SHENANDOAH MURDER TRIAL: Feds charge teens, police officers in Ramirez attack, aftermath
Three Shenandoah police officers face federal charges for allegedly obstructing the investigation into the death of an illegal Mexican immigrant, while two teenagers already serving time in connection with the death are facing hate crime charges.
A fourth Shenandoah police officer was indicted on unrelated extortion charges.
"The power granted to law enforcement officers does not place them above the law," Thomas E. Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general, said in a press release. "Violence based on bigotry and hate has no place in America."
The Shenandoah police officers pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday but will remain jailed until a bail hearing today in Scranton.
The charges against them stem from the July 2008 beating death of Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala, the subsequent actions of Shenandoah police and allegations of extortion.
The FBI investigation was first reported by The Pottsville Republican-Herald on May 6, citing unnamed sources.
Federal authorities charged Shenandoah police Chief Matthew Nestor, Lt. William Moyer and Officer Jason Hayes with conspiring to obstruct justice. In addition to those charges, Moyer has been charged with witness and evidence tampering and lying to the FBI, according to authorities.
Each officer faces up to 20 years in prison on obstruction charges and five years for conspiring to obstruct justice. Moyer also faces five additional years for making false statements to the FBI.
The FBI investigation uncovered alleged extortion and civil rights violations by police dating back to 2004.
Nestor and Capt. Jamie Gennarini allegedly conspired to collect cash payouts from illegal gambling operations in the Shenandoah area. They also allegedly tried to extort $2,000 in cash from a local businessman and his family in 2007 in exchange for releasing the businessman from custody.
The extortion charges carry 20 years of prison time, according to the Department of Justice.
During the teens' trial in April, prosecutors alleged Moyer and Hayes helped Brandon J. Piekarsky, Derrick M. Donchak and other involved teens concoct a story and cover up what happened the night Ramirez was beaten.
Hayes allegedly told the teens to "get their story straight" and gave them car rides from the scene of the crime, according to testimony during the trial.
Federal agents led the four officers into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Malachy Mannion about 2 p.m. Tuesday in Wilkes-Barre. They were handcuffed and still in the civilian clothes they were wearing when they were arrested Tuesday morning. The handcuffs were removed and the men were allowed to speak with their attorneys before proceedings began. They also chatted with family members who sat behind them.
The trial for Nestor, Hayes and Moyer has been set for Feb. 16, while Nestor and Gennarini will stand trial on extortion charges Feb. 22.
The teens, Piekarsky and Donchak, face federal hate crimes charges and a maximum penalty of life in prison, according to the Department of Justice. Donchak also faces charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Donchak and Piekarsky have an initial court appearance scheduled for Dec. 22, according to The Associated Press.
Both were acquitted of aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other charges in connection with Ramirez's death after a five-day trial, which ended May 1.
Piekarsky was also cleared of third-degree murder charges.
Piekarsky and Donchak are being charged in federal court with hate crimes, which is different from the ethnic intimidation of which they were previously acquitted. Double jeopardy, or being charged twice for the same offense, does not apply.
Both are now in county prison after being convicted of simple assault and alcohol-related charges. Piekarsky is scheduled to be released Thursday after being granted parole Dec. 8, according to the county clerk of courts office. No release date has been set for Donchak.
The charges provide some closure for Crystal Dillman, Ramirez's fiancee.
"She's feeling a range of emotions right now," Cynthia Valenzuela, litigation director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Tuesday.
She said Dillman is considering the charges "a Christmas present."
MALDEF has been in contact with Dillman since Ramirez's death, Valenzuela said.
"We're gratified, but not surprised," Valenzuela said of the charges. "We've been well aware of the string of injustices" surrounding the case.
Valenzuela said the Ramirez case may have been the straw that broke that camel's back with respect to police corruption in Shenandoah.
"The community finally felt comfortable enough coming out and talking about all the other instances of misconduct," she said.
Another teen involved in the beating, Colin J. Walsh, has pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Ramirez's civil rights. He testified against Piekarsky and Donchak in exchange for only four years of prison time.
Another teen, Brian Scully, was charged in juvenile court.
During the trial, prosecutors said the teens, fueled by alcohol, shouted racial epithets at Ramirez before beating and kicking him on the streets of Shenandoah.
Defense attorneys argued Ramirez was equally aggressive during the fight.
Schuylkill County District Attorney James P. Goodman told The Republican-Herald in October the actions of Shenandoah police after the beating made proving the case more difficult.
"The (Shenandoah) police did not properly investigate this case ... There were a lot of problems with the evidence," Goodman said in the October interview, part of his successful re-election campaign.
On June 17, just after Piekarsky and Donchak were sentenced, Goodman confirmed the FBI was investigating the Shenandoah police. He said the investigation began shortly after the beating.
Other sources have told The Republican-Herald that federal authorities were investigating borough police before July 2008.
Shenandoah still has three police officers on duty. Goodman said Tuesday the borough will be protected in the coming weeks and months.
"We'll put in place a plan to be sure there is police coverage in the Borough of Shenandoah," Goodman said.
He also said he is working with Pennsylvania State Police to ensure adequate protection for Shenandoah residents.
Goodman would not comment on the indictments.
(Staff Writer Bob Kalinowski contributed to this report.)