Witness says assailants concocted cover-up story after fatal assault of immigrant in Pa.

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pa. teens say they covered up assault on immigrant

SCRANTON, Pa. — After beating and kicking an illegal Mexican immigrant and leaving him for dead in the street, a group of white teens in a small Pennsylvania mining town knew they had a serious problem on their hands.

So, witnesses said, they decided on a cover story to tell the police: They weren’t drinking. They didn’t utter ethnic slurs. And, above all, Brandon Piekarsky did not kick Luis Ramirez in the head as he lay unconscious in the street.

At the federal trial of Piekarsky and a co-defendant, witnesses described a plot Thursday that prosecutors say was designed to minimize the teens’ involvement in the fatal attack in Shenandoah, a town riven by ethnic tensions between whites and a burgeoning Hispanic population.

Piekarsky, now 18, and Derrick Donchak, now 20, are charged with a federal hate crime in the July 2008 assault by a tight-knit bunch of white athletes. Prosecutors allege Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head, while Donchak is accused of plotting with Shenandoah police to obstruct an FBI investigation.

“We were going to say that nobody kicked him, we weren’t drinking, and there were no racial slurs,” testified Ben Lawson, a former football player who witnessed the attack and then, he said, lied to police about it.

The fight began late July 12, 2008, when a half-dozen drunk 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 Ramirez and Donchak — 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.

Resident Eileen Burke called 911 when she heard the commotion outside her house. She testified she saw Ramirez convulsing violently and foaming at the mouth as his assailants ran away. She said Piekarsky shouted at Arielle Garcia — a white friend of Ramirez’s who had arrived on the scene — “You tell your Mexican friends to get the (expletive) out of Shenandoah or you’re going to be (expletive) laying next to him!”

Lawson, who has since joined the Navy, also testified that Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head. The defense accuses Scully of being the kicker.

After the fight, the teens got together and concocted a cover story, according to testimony. That night and again the next day, “Brandon said, ‘Don’t tell them I kicked,’” Scully said.

The defendants also made light of what they had done, joking about tattooing a random Mexican name — “Lupe” — on their buttocks, said Barry Boyer, another classmate.

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.

Under defense questioning, Lawson and others said Thursday that neither of the defendants plotted beforehand to target a Hispanic.

Defense attorneys also pointed out inconsistencies between the teens’ testimony at the state trial and their statements at this week’s trial in Scranton.

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.”

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