The Justice Department announced on Dec. 15, 2009 that it had handed down indictments to two teenagers in the rural Pennsylvania town of Shenandoah for their participation in the beating death of Luis Ramirez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, in July 2008. The indictments came after a Schuylkill County jury acquitted Brandon Piekarsky, 17, of third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation and Derrick Donchak, 19, of aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Instead, Piekarsky was convicted of simple assault, a misdemeanor, and given a sentence of six to 23 months in prison. Donchak was convicted of simple assault and corruption of minors and received a sentence of seven to 23 months. A third teen, Colin Walsh, accepted a plea bargain and is serving a four year sentence in federal prison.
The teens, all of whom are white, had just left a block party and were reportedly under the influence of alcohol the night of the beating. As many as six individuals, including Donchak, Walsh, and Piekarsky, allegedly provoked Ramirez with racial epithets before pummeling him with kicks and punches. The street brawl left the 25-year-old immigrant, who for six years made a living picking strawberries and cherries and working in factories, in a coma. He died from his injuries two days later.
The new federal indictments now charge the two teens with federal hate crimes that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. In addition, three Shenandoah police officers have also been charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy for allegedly covering up the fatal beating by tampering with evidence and lying to FBI officials. One of the officers allegedly gave the teens a ride home from the crime scene while advising them to “get their story straight.” Each officer faces up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction of justice charge and five years on the conspiracy charge.
The beating death and its aftermath have raised racial tensions in the small mining town located approximately 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Yet, many see the tragic events of Shenandoah–where the Latino population has grown from 2.8 percent in 2000 to approximately 10 percent today–as representative of the country at large. To some, the arrival of immigrants from Latin American countries means that fewer jobs are left available to other members of the labor force, particularly in blue collar towns like Shenandoah. Others see the Latino population growth as threatening the U.S.’s cultural identity. The view shared by many in Shenandoah toward the changing demographics, however, seems to contradict its long-standing reputation as a melting pot for ethnic groups that include Irish, Greek, Italian, and Lithuanian communities.
“This town is a place where people can be very kind, but there are also a lot of folks who don’t like change and they don’t like people who are different, and they make sure you know it,” said Fernando Bermejo, of Puerto Rican origin who moved to Shenandoah from the South Bronx. Bermejo’s son, Felix, was himself physically threatened by white schoolmates shortly after the highly-publicized acquittal.
With Latinos expected to account for approximately 16% of the total U.S. population after the 2010 census is conducted, what does Shenandoah reveal about the future of race relations in the U.S.? The most recent issue of the Hate Crime Statistics, a report compiled annually by the FBI, found that 64% of all hate crimes committed in 2008 based on perceived ethnicity or national origin targeted Latinos, up from 61% in 2007. This follows an increase of almost 40% between 2003 and 2006, when the immigration reform debate was heating up in Washington. While hate crimes against Latinos are nothing new–some reported in the Southwest as early as 1848–studies conducted by advocacy groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center suggest, unfortunately, that the dramatic increase in the Latino population will likely result in a steady rise of crimes similar to those in Shenandoah.
Larry Banda, a second-year student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, is NLLSA’s Central Regional Director.