Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Small Immigrant Town Simmers in the Wake Of a Brutal Murder

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; C01


Of all the stories this tough little coal town has to tell -- stories of industrial might, bloody strikes, black lungs; stories of Friday night football, Saturday night drinking, Sunday morning praying; and now, the story of a sensational murder -- its favorite tale unfolds on a Saturday every August.

This is Heritage Day, when Shenandoah celebrates what it considers one of the best things it's still got going, besides the high school
football team: the story of how for 150 years the community has
embraced succeeding generations of immigrants. The highlight of
Heritage Day is the Parade of Nations. Descendants of each nationality in the town of 5,600 line up, alphabetically, on Jardin Street for the procession up Main Street.

"We have 18, if everybody shows up," says grand marshal Val MacDonald, clad in 20the plaid of her Scottish clan. "Here's my China. There are the Bulgarians."

The Germans wearing bonnets and broad-brim hats stand in patient
ranks. Polkas blaring from the Lithuanians' gold Chevy convertible
compete with rancheras pumping from the Mexicans' red Chevy truck.

The Mexicans! Everyone keeps an eye on the Mexicans, luminous in their shiny cowboy boots, swirling folk dresses, white suits and sombreros.

Not everyone was sure the Mexicans would attend this year. Not after
the brawl that got out of hand -- as non-Latinos refer to what
happened one Saturday night in July. Not after a popular group of
current and former high school football players beat Luis Eduardo
Ramirez to death because he was a Mexican immigrant -- as Latinos
summarize recent events.

It's been a brutal summer: families grieving, clean-cut local sons
charged with murder and "ethnic intimidation, " the Justice Department conducting its own investigation, big-city activists riding from over the hills like rival cavalries to conduct dueling demonstrations. And the beloved Blue Devils of the Anthracite Football League are forced to play with a depleted roster, owing to the criminal charges against three current or former players.

"It's a quiet town. Well, it was, until they murdered the Mexican,"
says Kitty Merrick, the widow of an Irish American, whose maiden name, Glabyte, places her in the Lithuan ian parade contingent.

The death of Ramirez, 25, threatened to undermine not just Heritage
Day, but Shenandoah's hard-earned idea of itself. This difficult
summer, it would be tough to find a more apt microcosm of the entire
imperfect nation of immigrants than little Shenandoah, struggling to
realize its ideals and reconcile its ironies.

The non-Hispanics lining Main Street applaud with more than mere
politeness as the dozen Mexican marchers come along.

"This is a special day when we are allowed to express our feelings
more than other days," Macario Velazquez says in Spanish. He's a
maintenance caretaker at Annunciation Church, the Irish parish where
the noon Mass is celebrated in Spanish.

On Heritage Day, says Velazquez, it's all right to wave a Mexican
flag, play music in Spanish, shout "¡Viva Mexico!" and "¡Andale!" in

But not every day is Heritage Day.
An Immigrant Legacy

Shenandoah -- pronounced "Shen-Doe" by residents -- is a square mile
of tightly packed rowhouses and church spires set in the green and
black hills of coal country west of Allentown. Nobody's had it easy
here, since the first hunk of hard anthracite was discovered in the

The English, Scotch and Welsh arrived first and ran the show. The
Germans and Irish followed and got stuck with the worst jobs, until
they dominated, and then it was the t urn of the Poles, Lithuanians,
Ukrainians, Slovakians, Italians, Jews, Syrians and Lebanese to elbow in. Few people of African descent ever lived in Shenandoah.

An initial adjustment period was always followed by acceptance, then
intermarriage, though the ethnic groups tended to cluster in their own neighborhoods, places of worship, cemeteries and sometimes even their own volunteer fire companies.

The first dozen or so Mexicans arrived in the late 1980s, long after
most mines had closed and the town was skidding into economic hard
times. They came to farm Christmas trees. They lived in the former
convent of the Lithuanian parish.

Even counting the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who moved from New York for the small-town atmosphere and the rock-bottom real estate prices, the Latino share of the population is small, perhaps 10 percent, compared with other parts of post-industrial Pennsylvania, such as Reading, where Latinos are the new majority.

Ramirez grew up in a poor farming and fishing town in the Mexican
state of Guanajuato. He crossed the border illegally. After getting
caught and deported once by immigration authorities in the Southwest, according to friends, he made it to Shenandoah in 2003 and got a job in a greenhouse. It was hot, heavy work for $6.50 an hour. The way he
pulled the heavy rail carts that conveyed flats of flowers in the
greenhouse reminded his friends of a horse, so they nicknamed him El
Caballo, or the horse. Most recently he held two jobs -- in a potato
chip factory and a fruit orchard.

About three years ago, through friends, Ramirez met Crystal Dillman,
now 24. She grew up around Shenandoah, the granddaughter of a coal
miner. The couple had ups and downs and separations, but they also had
two children, Kiara, now 2, and Eduardo, 1. Dillman also had a
daughter by a previous relationship, Anjelina, who was just an infant
when they met.

