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Town struggles with fallout from immigrant's fatal beating

  • Story Highlights
  • Luis Ramirez, 25, dies July 14 after beating by group of white teens
  • 4 teens, all good students and athletes, charged with hate crime; two with homicide
  • Justice Department's civil rights division opens criminal investigation
  • Teens had been drinking; attorneys say it was a fight that got out of hand
  • Next Article in Crime »
By Emanuella Grinberg
CNN
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SHENANDOAH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- By the time help arrived, Luis Ramirez lay convulsing in the middle of the street, foam running from his mouth.

Football players Brandon Piekarsy, Colin Walsh and Derrick Donchak are charged with ethnic intimidation.

Crystal Dillman displays the religious medal worn by her fiance, Luis Ramirez, who died from a beating.

Blows had struck the 25-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant with such force that they left a clotted, bruised impression of Jesus Christ on the skin of his chest from the religious medal he wore.

His attackers were white teenagers, including star students and football players, witnesses told police.

After a night of drinking, the teens taunted the undocumented worker with racial epithets, pummeled him to the ground and then kicked him in the head, court documents charge. He died in a hospital two days later.

It took almost two weeks for arrests to be made. But on July 25, Colin J. Walsh, 17, and Brandon J. Piekarsky, 16, were charged as adults with homicide and ethnic intimidation.

Derrick M. Donchak, 18, was charged as an adult with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation and an unnamed juvenile was also charged with assault. The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday that its civil rights division has opened a criminal investigation.

Defense attorneys for two of the teens say Ramirez responded to the name-calling with his own insults, which escalated the confrontation into a fight that got out of hand.

The words allegedly hurled at Ramirez, and the perceived sentiments behind them, led prosecutors to label his death a hate crime.

Without the ethnic intimidation charges, many in Shenandoah believe that the case would not be drawing attention to this depressed northeastern Pennsylvania coal town of 5,000. Residents question whether the attack was racially motivated or just an alcohol-fueled confrontation among kids. Photo See a gallery of the key players »

Ramirez had spent July 12 with friends Arielle and Victor Garcia in their home. About 11 p.m., he asked them to drive him and a 15-year-old girl home, a probable cause affidavit says.

They got as far as a dusty park on Vine Street when Ramirez asked the couple to drop them off so they could walk. What happened next depends on the narrator, but everyone seems to agree that the first comments were directed toward the girl and Ramirez.

"Isn't it a little late for you guys to be out?" the boys said, according to court documents. "Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here."

Racial slurs followed, and Ramirez responded. Punches were thrown, and Ramirez fell to the ground. Then Ramirez used his cell phone to call Arielle and Victor Garcia for help.

The fight seemed to be over by the time the Garcias responded. But in an instant, the taunts resumed.

It is unclear who threw the first insult. Ramirez was knocked to the ground again and kicked in the head. He went into convulsions, said Arielle Garcia, who witnessed the second part of the fight. Garcia, 17, told police she knew some of the assailants from school. Video Watch Arielle Garcia's eyewitness account »

By this time, Eileen Burke, a retired Philadelphia police officer, had stepped out of her home after hearing Arielle Garcia's pleas to stop the beating.

Burke recalled hearing one final, ominous threat as the teens ran. "They yelled, 'You effin bitch, tell your effin Mexican friends get the eff out of Shenandoah or you're gonna be laying effin next to him,' " she said.

Ramirez was taken off life support two days after the fight. His body was flown back to his mother in Guanajuato, Mexico, with donations from parishioners from Annunciation Church in Shenandoah.

"There's outrage among Anglos and Latinos over what happened, and I think that's representative of the attitude here," said the Rev. George Winne, who is in charge of Hispanic ministries at Annunciation.

Others in town pull over their cars at the sight of a stranger and recite a litany of attacks allegedly perpetrated by Latinos against Anglos. They refuse to give their names but acknowledge that Ramirez did not deserve to die. They say violence has been brewing between the races for some time.

Attorneys for two of the teens deny that Ramirez was targeted because of his race.

"Let's call it what it was it was: a street fight, a chance encounter with a tragic outcome," said Frederick Fanelli, who represents Piekarsky.

