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Pennsylvania Police Officers Indicted in Cover-Up of Immigrant’s Killing

Indictments were unsealed today against three police officers in Shenandoah, Pa., including the chief, on obstruction of justice and other charges in connection with the beating death of an undocumented Mexican immigrant there in July 2008. A fourth officer was indicted on unrelated corruption charges, meaning that more than half of the seven officers on the force, including its three highest-ranking, face federal criminal charges. “Those four have been taken away and there’s just the three of us left,” an officer answering the phone said today.

Shenandoah is the racially tense Pennsylvania coal town where three white teens were charged in the fatal beating of Luis Ramirez while shouting racial epithets. In May, an all-white jury acquitted Brandon Piekarsky, then 17, of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, and Derrick Donchak, 19 at the time, of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Each was convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge and sentenced to a maximum of 23 months imprisonment, setting off angry criticism from immigrant rights groups who saw them as having gotten away with murder. Another defendant, Colin Walsh, pleaded guilty to a civil-rights charge and testified at the other defendants’ trial that he threw a punch that knocked Ramirez unconscious. Ramirez, 25, died two days later. Prosecutors alleged that Piekarsky delivered a fatal kick to Ramirez’s head after he was knocked down. Donchak was convicted of corrupting minors by providing alcohol to the others before the fight.

After the verdicts, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder suggesting that the Justice Department pursue civil rights charges. Donchak and Piekarsky also were named in indictments unsealed today.

A federal grand jury returned an indictment last week that charged Shenandoah Police Chief Matthew Nestor, Lt. William Moyer and Officer Jason Hayes with conspiring to obstruct justice during the federal probe of Ramirez’s beating. The indictment, unsealed today, also charges Moyer with witness and evidence tampering, and with lying to the FBI. If convicted, the officers face 20 years in prison on each of the obstruction charges, plus five years for conspiring to obstruct justice. Moyer also faces five years for making false statements to the FBI.

In a second indictment, Piekarsky and Donchak are charged with a federal hate crime that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Donchak also is charged in three additional counts with conspiring to obstruct justice and related offenses. Each of the conspiracy charges carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, while the other offenses each bring a five-year maximum sentence.

The murder of Luis Ramirez was the first to be nationally spotlighted by many human rights groups as an example of the violence that a burgeoning anti-immigrant movement has produced. Later the same year, on Nov. 8, 2008, an Ecuadorian immigrant in Suffolk County, N.Y., Marcelo Lucero, drew even more national attention after he was stabbed to death by a group of white teenagers. The case prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center to produce a report — “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.” — that criticized local nativist groups, politicians, and the Suffolk County Police Department. A few weeks later, the Department of Justice announced it was investigating discriminatory policing by the SCPD as part of an unusual “patterns and practices” probe.

In a third indictment announced today — an indictment unrelated to the Ramirez beating — Chief Nestor and his second-in-command, Capt. Jamie Gennarini, were charged with multiple counts of extortion and civil rights violations. From 2004 to 2007, Nestor conspired to extort cash payments from several illegal gambling operations in the Shenandoah area, and obstructed an investigation into the scheme, according to the indictment. The indictment also alleges that Nestor and Gennarini extorted $2,000 in cash from a local businessman and his family in return for releasing the businessman from their custody. If convicted, Nestor and Gennarini are looking at maximum sentences of 20 years in prison on each of the extortion counts. They also face up to 10 years in prison for the conspiracy to violate civil rights.

This might not be the end of the Justice Department probe of Shenandoah. In a prepared statement, the department said, “The FBI wants to hear from anyone who may have information regarding alleged civil rights violations or public corruption in Schuylkill County.” Anybody with information should contact the FBI’s Allentown office.

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