A Town Torn Apart

updated 09/08/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Screams roused Eileen Burke just as she was falling asleep shortly before midnight on July 12. At first she thought it was the usual high school kids making a ruckus at the small park across the street. But when the screaming didn't stop, Burke, a retired Philadelphia cop, went to the window and witnessed a chaotic scene: Six to ten kids were gathered in a circle on the street while others ran back and forth. "I heard them scream 'Mexicans!'" she says. "Then I heard a high-pitched screeching, and a girl said, 'Stop kicking him! Stop beating him!'" Burke called 911 but it was already too late. Luis Ramirez, 25, was dying from head injuries. Two days later, doctors unplugged him from life support. His fiancée, Crystal Dillman, was at his bedside. "I laid my head on his chest," she says, "held his hand and cried."

Now not only is Ramirez gone but his death has inflamed long-simmering ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, Pa., where the Hispanic population has more than tripled since 2000 and where officials once considered enacting a controversial law that would penalize landlords who rent to illegals and businesses who employ them. Prosecutors say the accused—three white teenaged boys whose once-promising futures are now in doubt—spewed anti-Hispanic epithets at Ramirez during the brawl. Apparently the confrontation began when the teenagers spotted Ramirez, an illegal immigrant, walking in the park with a 15-year-old white girl. One of the friends of the three defendants told the girl, "Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here."

Awaiting trial sometime next year, Colin Walsh, 17, and Brandon Piekarsky, 16, are charged with third-degree murder, ethnic intimidation and other offenses while Derrick Donchak, 18, faces charges including aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. A judge threw out first and second degree murder charges against Piekarsky and Walsh at their six-hour preliminary hearing Aug. 18. If convicted, they could face lengthy prison terms. Meanwhile, about 40 out-of-town Latino-rights protesters showed up outside the hearing, adding tension to an already nerve-racking situation. "Everyone's divided, with their own take on it," says Lou Ann Pleva, 49, who is of Polish descent and grew up in Shenandoah. "A lot of people are afraid to say anything. Even people like me are asking are we going to be targets?"

With the small town (pop. 5,200) in turmoil, religious and Hispanic leaders have each held peace vigils, and the mayor has proposed an advisory commission. Yet people are worried about what will happen next. "We have heard some kids made some comments that there would be a retaliation," says Gladys Limon, staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Limon attended an Aug. 18 school board meeting and expressed her concerns about safety for Latino students. After the local newspaper ran a story about the meeting, several readers responded on the comments link. "Someone's Mom" wrote, "Intimidation goes both ways! While you're making sure the 'white' kids aren't harassing latinos, PLEASE make sure the latinos aren't harassing the 'white' kids."

Shenandoah, which has seen coal mine after coal mine close, has been hard-pressed economically. Yet, says Crystal Dillman, 24, it was economic opportunity that drew Ramirez from Mexico 5 1/2 years ago. Most recently he was working two jobs, one in a factory and the other picking cherries and cutting down trees. He wanted to become a U.S. citizen but couldn't afford the legal fees. "He came here with just the clothes on his back," she says. The couple had two children together—Kiara, 2, and Eduardo, 1—and she has one daughter, Anjelina, from a previous relationship. Though the pair got engaged shortly after they met three years ago, they were not married, nor living together, when he died. "He wanted a real wedding," says Dillman, "but we just didn't have the money."

The accused, on the other hand, seemed to live charmed lives. In a part of the country where football is considered a second religion, they were all popular football players at Shenandoah Valley High School, with good grades and hopes of attending college. Donchak, a quarterback, graduated in June and planned to attend Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa. Today he is out on bail and looking for a job instead. Now that the more serious murder charges have been thrown out, both Walsh and Piekarsky have had their bail set at $50,000 and are expected to be freed soon. "They're nice. They're funny. Intelligent," says one friend. "There's nothing not to like about them." And until the night of the beating, none had a criminal record. But that evening, the boys and other friends had been drinking for several hours when they ran into Ramirez, who had also been drinking, walking with his fiancée's half-sister in the Vine Street Park around 11:15 p.m. (Dillman said in court she doesn't know if the two were seeing each other.) Defense attorneys say the confrontation was a street fight gone bad, and Ramirez gave as good as he got. According to Roger Laguna, Walsh's attorney, "Some of the most vulgar and obscene names were called from both sides, including Mr. Ramirez."

The deeply polarizing effect of Ramirez's death has shocked many residents, including Pleva. "The fact that the murder victim is an illegal is something people grab on to," she says. "They'll say, 'He shouldn't have been here,' as if that justifies it." Still, Dillman, who once expressed doubt she would see justice, is now hopeful. "Part of me believes I will because it's gotten so much media attention. I don't know. I guess I'm just torn."

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