"What I saw in him was the fact he was very nice and respectful,"
Dillman says. "He took over being her father. I didn't ask him. From
Day One he was there for her. That really drew me to him."

For the Parade of Nations, six weeks after Ramirez's death, Dillman
dressed the children in Mexican red, green and white.
A Deadly 'Rumble'

What exactly happened on Saturday, July 12, is disputed by prosecutors and lawyers for the three young men who have been charged in the killing. Prosecutors paint a picture of murder and ethnic hatred; defense attorneys describe a fight with tragic but unintentional results.

According to charging documents and witness testimony at a preliminary hearing in the Schuylkill County courthouse, events unfolded like this:

After supper, Ramirez went out without telling Dillman where. He spent some time with friends -- a young married couple and Dillman's 15-year-old half sister.

Around 11:30 p.m., the couple gave Ramirez and the girl a ride to the Vine Street Park, a patch overlooking the high school and across from the football stadium. Ramirez had been drinking.

A few hours earlier, several current or former members of the football team met in the nearby woods where one of them had stashed a box of 1240-ounce bottles of Mickey's malt liquor. Several drank, and one said he polished off two bottles.

They visited the Polish American Fire Co. block party, and then a
group of six started walking toward the park. They saw the girl, whom some recognized from school, before they saw Ramirez.

"Isn't it a little late for you to be out?" called out Brian Scully, a
running back going into his senior year.

Ramirez came into view and shouted something in Spanish. The words
sounded unfriendly to Ben Lawson, 17, a defensive back, who testified
against his teammates. But Lawson didn't know for sure what Ramirez
said because he does not understand Spanish.

Then Scully hollered: "This is Shenandoah!" "This is America!" "Go
back to Mexico!"

Brandon Piekarsky, 16, a wide receiver and honors student, started
exchanging punches with Ramirez. Then Derrick Donchak, 18, the
quarterback who graduated last spring, joined in.

Ramirez fell and Donchak landed on top of him. A group of th ree
players stood around Ramirez, kicking him.

Ramirez got to his feet. There was a confusing "rumble" with punches
flying, Lawson testified. The end came when Ramirez had his attention
on Donchak, when Colin Walsh, 17, a linebacker and straight-A student,
landed a surprise blow to his face. Ramirez went down hard, his head
thumping on the pavement. While he was down, Piekarsky kicked him near
the left temple.

Ramirez, unconscious, started foaming at the mouth and "bouncing off
the road" with violent convulsions, testified Eileen Burke, a retired
Philadelphia police officer who had come outside her house at the
sound of the commotion.

Ramirez went into a coma and died two days later.

Thirteen days later, Piekarsky and Walsh were charged as adults with
third-degree murder, ethnic intimidation (Pennsylvania' s term for a
hate crime) and other crimes. Donchak was charged with aggravated
assault, ethnic intimidation and other crimes. Charges are pending
against another juvenile, according to District Attorney James Goodman.

That night, as the young men scattered, according to Burke, Piekarsky
shouted a final warning to one of Ramirez's two female friends by then
on the scene: "You [expletive] bitch! You tell your [expletive]
Mexican friends to get the [expletive] out of Shenandoah or you're
going to be laying [expletive] next to him!"
In the Aftermath

The words make Shenandoah wince, Latinos and non-Latinos alike. They
suggest a context for the violence. But what do they mean? Is
Shenandoah a racist place, its immigrants' pride and promise a cruel

Piekarsky and Walsh were held in the county prison, the same castle
where 130 years ago alleged members of the Molly Maguires, the secret
militant Irish miners' group, were hanged on dubious charges. The two
were led in shackles into the courtroom packed with their family and
friends, and the teenage girls filling one bench burst into tears.

Dillman sat in the front row, sobbing quietly. Her lone companion was
an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"Here we go again," Roger Laguna, Walsh's attorney, said later. "Hang
'em all, and 50 years from now we'll figure out maybe we should have
slowed down and demanded some facts or demanded some evidence."
Laguna, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, grew up around Reading
where he says he heard the term "spic" in plenty of playground fights.
"When people fight they call each other names," he said. "This fight
was not racially motivated simply because someone used racial terms."

The young men's attorneys challenge the credibility of witnesses and
their ability to pinpoint who said what and who landed which blows.
They also argue that Ramirez was an aggressor who kept the fight going
longer than it might have lasted.

It wasn't murder, "this was mutual combat," Piekarsky's attorney,
Frederick Fanelli, said in court. No trial date has been set. (The
families of the three accused did not respond to interview requests.)

Homicide in a small town is a tragedy with multiple roles for everybody.

Among the first Shenandoah police officers on the scene were one who
is a friend of Piekarsky's mother and another who is the father of a
teammate, according to a witness and local officials. Police knew
within hours who was involved but arrested no one for nearly two weeks.

