Shenandoah Hate Crime: The New Awakening of Crystal Dillman

Crystal Dillman leaving the US Courthouse in Scranton along with her attorney, MALDEF's Gladys Limón.

Crystal Dillman woke up Friday with a feeling so long ago missing in her that it was almost surreal.

“I finally feel relief,” she said. “This is justice for me, my children and Luis.”

After more than two years, an all-white federal jury in Scranton, Pa., convicted Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak of a hate crime arising out of the fatal beating of Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala, an undocumented immigrant.

The jury found the defendants from Shenandoah, Pa., guilty of violating the criminal component of the federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it a crime to use a person’s race, national origin or ethnicity as a basis to interfere, with violence or threats of violence, with a person’s right to live where he chooses to live.

In addition, the jury found that Donchak conspired to, and did in fact, obstruct justice.

The jury took 6 1/2 hours Thursday to come out with a verdict, each of these hours filled with tension and uncertainty. For the first time the defendants’ semblance seemed to grow gloomy, after days in which they appeared more relaxed, more at peace.

But when the jury read the verdict of guilty as charged, both men trembled and sobbed for the first time in public. The first one to learn his fate was Mr. Piekarsky, charged only with one count; he took his hands to his face and started crying while Mr. Donchak’s legs started shaking as he bowed his head looking straight to the floor.

He soon heard the jury say guilty, guilty, guilty of all three charges pending against him.

Judge Richard A. Caputo ordered both men to be detained.

“The two are to remained detained pending sentencing to happen on January 24, 2011,” the judge said.

Mr. Donchak and Mr. Piekarsky face sentences of up to life in prison on the hate crime charge. In addition, Mr. Donchak faces up to 20 years in prison on the obstruction charge and five years on the conspiracy charge.

Both men also face plus the $250,000 fine and $100 special assessment.

“The fight’s not over,” James A. Swetz, Mr. Piekarsky’s lawyer, said after the verdict.

“We will file an appeal at its proper time, which is after the sentence,” William A. Fetterhoff, Mr. Donchak’s lawyer, said as he was leaving the courthouse.

But for Ms. Dillman this chapter seems to be finally over. She had no longer to sit alone and silent, at times holding a photograph of her with Mr. Ramírez Zavala and her, at times crying; at times shaking her leg in restlessness; she had no longer to sit a listen over and over the way her fiancée was insulted, punched, kicked and killed the night of July 12, 2008.

“Being there those days was hard but I had to do it for Luis,” she said.

Distant in time and memory was the day last year in which an all-white Schuykill county jury acquitted the two teens charged with ethnic intimidation and aggravated assault.

This latest verdict prompted the National Council of La Raza to issue a statement.

“Today’s verdict shows that hate crimes won’t go unpunished,” read the statement. “Many civil rights organization have alerted of the increasing wave of intolerance across the country through the toxic tone surrounding the immigration debate, and Luis Ramirez’ case is clear example of the serious and tragic consequences the rhetoric of hate has.”

But Ms. Dillman’s quest for justice is far from over. Coming January she will be back in a federal court, this time for trial of the three former Shenandoah police officers charged with conspiring to obstruct justice during the investigation into the fatal beating of Mr. Ramirez Zavala. Mr. Moyer has also been charged with witness and evidence tampering, and with lying to the FBI.

In Ms. Dillman’s view, this verdict is not enought to change things in Shenandoha, from where she has moved since.

“All I can say is I pray it changes things for the better,” she said. “But I’m not sure it will happen.”


About Gustavo Martínez Contreras

was born in Texas, brewed in Mexico City, seasoned in the Mexico-United States border, aged walking the streets of Philadelphia. He had a short-lived stint eating grits, fried chicken, and peaches in Atlanta. He later became a béisbol writer for El Diario de Nueva York. He has written about immigrant communities in English, Spanish, and some Spanglish. Although he does not have a shelf full of awards, Gustavo has received thank you notes and hugs from people who have trusted him with their stories. His work has appeared in Voices of New York, El Diario/La Prensa, Dallas’ Al Día, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Philadelphia Weekly, Radio Bilingüe, Latina Lista,, among others. He is currently pursuing a master's degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
This entry was posted in Hate crime, Immigration, Luis Ramírez, Shenandoah. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Shenandoah Hate Crime: The New Awakening of Crystal Dillman

  1. Sonai says:

    Finally, some relief for his family. I hope she can live peacefully from now on. By chance, do you know if she qualifies for the victim’s relief fund that comes from the fines the criminals face?
    Either way, thanks for covering this.


  2. Mr. OutScout says:

    Tragically at times I share Ms. Dillman’s pessimism, though it is possible that through the hard work and determination of peoples of conscience we can end these horrendous racially motivated attacks. I applaud you for your continued coverage of this trial.


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