Pa. ex-cops accused of cover-up get split verdict

January 27, 2011 5:18:44 PM PST
A federal jury on Thursday rejected most of the government's case against three former municipal police officers accused of hindering an FBI investigation into the beating death of an illegal Mexican immigrant but nevertheless convicted one of them of a charge that could send him to prison for decades.

Former Shenandoah police chief Matthew Nestor and subordinates William Moyer and Jason Hayes were accused of helping a group of white high school football players conceal their roles in the July 2008 attack on 25-year-old Luis Ramirez in the small, ethnically charged town in northeastern Pennsylvania.

But jurors appeared to disagree with the government's theory that police orchestrated a cover-up, clearing all three defendants of conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation.

The jurors deliberated 14 hours over two days before reaching a split verdict in the case.

Nestor was found guilty of falsifying his police report, a charge that carries up to 20 years in prison. Moyer was found guilty of lying to the FBI but was acquitted of four other counts. Hayes, who's engaged to the mother of one of Ramirez's attackers, was acquitted of both charges against him. In all, the jury convicted on two of nine counts.

Prosecutors alleged that police plotted to shield the teenage assailants from being held responsible for the assault because they had close personal ties to them. The officers testified in their own defense and denied they had done anything wrong.

"I feel terrific," a jubilant Hayes said on the courthouse steps after the verdict.

Hayes said he's already applied for a job with the Shenandoah police department, though it was unclear whether he wants his old job back or another position. All three officers resigned from the force shortly after they were charged in December 2009.

Thursday's verdict came a little more than three months after two of the athletes who beat and kicked Ramirez were convicted of a federal hate crime. Derrick Donchak, 20, and Brandon Piekarsky, 19, face a maximum of life in prison when they are sentenced next month.

Ramirez was knocked unconscious and then kicked in the head as he fought with four drunken teenagers walking home from a block party late on July 12, 2008. Ramirez, a native of the small central Mexican town of Iramuco, died in a hospital of his injuries.

The cover-up began almost immediately, prosecutors said.

Dispatched to the scene of the fight, prosecutors said, Hayes and Moyer failed to detain and question the teenagers, as would be routine, giving them an opportunity to concoct a cover story in which they falsely told authorities that no one was drunk, did any kicking or used any ethnic slurs.

Piekarsky's mother told the teens they needed to "get their stories straight" because Hayes, her longtime boyfriend, had warned her of the possibility of a homicide investigation, prosecutors said.

The government alleged that Moyer separately tried to get the parents of one teen to destroy a pair of sneakers worn during the assault and told another teen to coordinate his story with the other assailants - but the jury sided with the former lieutenant, clearing him of evidence tampering and witness tampering counts.

Moyer insisted Thursday that he did not lie to federal investigators, the sole charge for which he was convicted and faces a maximum of five years in prison. Prosecutors said Moyer lied about what a 911 caller had told him on the night of the fight.

"This last charge I was found guilty of had nothing to do with the Ramirez investigation," he told reporters. "It was me cooperating and telling the FBI the truth. But I'm very thankful I was found not guilty of the other charges."

He added that he was sorry for "the hurt and the loss" felt by Ramirez's family, his teenage assailants and their families. The guilty verdict against Nestor caught some by surprise in light of the relative lack of testimony about his police report. Nestor's attorney, Joseph Nahas, pledged an appeal.

"Obviously, I'm shocked," he said. "I didn't think there was any evidence whatsoever that Matthew made a false police report. His police report was accurate."

Department of Justice prosecutors declined comment as they left the courthouse.

It was the third trial to stem from Ramirez's death. 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 acquittal prompted Justice to pursue a civil rights prosecution.

The fight revealed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town in northeastern Pennsylvania whose largely white population swelled with Hispanic immigrants seeking jobs in factories and farm fields.

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