The day after the beating, most of the players and at least some of
their parents went to Piekarsky's house. "We made up a plan that we
were going to tell the cops," Lawson testified. "That nobody kicked
him. There was no racial slurs. There was no booze. And Brian [Scully]
got hit first."
Shades of Tolerance

Outside the courthouse, a more complicated question than guilt or
innocence lingers: Does all of this say something larger, darker,
about Shenandoah -- and, by extension, the rest of us?

The soul of an immigrant town is examined, debated, prayed over in a
hundred locations within the intimate square mile, from Mrs. T's
Pierogies at one end to the crime scene and the football stadium at
the other.

"I don't think very many people say there is no prejudice here," says
=0 AMindy Heppe, pastor of the historically German St. John's Evangelical
Lutheran Church. "On the other hand, I don't think you can call it a
polarized community. I think you could say there are parallel
communities with very little overlap." She is leading an effort to
have everyone make a flag expressing unity.

"These kids are not bad kids," says Joe Sobinsky, a bus driver at the high school. "They're normal coal region kids. They got in a fight and people got hurt." Sobinsky tells the Latino kids on his bus not to
speak Spanish because non-Latinos think they're talking about them.
Once a Latino sophomore told him, "You're picking on me because I'm
brown!" Sobinsky pointed to the Polish Italian olive hue of his own
skin and said: "Before you got here I was the brownest. So you got two
shades on me -- now get back in line!"

Sobinsky offers Shenandoah's highest praise to that parallel
community: "The Mexicans are the hardest-working people I've ever seen
in my life. They're from an old country. That's how our grandparents
were." The same themes are discussed inside the parallel community --
on front porches where families relax and chat in Spanish, at the
Spanish Mass where they pray for tolerance, in the handful of Latino
businesses that have opened among the empty storefronts.

Different conclusions are reached. Yet the feelings about Shenandoah
are complicated.

"Mo st of the young people cause problems for Hispanics," Jorge Perez,
owner of La Guadalupana market, says in Spanish. "They don't get along
with us."

He has lived in Shenandoah for two decades. "There are people who
criticize you for coming from another country," he says. "Sometimes
you don't want to argue with them. . . . They want to provoke us to go
from Shenandoah."

He keeps a collection box on the counter to raise funds for the family
of the man he knew as El Caballo. Ramirez's swollen face in his
hospital bed fills the cover of a Spanish-language newspaper on a shelf.

"The community is a little intimidated, " Perez says. "You're afraid it
might happen to you."

"If these kids go to jail, everything will be okay," says Felix
Bermejo, a Puerto Rican attending church services in Spanish, in the
tradition of local churches that used to celebrate in German, Polish
and Italian. "If they don't go to jail, or they get out in six months
or a year, there's going to be a lot of trouble."

The Latinos are shocked that the events of July 12 passed so far
beyond the frequent hurtful words and suspicious looks. Lethal
violence is not part of the Shenandoah they still appreciate, on some

"Thank God, and this country, we have the little we do have," says
Perez, who recently wired $600 to his family in Mexico to buy seeds
for=2 0their farm. "There are Americans who are very special and very
good" in Shenandoah.

But to survive in Shenandoah, the Latinos learn to take precautions.
They avoid appearing on Main Street after dark. The strip is the
province of non-Latino teens and 20-somethings who loiter in large
groups outside the pizza restaurants. It's sometimes referred to as
the "jock block."

Unlike the out-of-town Latino activists, the Latinos of Shenandoah are
not the demonstrating kind. They settle for invisibility, except on
Heritage Day.

"When things happen, you keep quiet," Perez says.
Fragile Roots

The Blue Devils lost their first game, 19-6, last Friday night.

The names in the huddle (Semanchik, Whalen, Polosky, Sadja,
Amberlavage) conjure the same old countries as the names on the Miners
Memorial at the top of Main Street and the names on the tombstones dug
into the bluff overlooking the town.

The generations came, and they worked and played and then they died --
and then for half a century after the coal business died, they stopped
coming. Maybe Shenandoah forgot how to handle the truly new.

The Latinos haven't been here long enough to fill a burial ground yet,
nor claim many spots on the football team. Their new roots are
fragile, their identity in transition. Ramirez's body was sent back to
his mother in Mexico -- with financial help from the Irish and Italian
parishes in Shenandoah. His favorite white Michigan State baseball cap
was placed on his head to cover the scars.

"I really thought it was so ironic when I saw this thing in the news,
because I've always talked about Shenandoah as a model of the American
melting pot," says poet Joseph Awad, whose Lebanese and Irish
grandfathers worked in the mines, and who once was grand marshal of
the Parade of Nations.

"Let's not say we're having a lovefest with one another," says Dennis
Yezulinas, Lithuanian on his father's side, Irish on his mother's,
sipping coffee on Main Street. He makes doors for a living. "We never
did have a lovefest here in Shenandoah. It's people trying to get by,
in a low-income blue-collar area, the best way they know how."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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