Published January 07, 2015
One of the defendants charged with a federal hate crime in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant threatened to start a "civil war" if Hispanics in the small Pennsylvania coal town retaliated, a witness testified Tuesday.
Jesse Gomez told jurors at the trial of Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky that Donchak made the statement to him two days after the assault on Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant.
Prosecutors say Donchak, now 20, and Piekarsky, now 18, were motivated by their dislike of Hispanics when they fought with Ramirez on July 12, 2008. Defense attorneys say ethnicity had nothing to do with the brawl between Ramirez and a group of white teenagers, all of whom played football at Shenandoah Valley High School.
Justice Department prosecutors rested their case Tuesday, ending with witness testimony that made clear there was bad blood between white teens and Hispanic teens in Shenandoah, a hardscrabble town about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Gomez, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, described a confrontation he had with Donchak on July 14, shortly after Ramirez died.
He and Donchak were both attending summer classes that day at Bloomsburg University. He said he confronted Donchak and that Donchak told him: "Do not try anything. We will start a civil war in Shenandoah." He said Donchak told him his friends had "powerful weapons."
Defense attorney William Fetterhoff hinted that it was Gomez who was making threats, telling Donchak that he would obtain guns for his Hispanic friends.
Fetterhoff also asked Gomez whether he told Donchak: "All you white boys are gonna die. ... You better watch your back. Something is gonna happen to you or your family." Gomez denied it, but he acknowledged challenging Donchak to a fight.
Later Tuesday, the defense called several witnesses who testified about an earlier encounter in which they said Gomez tried to run over a white teen, Kory Hruniuk, at a downtown Shenandoah intersection. A group of white teens who saw what happened assaulted Gomez's SUV, and later a group of older Hispanic men with bats showed up, Hruniuk testified. He said a 50-something man smashed a windshield and then clubbed Hruniuk on the knee.
Hruniuk, now an 18-year-old college student, and several other defense witnesses disputed Gomez's claim that Donchak was there for that fight and used a metal pipe to hit Gomez's car. Another teenager, Nick Nilewski, took the stand and admitted he, not Donchak, had the pipe.
Donchak and Piekarsky were charged in federal court with violating Ramirez's civil rights after an all-white jury in Schuylkill County cleared them of serious state charges last year.
Prosecutors allege that Piekarsky delivered 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 and testified against his former friends last week.
Donchak took part in the fight and then conspired with Shenandoah police to cover up the crime, federal prosecutors say.
Jurors on Tuesday heard from an important witness to Ramirez's attack: Josh Redmond, the only teen who wasn't drunk that night. He also has never been charged with a crime, unlike other teens testifying for the prosecution who defense attorneys say have motive to lie.
The fight began late in the evening when a half-dozen drunken teens were walking home from a block party and came across Ramirez and his 15-year-old girlfriend in a park. A verbal altercation escalated into a brawl. Ramirez threw the first punch, Redmond said.
Prosecutors allege the teens met the next day to come up with a cover story, omitting that they had been drinking, that racial slurs were uttered and that there was a kick.
Redmond agreed that he and his friends made a pact to lie about what happened — but only because one of them, Brian Scully, had already given a false statement to police.
"It would sound like Brian was lying if we all came out with different stories," Redmond said.
Redmond, who has since joined the Navy, also testified that he heard Donchak yell a slur at Ramirez at the beginning of the fight. But he said he didn't hear Piekarsky call Ramirez any derogatory names.
He also contradicted a key prosecution claim: that Piekarsky screamed, after kicking Ramirez in the head, "You tell your Mexican friends to get the (expletive) out of Shenandoah or you're going to be (expletive) laying next to him!"
Scully, not Piekarsky, made the statement, according to Redmond. The defense accuses Scully of being the kicker.