice Department responded with force.

By the end of 2009, Piekarsky and Donchak had been indicted on federal hate crime charges. And federal prosecutors dropped a bombshell on the town: They charged three of the five officers in the town's all-white police department with conspiring to cover up the hate crime to protect its native sons.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Police Chief Matthew Nestor, Lt. William Moyer and Patrolman Jason Hayes orchestrated a scheme to conceal evidence, coach witnesses and stand in the way of investigators. Hayes, it turned out, was dating Piekarsky's mother, and Nestor had vacationed with her.

"The police did not do their job and they were partly involved with this cover-up," Schuykill District Attorney James Goodman told The Associated Press early in the investigation.

"It was a sad situation all around," said former Shenandoah Mayor Thomas O'Neill, who resigned three years into his term after encountering stiff resistance from local officials unwilling to cooperate with federal investigators. "They're just bullies. That's just the way I see it."

Shenandoah, Pennsylvania

Mean Streets
Something had gone awry in Shenandoah, an economically depressed, out-of-the-way borough still suffering from the collapse of the coal industry that a century before had fueled its economy. It had always been a rough place, but when immigrants began arriving to work in the surrounding farms, the cultural face of a town that has always been white began to change dramatically.

Some residents speak of pervasive aggression toward Latinos long before Ramirez's death. Young Mexican students were cursed at and spit on, resident Anna Marie Lopez explained as she and her husband, an immigrant from Mexico, shoveled snow outside their Shenandoah home in January. "I could get myself in trouble for talking to you," Lopez told the Intelligence Report timidly. "They'll probably harass me."

Her concern was understandable given a series of events that drew attention to Shenandoah and reinforced accusations of rampant anti-Latino sentiment.

In 2008, months after Ramirez's death, Donchak reportedly wore a "Border Patrol" T-shirt to a Halloween party, and prosecutors said he occasionally played a racist song, "White Man's March." Later that year, a woman identified as JaeLynn Mackalonis interrupted a CNN interview to chastise another local woman who was speaking about the treatment of Latinos in Shenandoah. "Get your story straight before you go babbling anything," Mackalonis said. "It wasn't a racial crime. If he wasn't here illegally, I think it wouldn't have happened."

Then, that December, an anti-immigration rally to support Donchak and Piekarsky drew elements of the racist right, including demonstrators claiming to be Klan members. Also attending were members of nativist groups including United Patriots for America, a hard-line organization based in Linden, N.J., known for conducting surveillance of day-labor sites, and You Don't Speak For Me!, a front group created by the Federation for American Immigration Reform to look like a Latino group that opposes immigration. On, the world's leading white supremacist Internet forum, the rally was a topic of conversation for days.

Crystal Dillman
Crystal Dillman

Dillman, Ramirez's white fiancée and a native of the town, attended the rally and brandished a Mexican flag in defiance. When she was identified, a mob surrounded and bombarded her with screams and accusations.

"They say they're not a hateful town, but yet some of their remarks are hateful and ignorant," Dillman said. "They seem to forget how my kids' lives are never going to be the same, how my life was destroyed, how Luis lost his life at 25 years old. … They seem to forget."

City of Immigrants
Built in the late 19th century around the burgeoning coal industry, the borough of Shenandoah wears the narrative of its history on Main Street storefronts such as Kowalonek's Kielbasy Shop and Luna's Dimaggio Italian Restaurant, and in the coal dust that stains the roadside a midnight black — a lasting testament to the immigrant labor that worked the anthracite mines more than a century ago.

The town, which had a population of nearly 30,000 in 1920, has been slowly shrinking for decades. In the early 1990s, the predominantly European-American population began to change as Latino migrant workers came to the area to work in agricultural jobs and what remained of the once-prosperous coal industry. By 2009, the Latino population (excluding natives of Spain) had grown to about 13% according to the U.S. Census Bureau — a considerable portion of the borough's 5,600 residents. Considering the total population had grown only fractionally since 2000, the shift drastically altered the borough's cultural makeup.

Shenandoah had seen this before. Successive waves of immigrants — English, Welsh, Germans, Irish and then Eastern Europeans including Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians and Slovakians —never co-existed comfortably. At the time of Ramirez's death, the prevailing sentiment was that Latinos could have a place in town, but they'd have to earn it, explained Philip Andras, the principal of Shenandoah Valley High School. "They're different," Andras said. "And until there's a commonality, a community commonality, it's all too easy to make judgments."

