"Isn't it a little late for you guys to be out?" one teen reportedly asked Luis Eduardo Ramirez, 25, and the girl as they walked near a park after 11 p.m. one Saturday last month. "Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here!"
This pocket of blue-collar America, where big-band musicians Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey got their start, is spinning in the ugly vortex of the nation's racially charged war over illegal Immigration. Federal officials have launched an investigation into last month's murder to determine if it is part of a rising trend of anti-Latino hate crimes around the country.
"We are reaping what we, as a nation, have [sown]," said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes nationwide.
Feds helping caseWith Mexicans the focus of anger over illegal Immigration, reported hate crimes against Latinos increased to 576 in 2006, or 25 percent more than three years before, according to the most recent FBI report on such incidents. Latino activists argue the trend has only gotten worse as the debate rages over Immigration reform. In Illinois, anecdotal evidence suggests hate crimes have risen since 2006, when there were six, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Though no federal charges have been filed in the Shenandoah case, the Justice Department's civil rights division is aiding local prosecutors, a department spokeswoman said.
The Schuylkill County district attorney has charged Brandon Piekarsky, 16, and Colin Walsh, 17, as adults with murder and "ethnic intimidation," which covers hate crimes. Derrick Donchak, 18, has been charged with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation. Another 17-year-old faces the same charges in juvenile court. All have pleaded not guilty.
As a preliminary hearing approaches next week, the case has further divided a community of wilting row houses and boarded-up businesses that has grown more tense since Latin American immigrants began arriving during the mid-1990s.
"One has fear of getting caught walking the streets at night, only to get the same as him," said Jorge Perez, owner of a Mexican grocery store. The grocery faces a memorial to the European immigrant miners who helped build the town to 30,000 residents before the coal economy crashed during the late 1950s. Today, about 5,600 people live in Shenandoah.
A 20-minute drive from Hazleton—the site of an earlier controversy over illegal Immigration—Shenandoah has a Latino population that has jumped in the past decade from three families to about 500 people, town officials say.
While older families lost jobs and moved out, the arriving Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans landed work picking cherries or pruning pine Christmas trees.
The resentment over deteriorating neighborhoods and new Spanish-speaking neighbors who keep to themselves has fueled local reactions to Ramirez's murder. Some suggest he provoked the fight.
No criminal historyRamirez, a father of two who held down a factory job and another one picking cherries, had no criminal history, District Atty. James Goodman said. He arrived illegally in 2003, friends said.
His connection to the 15-year-old girl remains unclear.
Though they say Ramirez was hard-working and devoted to his family, friends say he was seeing the girl. Her sister, Crystal Dillman, 24, is the mother of Ramirez's two children, ages 1 and 2. Dillman said she and Ramirez were engaged, and that he assumed the role of an older brother to her sister. The 15-year-old was unavailable.
Roger Laguna, an attorney for Walsh, said the boys had seen Ramirez and the girl together at the high school.
"You see a 15-year-old white girl with a person you believe to be a gangster or a thug: What's wrong with this picture?" said Laguna. "Most of us keep it to ourselves, but you've got 17-year-olds out there being rude and dumb; they broached the topic."
Laguna, seeking to move the case to juvenile court, describes what happened as a street brawl gone awry.
In a town that reveres its Blue Devils football team, the murder case is as much about the teens' future. Piekarsky and Walsh were honor roll students. Donchak was the starting quarterback before graduating last spring. Their families wouldn't comment.
"Those kids don't need to be gone [in prison] for 17, 18 years," said Bob Seigel, 48. Nearby, his teenage daughter smacked her fist to her palm, while others laughed, in mock preparation for what some fear will be ethnic retaliation.
Community leaders worry about such reaction. Two years ago, officials unsuccessfully attempted to pass an ordinance modeled after one in Hazleton that would have punished landlords for renting to illegal immigrants. Now, they are forming an advisory council to help build better relations with Latinos.
"Some families are even afraid to send their kids to school," said Andrew Szczyglak, Shenandoah City Council president, referring to comments during a candlelight vigil for Ramirez last month that drew about 200 people. "That shouldn't be."
Jack Levin, a sociology professor at Boston's Northeastern University who has written books on hate crimes, said he could see it coming.
In a 24-hour news culture, where blogs, talk radio and cable TV provide a steady torrent of negative stereotypes about illegal immigrants, Latinos are primed as potential victims, Levin said.
Friends described Ramirez as the reserved son of an abused mother, sending much of what he earned back to her in Guanajuato, Mexico.
In her apartment, Dillman said Ramirez had assumed the role of father to her eldest daughter, 3, from another relationship.
"He would do anything for these kids," Dillman said. "He'd walk around in ripped-up jeans and an old shirt so they could have nice clothes."