WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – Three police officers in a Pennsylvania town obstructed a federal investigation into the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant to protect white football players to whom they had close personal ties, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Former Shenandoah Police Chief Matthew Nestor and two subordinates orchestrated a cover-up in the July 2008 beating death of 25-year-old Luis Ramirez in an effort to shield the teenage perpetrators, Justice Department prosecutor Myesha Braden said in her opening statement. One officer was dating the mother of one of the teens at the time, she said.
"Relationships are at the heart of why these three defendants covered up a malicious crime," she said. "Relationships combined with privilege to overthrow the rule of law."
Nestor, Lt. William Moyer and Patrolman Jason Hayes are charged with falsifying police reports and tampering with witnesses. Moyer is additionally charged with evidence tampering and lying to the FBI. They have pleaded not guilty.
Defense attorneys rejected the government's allegations, calling their clients honest small-town officers doing the best they could under difficult circumstances.
"From the get-go, they had the right suspects," said Enid Harris, Moyer's attorney. "Nobody was hiding anything under a rock or behind a tree."
Two men who took part in the assault were convicted in October of a federal hate crime. Derrick Donchak, 20, and Brandon Piekarsky, 19, face a maximum of life in prison when they are sentenced later this month.
Braden told jurors that Hayes and Piekarsky's mother were dating at the time of the assault; the couple are now engaged. She said Moyer was an avid fan of the high school football team, even attending practices while on duty. Their commanding officer, Nestor, was a close friend of Hayes and Tammy Piekarsky and vacationed with them.
So "they covered up the beating, a racially motivated beating," Braden said.
Nestor's attorney, Joseph Nahas, said the chief called the district attorney's office immediately after learning the seriousness of Ramirez's injuries, and had little to do with the investigation thereafter.
Nahas acknowledged that Nestor traded phone calls with Tammy Piekarsky the night of the attack, but urged the jury not to read anything into them. Nahas said it's not unusual for a police chief, especially one in a small town like Shenandoah where everyone knows everyone else, to talk to the parents of teens in trouble.
"Here's what the government doesn't get," he said. "What they view as corruption, collusion and conspiracy, I view as community, caring and consideration."
The confrontation began late in the evening of July 12, 2008, when a group of drunken athletes walking home from a block party came across Ramirez and his girlfriend in a park. The teens hurled ethnic slurs at Ramirez, then fought with him. Piekarsky was accused of delivering a fatal kick to Ramirez's head after he'd been knocked unconscious by another teen, Colin Walsh, who has already pleaded guilty in federal court and awaits sentencing.
The teens gathered at Donchak's home shortly after the fight, Braden told jurors, and Piekarsky's mother showed up and told them that she had been in contact with her boyfriend, Hayes — and that they needed to "get their stories straight" because Hayes had told her that Ramirez's condition was deteriorating.
The teens subsequently hatched a plan in which they falsely told authorities that no one was drunk, did any kicking or used any racial slurs.
Walsh, the first witness in the officers' trial, testified Thursday that Moyer showed up at his home a day after the fight.
"He asked me if I talked to the other guys," Walsh testified. "He said, 'Do you know what I mean?' He said, 'Good luck.'"
Moyer also tried to get the parents of a fourth teen, Brian Scully, to take the fall for the others, Braden told jurors. Scully has pleaded guilty in juvenile court for his role in the attack and is expected to testify against the officers.
Harris painted her client as ill-equipped to handle a big investigation, saying he had written only one police report in his entire 12-year career. Moyer issued traffic tickets, investigated minor crimes like public drunkenness, and spoke to crime-watch groups, she said.
"He was the Barney Fife of the Shenandoah police department," Harris said, referring to the bumbling deputy played by Don Knotts on "The Andy Griffith Show." Harris said she didn't mean it pejoratively, but the allusion brought a grimace from Moyer.
The government must not only prove that Nestor, Moyer and Hayes took steps to shield the perpetrators, but that they did so to obstruct a federal investigation. Defense attorneys say that's impossible, because the FBI didn't even get involved in the case until several weeks later.
Hayes' attorney, Philip Gelso, denied that Hayes falsified his police report, and told jurors the officer had limited involvement in the case due to his relationship with Tammy Piekarsky.
It's the third trial stemming from the fatal assault. Piekarsky and Donchak were acquitted of serious charges in Schuykill County Court in May 2009, including third-degree murder in Piekarsky's case, bringing an outcry from Hispanic activists. The pair were subsequently tried in federal court.