2009-04-30 / Local & State

Fiancee, Coal Town Brace For Hate Crime Trial


SHENANDOAH, Pennsylvania (AP) - Though she'd never been to Mexico, Crystal Dillman somehow felt at home the moment she stepped inside the small concrete house in Iramuco. She ascended the stairs to the third floor and crossed the threshold of a spare, blue-tiled bedroom.

Luis' bedroom.

Dillman sank into a chair and began to cry. Luis is here, she thought, and just like that, the sadness was replaced by a feeling of joy. For the first time since that horrible day in Pennsylvania, Dillman felt the presence of her fiance, Luis Ramirez, the father of her children, the immigrant who slipped into the United States illegally to work, only to return to Mexico in a coffin.

Five months after that emotional trip to his hometown, Dillman is back in Shenandoah and steeling herself for one of the most difficult ordeals of her life - the trial of two white teenagers charged in the fatal beating, which prosecutors call a hate crime.

Testimony begins Monday at the Schuylkill County Courthouse in Pottsville, where police are bracing for protests by activists on both sides of the immigration divide. Demonstrators will be kept a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometers) away.

"I'm nervous, kind of scared and a little worried,'' Dillman said from the doorstep of her Shenandoah rowhouse, not far from the park where Ramirez crossed paths with his attackers July 12. "I'm so worried that something's going to go wrong or they're going to be found not guilty.''

Ramirez was beaten, authorities say, by teenage football players who had been out drinking in Shenandoah, a small northeastern Pennsylvania coal town 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia. Authorities say the teens yelled ethnic slurs as they punched and kicked Ramirez, a 25-year-old farmhand and factory worker.

An all-white jury will decide the fate of Brandon Piekarsky, 17, who is charged with thirddegree murder, and Derrick Donchak, 19, who faces an aggravated assault rap. The two friends, who are being tried together, have also been charged with ethnic intimidation.

Police say a third teen, Colin Walsh, 17, punched Ramirez in the face, while Piekarsky kicked him in the head as he lay unconscious in the street. Walsh has pleaded guilty in federal court, but documents in his case have been sealed, and it's not clear whether he will testify against Piekarsky and Donchak.

The attack left Ramirez in convulsions and foaming at the mouth, but defense attorneys say the victim also threw punches.

"As we've said all along, this has not been a hate crime. This was a street fight that ended tragically,'' said Frederick Fanelli, Piekarsky's lawyer. "And finally now, after all these months, we get a chance to tell the story.''

The district attorney has declined to comment on the case. But Dillman, 25, who is white and grew up in Shenandoah, dismisses talk that Ramirez's death was unintentional. She says Ramirez was often called derogatory names, including "dirty Mexican,'' and told to return to his homeland.

Police have documented tensions among whites and Shenandoah's growing Hispanic population.

"It's not an accident,'' Dillman said. "An accident is knowing what you did wrong and trying to make it right. People could say it was a street fight gone wrong all they want. I don't feel it was. If it was truly a street fight gone wrong, they would have tried to help him.''

In November, Dillman traveled with her three young children to Iramuco, a small town (pop. 6,000) in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. There, she found solace in getting to know Ramirez's family, sleeping in his bedroom, even looking at his childhood artwork.

One day, she walked 45 minutes over dusty roads to his grave.

"Where's Daddy?'' she asked their children, all under age 5. They ignored the tomb and pointed to the sky instead.

Because Ramirez helped support his family in Mexico, his death has been a financial blow, as well as an emotional one. His sister doesn't earn much money at her job at a children's clothing store. An aunt and uncle who live in California send cash when they can, but it's a struggle, Dillman said.

It's a struggle, too, for Dillman, whose children still ask for their father.

Since the homicide, she has applied for jobs at warehouses, factories, day cares and health providers, but no one is hiring. She suspects the economy isn't the only reason.

"Even when we go to the store, some people are really ignorant. They treat us like we're not wanted and not welcomed,'' Dillman said.

"It does bother me to a point, but I'm not going to let it get me down,'' she said. "I'm not going to let it stop me from fighting for justice.''

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