Shenandoah, PA – For more than five years, Carlos Vega has fought to bring the police officers he believes are responsible for his son’s death to justice. “They killed my boy,” Carlos told The Feral Scribe late last month. “I’m going to get justice for David.”
David Vega was an 18-year-old high school student on Nov. 28, 2004, when he and his younger brother fell into a heated verbal argument on their porch. Hearing the commotion, neighbors began stepping from their homes, one of whom called police. Two officers arrived and David began mouthing off. He was arrested. Two hours later he was dead. Police told his parents that he’d hanged himself in his cell. “That’s bullshit,” says Carlos, a former chef who was disabled in a 2000 car wreck. “David was going to college. He had a girlfriend. He had everything to live for. They beat him until he died.”
David didn’t have a shirt on when he was arrested. “There are 20 people who say he didn’t have a bruise on him when they cuffed him,” Carlos said. But when Carlos viewed the body, David was covered with bruises. The Schuylkill County coroner accepted Shenandoah police chief Matthew Nestor’s explanation that the bruises resulted from David’s resisting arrest. Carlos promptly hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit against the officers and the borough of Shenandoah.
According to the lawsuit, a second autopsy confirmed David “suffered extensive, massive injuries consistent with a profound beating… The defendant did not die of hanging.”
Further, the suit alleges that “while in police custody… [David] was beaten to death and then hung from the bars of a holding cell to make it appear as if he had committed suicide.”
Matthew Nestor or Capt. Jamie Gennarini, the other officer named in the suit, have never been charged criminally with David’s death. However, Nestor, Gennarini, and two other former Shenandoah police officers were indicted last December on charges they helped four teens cover-up the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant in 2008. Nestor and Gennarini were also indicted separately in a scheme to extort money from illegal gambling operations and for trying to extort money from the family of a local businessman in exchange for his release from their custody.
Police, according to the suit, “acted as feudal warlords in this coal town community that people were afraid of.”
Through their attorneys, the indicted former officers, deny any wrongdoing.
“You have to watch yourself with these cops,” said Carlos, who can rarely go out in public without encountering those he believes killed his son. “You have to follow the rules of their kingdom. The consequences can be very serious.”
Shenandoah, located about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is nested in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. A Civil War-era boom town, Shenandoah enjoyed many years of prosperity, with a thriving business district, strong Polish and Italian heritage, and a population that, at its peak, approached 27,000. Leona, a local woman I met while visiting, said she moved to Shenandoah in 1959. Her fiance owned a dry cleaning business on Main Street. “On Saturday nights, everyone used to get dressed up and went out. Main Street was filled with people dining out or going to the picture shows,” she recalls. “It was a lovely community.”
But slowly, Shenandoah slipped into decline. In the 1960s, the coal mines shut down, followed by the textile factories in the 1980s. Interstate 81 re-routed much of the through traffic Main Street merchants relied on for business. Merchants that weathered the traffic decreases were eventually forced to close once malls in nearby Hazelton and Pottsville opened. According to Leona, who asked that he last name be withheld, most of those raised in Shenandoah during this time left for college and never returned. Older residents died off, leaving a huge surplus of vacant housing and commercial space. Over time, Shenandoah became a sort of repository for Schuylkill County’s poorest residents, most of whom work low-wage service industry jobs.
Today, empty commercial space blights Shenandoah’s main drag. “Everything has deteriorated so much,” says Leona, who recently turned 79. “It makes me so sad, but I’m too old to move.”
Over the last decade, Shenandoah’s Spanish-speaking population has swelled. When Carlos, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican, moved here 19 years ago, there weren’t any other Hispanics in the area. But now, there are a few Spanish restaurants and food stores. Of Shenandoah’s remaining 5,000 residents, 10 percent are Hispanic. With the shifting demographics has come considerable racial tension.
Carlos, 45, says he received a chilly reception when he moved here to be near his then-girlfriend’s ailing father. But not until his three sons started school did the racism become confrontational. “They were called names, bullied,” he says. “They’d get into fights, that sort of thing.”
After David’s death, rumors swirled that police had killed the boy, but nothing came of it. It wasn’t until four years later, after the fatal beating of 25-year-old Luis Ramirez, did the justice Carlos sought seem likely.