Fanelli said he plans to investigate whether Ramirez has a criminal background. He also questions why the engaged father of three was walking on the street with the girl, and the nature of their relationship. Ramirez's fiancee says he was walking her younger sister home.

A lawyer for Walsh said he is equally skeptical about the ethnic intimidation charge. "They called each other names. The victim was calling them obscenities, vulgar names, and they said things back to him that would hurt him," Roger Laguna said. "It just means it was a foul-mouthed argument, not ethnic intimidation."

Ramirez died just as things were falling into place for him and Crystal Dillman, 24, the woman he planned to marry.

They met in Shenandoah in 2005 through the Garcias and had two children, Kiara and Eduardo, and Ramirez assumed the role of father to Dillman's daughter from a previous relationship, Angelina.

By May, Ramirez had settled in Shenandoah, working two jobs after spending six months picking berries in Georgia.

"He worked hard so his kids would have more than he had growing up," Dillman said. "He talked a lot about how we take so much for granted here."

His diamond-encrusted religious medal, which cost him $300, now hangs over the fireplace in the three-story home on Main Street where Dillman and the children live.

"I just don't understand how you can beat someone so badly when you don't even know them," Dillman said. "People here are just ignorant. They think life begins and ends in Shenandoah." Video Watch Dillman talk about her fears for the future »

A court affidavit identifies Walsh and Piekarsky as the teens who delivered the fatal blows: Walsh punched Ramirez in the face and knocked him to the ground. Piekarsky then is said to have kicked Ramirez in the head.

Michael Walsh is struggling to comprehend how his boy -- a straight-A student who juggled track, football and school -- could stand accused of killing another person when he should be starting his senior year in high school.

"It's very stressing because you just don't expect it. If you had a child that's constantly in trouble, you'd say, hey, well, this is coming any day," he said.

"Colin was a great kid and fell into a bad situation. He never really gave me any trouble," he added. "I feel sorry for the families and anyone who cares about Mr. Ramirez." Video Watch Walsh describe his family's 'nightmare' »

"You would be proud to have any of these kids in your classroom, and any of them as your children," said Fanelli, Piekarsky's lawyer. "To this point in their lives, they have done everything right."

Besides his academic achievement, Piekarsky worked part-time at Sears and made the varsity football team as a sophomore. He is a National Honors student.

His mother postponed her wedding to a Shenandoah police officer because of the incident.

Walsh and Piekarsky are being held in solitary confinement in an adult jail in nearby Pottsville. They are awaiting a preliminary hearing.

Donchak was the team's quarterback last year and graduated in May. He planned to attend Bloomsburg University in the fall. He is out on bail.

The racial spotlight falls on the region nearly a year after a federal court struck down proposed anti-immigration laws in nearby Hazleton. City officials had passed a law to fine landlords and employers who dealt with illegal immigrants. The city is appealing.

Although Schuylkill County is 96 percent white, Shenandoah has taken pride in its ethnic diversity. European immigrants came to work anthracite mines in the late 19th century. Pizza joints, German bakeries and Polish grocers on Main Street serve as reminders of that time.

The town hit hard times after World War II and saw its population tumble from 20,000 to about 5,000, leaving about one in three homes vacant.

Latinos began to arrive about 20 years ago, heading to the fields and distribution centers that have become the new economic base.

Jose Calderon, a Puerto Rican who has lived in Shenandoah for two years, says he's not fearful. "These are the problems of the youth," he said.

On Main Street, where people gather on benches in front of the remaining storefronts, some members of the Anglo community are also outraged.

"The young guys around here are racist because they think they're so much better than everyone else," said Jessica Lane, 18, as her 2-year-old son, Damien, squirmed in her lap.

Shenandoah officials now acknowledge a racial element of Ramirez's death.

Regardless of perception of tension, many Latinos and Anglos have formed interracial relationships, like those of Dillman and Ramirez, and their friends the Garcias, who have a son.

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Mixed couples and their children sat among other Latino couples at Annunciation Church's Sunday Spanish-language Mass. As the service began, a white woman approached Dillman and hugged her.

"I have such survivor's guilt," she confessed.

All About Hate CrimesRacial IssuesMurder and Homicide

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