WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – The federal trial of three police officers accused of trying to cover up the murder of an undocumented Mexican immigrant – a hate crime that drew the nation’s attention to violence against Hispanics two years ago – opened this week with a focus on the small Northeast Pennsylvania coal town of Shenandoah. There, prosecutors say, police offered special consideration for its favored white sons and their parents, instead of following the dictates of the law.
Former Shenandoah Police Chief Matthew Nestor and two others in the department – Lt. William Moyer and Patrolman Jason Hayes – face a host of federal charges, including conspiracy and obstruction of justice for orchestrating what prosecutors say was a swift cover-up of the circumstances of Ramirez's death.
In her opening statement, federal prosecutor Myesha Braden said the 2008 beating death of Luis Ramirez was swept under the rug to protect his assailants from embarrassment and prosecution. “Like teachers and doctors, police officers are intimately connected with American culture. They are expected to protect and serve. This is a case of police officers who decided to do the opposite of what they were expected to do,” Braden told the all-white jury.
The fatal fight happened on July 12, 2008, when Derrick Donchak , Brandon Piekarsky, Colin Walsh and Brian Scully were among a group of teenagers who had left a block party where they had been drinking. They came across Ramirez in a park with a white girl and started calling Ramirez a “fucking spic,” and taunting him with threats such as “Go back to Mexico,” and “Tell your fucking Mexican friends to get the fuck out of Shenandoah,” according to testimony and the federal indictment. A fight erupted and the teens, some grasping chunks of metal to harden the impact of their punches, ganged up on Ramirez until he was knocked unconscious. Piekarsky was convicted of kicking Ramirez in the head when he was down – later determined to have been the fatal strike.
The officers are accused of altering official statements of witnesses, concealing evidence and helping the suspects and their families create a story to hide the racial nature of the attack and shift a measure of the blame from Piekarsky and Donchak to Scully. Hayes, one of the officers, was dating Piekarsky's mother at the time; the two are now engaged to be married.
Walsh, who along with Scully pleaded guilty to juvenile charges in the beating under an agreement with prosecutors, testified on Thursday that the fight targeted Ramirez because of his ethnicity, and that the other boys gathered after the fight to get their stories straight. Urged on by Piekarsky’s mother, Tammi Piekarsky, they left agreeing not to tell police that Piekarsky had kicked the man or that they had attacked him because of his ethnicity, Walsh said.
An all-white state jury found Donchak, now 20, and Piekarsky, now 19, guilty of a misdemeanor assault charges but acquitted them of more serious hate-crime charges. They were subsequently charged with a federal hate crime for their role in the assault, and in October were convicted. They face life in prison when they are sentenced later this month.
Each officer in the federal trial now under way has a separate defense attorney, each of whom presented their clients as well-meaning officers of the law caught in the confusing aftermath of a violent street fight that challenged the old-fashioned department still stuck in a bygone way of doing police work. Moyer, for example, is accused of contacting Scully’s parents and instructing them to get rid of the sneakers their son wore on the night of the attack. In another effort to conceal Piekarsky’s involvement, investigators say Moyer and Hayes mischaracterized a witness’s account in an official report to make it appear that Scully had a greater role in the attack than he actually did. “Relationships combined with privilege overthrew the rule of law,” Braden said.
At one point, attorney Enid Harris described her client, Moyer, as “the Barney Fife of Shenandoah,” a comparison to the bumbling deputy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Moyer scowled when she made the comparison.
Nestor’s attorney Joseph Nahas also seemed content to draw the contrast between a small-town police department and its federal counterpart in his defense of the police chief. “Here’s what the government doesn’t get,” Nahas said. “What they view as corruption, collusion and conspiracy, I view as community, caring and consideration.”