SCRANTON, Pa. – The trial of two white teenagers charged with a federal hate crime in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant focused Friday on an alleged cover-up orchestrated by police officers with close ties to the defendants.
Shenandoah police threatened witnesses, sought the destruction of evidence and tried to place blame where it didn't belong, according to testimony meant to bolster the government's allegation that three former officers obstructed a federal investigation into the July 2008 assault.
The officers are scheduled to go on trial early next year, charged with sabotaging the probe into the death of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant, by altering evidence and lying to the FBI.
Prosecutors in this week's hate crime trial are trying to prove that Derrick Donchak, now 20, and Brandon Piekarsky, now 18, were motivated by their dislike of Hispanics when they took part in the attack on Ramirez, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant, in the former mining town 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Piekarsky is accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after he'd already been knocked unconscious by another teen, Colin Walsh, who pleaded guilty in federal court last year to violating Ramirez's civil rights and testified Friday against his one-time friends.
Donchak also took part in the fight and then conspired with police to cover up the crime, federal prosecutors say.
Donchak, Walsh told the jury, "didn't like Hispanic people. He REALLY didn't like Hispanic people."
Walsh recalled that Donchak had "White Man's March," a song with racist lyrics from the 1998 film "American History X," loaded onto his iPod. Prosecutors played the song for the all-white jury.
"He'd sing along to it" in the car, Walsh said.
Defense attorneys deny the fight had anything to do with Ramirez's ethnicity, calling him the aggressor.
Ramirez's married friends, Victor and Arielle Garcia, witnessed part of the brawl on July 12, 2008. Arielle Garcia told jurors Friday that she saw Ramirez get knocked to the ground, then kicked in the head as he lay motionless in the street.
As a convulsing Ramirez was being loaded onto an ambulance, Shenandoah Patrolman Jason Hayes arrived on the scene, conferred with Piekarsky, and shook his hand, she said.
Hayes then came over to the Garcias, and Victor Garcia identified Piekarsky as one of Ramirez's assailants. Hayes told Garcia: "You'd better be quiet. You wanna be quiet, or I can put you in jail tonight," Arielle Garcia testified.
At the time, Hayes was dating Piekarsky's mother.
Under cross examination, Arielle Garcia acknowledged never having made the accusation before, either in statements to authorities or in her testimony at a state trial last year.
"That will be an issue," said Hayes' attorney, Frank Nocito, who attended Friday's session at the federal courthouse in Scranton.
Victor Garcia did not mention Hayes' alleged threat when he took the stand after his wife.
The parents of Brian Scully — who shouted ethnic slurs at Ramirez and has pleaded to juvenile charges of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation — also testified about elements of the cover-up.
About a week after the fight, Lt. William Moyer, whose son played football with the defendants, called Scully's mother, Julie Mickalowski. "If Brian has a pair of Columbia blue and gray sneakers, you should get rid of them," he advised her, Mickalowski told jurors. "I knew Brian didn't have those sneakers."
Moyer's attorney, Enid Harris, declined to comment Friday.
A week after that phone call, Moyer showed up at Scully's house after nightfall, parking down the street so he wouldn't be spotted, said Ronald Mickalowski, Scully's stepfather. Staring at the floor, Moyer told the family that he was running for a $70,000-per-year magistrate's job and "he'd ruin his chances of getting it if he was seen or heard at our home," Mickalowski said.
Moyer said Scully needed to "confess to what he did," because witnesses had accused him of stomping on Ramirez, Mickalowski said.
As Moyer left, Mickalowski said he turned to his son and said, "We were played." Moyer "was trying to get something that wasn't there," he told the jury.
An indictment alleges that Moyer and Hayes tried, in their official reports, to "falsely exaggerate" the culpability of a teen identified in court papers as "Participant 2" in order to minimize Piekarsky's role.
The defense contends that Scully — not Piekarsky — kicked Ramirez in the head. Scully admitted earlier in the trial that he kicked Ramirez, but claimed it was in the shoulder.
Walsh, who has pleaded guilty in federal court, testified Friday that he saw Piekarsky deliver the kick, and that Piekarsky later told him that "he kicked the guy so hard his shoe flew off."
An all-white jury acquitted Piekarsky and Donchak 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. Each was convicted of simple assault.
The 2009 verdict angered civil rights groups and Gov. Ed Rendell, who asked for a Justice Department prosecution.