Late on July 12, 2008, Luis Ramirez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was walking home his girlfriend’s sister on a residential street when he encountered four teens, players on Shenandoah’s high school football team. According to the criminal complaint, the teens, each of them drunk, began hurling epithets at Ramirez, calling him a dirty spic, among other things, baiting him into a fight. A brawl ensued, with the four teens punching and kicking Ramirez.
The fight soon dispersed, but when one of the teens shouted, “Go home you Mexican fuck!” Ramirez turned to attack him. The teens unleashed a series of blows on Ramirez, knocking him to the ground. As Ramirez struggled to get up, Brandon Piekarsky, then 17, delivered a fatal kick to Ramirez’s head. The teens fled as the father of two lay convulsing in the street. Doctor’s noted that Ramirez had been so badly beaten that when he was opened up for surgery, his brain literally oozed from his skull. He died two days later.
Piekarsky was charged with third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation. Three other teens, including 19-year-old Derrick Donchak, were charged with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. In May 2009, all were acquitted by an all-white jury of the most serious charges. Pierkarsky and Donchak received six month jail terms after being convicted of misdemeanor simple assault.
Following the acquittals, the teens’ supporters organized a “victory celebration.” The party was canceled following the June 2009 shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. The celebration’s keynote speaker was to be neo-Nazi John de Nugent, the best friend of the museum shooter, James von Brunn.
The Feral Scribe contacted Ramirez’s girlfriend, Crystal Dillman, who is also the mother of his children, but she was unable to comment without approval from her attorney.
Schuylkill County prosecutor James Goodman also wouldn’t speak with The Feral Scribe because of the upcoming federal trials, but he told other media outlets last December that he knew early on that his case against the teens had been compromised. He contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Scranton, concerned about a potential cover-up, and asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. “[Police] didn’t interview… the boys,” Goodman told CNN last December. “In fact, not only did they not interview them, they picked them up, gave them rides, helped them concoct stories, brought them back and told the boys what to say.”
According to Goodman and the federal indictments, after beating Ramirez, Piekarsky contacted Shenandoah police officer Jason Hayes, who was dating Piekarsky’s mother, and Lt. William Moyer, whose son played football with the teens. Together they went to the scene of the brawl. Piekarsky then went to Donchak’s home and, with the other assailants, “created a false version of events to be incorporated in official police reports which omitted references to Piekarsky kicking [Ramirez] to authorities in official statements.”
The officers are accused of instructing the teens to dispose of their shoes, mischaracterizing witness accounts and creating false and misleading investigative reports, according to the indictment. Piekarsky and Donchak have been charged with federal hate crimes. Both remain jailed, as does former police chief Matthew Nestor. The other officers are free on bond while awaiting trial.
Even being the target of a federal investigation didn’t deter Matthew Nestor from reigning in his pervasive hostility toward minorities. In March 2009, two months before the acquittals in the Ramirez case, he arrested David Murphy, Sr., on simple drug possession. According to a handwritten affidavit, Murphy, who is black, alleges that after his arrest, Nestor refused to let him take his blood-thinner medication, then punched him in the back where he’d recently undergone spinal fusion surgery. According to attorney John Karoly, who also represents Murphy, Nestor left Murphy alone overnight in the police station, during which time he suffered a heart attack in his holding cell.
Nestor returned the next morning to take Murphy to his arraignment hearing, but the judge, seeing that Murphy needed medical attention, ordered Nestor to take Murphy to the hospital. Instead, Nestor took Murphy to the Schuylkill County jail, which refused to admit him. Finally, Nestor dropped Murphy off at the hospital, telling Murphy that if he made it out alive he’d end up “like that Mexican who ‘hung’ himself,” referring to David Vega, who was Puerto Rican.
Upon being released from the hospital, Murphy filed a handwritten affidavit detailing his ordeal.
According to Karoly, criminal charges are still possible, especially in the David Vega case. “There is no statute of limitations on murder,” he said.
Carlos Vega hopes that with the arrest of Matthew Nestor, and the indictments of the other officers, that Shenandoah will be safer for minorities, especially the area’s Hispanics. “I hope we get it to change,” he said. “People should be treated the same way. And when you’re in police custody you should be safe, all of the time.”
David’s birthday passed on May 5. “My boy would’ve been 26,” Carlos said. “I miss him. I don’t feel safe here, but I’m not going to let them chase me. If I leave, then they win. I need to stay here and fight for David. I’ve been through a lot, but I’m still standing.”