It had become so commonplace in highly ethnic Shenandoah to lob insults at others based on their race or heritage that many residents no longer viewed such slights as indicators of real racial hostility. In the wake of Ramirez's death, many are still unwilling — or unable — to see the attack as a true hate crime.

"It's not like the kids that were involved in this fight said that Saturday night, 'Let's go get a Mexican,'" said Andrew Szczyglak, the deputy coroner and former head of the City Council, during a conversation in the offices of Downtown Shenandoah Inc., a commercial revitalization effort. "I grew up in this town. It was always, 'Oh, you're a dumb Pollock.' Or, if you're Irish, 'You're a drunk.'"

Mary Luscavage, director of the revitalization project, chimed in: "I'm a wop." Szczyglak nodded. "Because I call Mary a wop or a guinea, it doesn't mean I'm going to kill her," he said.

Yet something important seems to be lost in discussions with many Shenandoah residents about the crime. The locals' minimizing the racial aspect of the killing only reinforces the image of pervasive racism that has spread since a Mexican man died as the sons of Shenandoah shouted "s---."

Shenandoah police officer Jason Hayes
Police officer Jason Hayes, who was dating one of the killers’ mothers, was accused of helping orchestrate a cover-up.

Truth and Consequences
Piekarsky and Donchak were convicted by a federal jury last October and each sentenced to nine years in prison. Scully was tried in juvenile court, where the proceedings are not part of the public record. The officers — Nestor, Moyer and Hayes — were acquitted of conspiracy by an all-white jury in nearby Wilkes-Barre, Pa., but Nestor was found guilty of falsifying records and Moyer of lying to the FBI. They were to be sentenced this spring. (Nestor and his second-in-command, Capt. Jamie Gennarini, also faced unrelated federal corruption charges involving multiple counts of civil rights violations and extortion, including an alleged attempt to shake down a local businessman for cash.)

"Things have shaken up this town," said Gladys Limon, a Los Angeles attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) who spent months in Shenandoah as a family advocate for Dillman after Ramirez' death. Limon said town officials have become much more openly accepting to Latino families, but she worries that the benevolence will fade once the outside scrutiny goes away.

The events that shook up this town, in many respects, reflect similar struggles going on in communities across America. Demographic changes related to immigration are altering the look of the United States, and some Americans are reacting with rage and even violence. What can make the difference is how a community chooses to confront and deal with what some may see as uncomfortable changes.

During a cold morning in January, just off Main Street, the "Open" sign flickers on at La Casita de Familia at 10 a.m. The working men and women, both white and Latino, slowly drift in for steaming bowls of salsa verde and fresh corn tortillas. No one talks about the police department, which has replaced nearly all its officers, or the legal proceedings yet to come involving the death of another young man.

This summer, a civil lawsuit will go to trial in the Nov. 28, 2004, death of David Vega, 18, a Puerto Rican American who was found hanging in Shenandoah's jail. The 6-foot-4 high school basketball player had been arrested for criminal mischief after an argument over a football game turned into a fight at his father's house. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, names as defendants Chief Nestor, Capt. Gennarini and the borough of Shenandoah.

Carlos Vega swears his son's death was an act of a town driven by an incomprehensible hatred of Latinos and an aggressive police department that knew no limits to its brutality. "They beat him to death, and to cover it up, they hanged him after he was in a coma," Vega said through tears.

Vega's claim has support. An independent autopsy report found no sign of several physical factors that normally accompany a suicide by hanging – a broken bone along the jaw (the hyoid bone), internal hemorrhaging along the neck, and burst blood vessels in the face. Instead, the report cited massive head injuries, a gash along Vega's scalp and a dislocated shoulder. The Vega family's attorney, Joseph Walsh, said a forensic pathologist determined that most likely, Vega was unconscious when he was strung up by his belt, which asphyxiated him.

Nestor's attorney, Joseph Nahas, did not return calls seeking comment.

But during a deposition taken this February, Angela Pleva, Nestor's former girlfriend, testified that when she confronted the chief he spoke chillingly of what had happened. "He said, 'We went too far and we killed him,'" Pleva testified, according to the official transcript.

"Did he say anything else?" an attorney pressed.

"No," she said. "He kind of laughed."