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Pennsylvania Cops Accused Of Hate Crime Cover-Up

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Pennsylvania Cops Accused Of Hate Crime Cover-Up

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Pennsylvania Cops Accused Of Hate Crime Cover-Up

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The tiny town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania is being patrolled by state troopers today. This, after more than half the local police department was indicted this week. They face federal charges of obstructing the investigation into the beating death of an immigrant.

The police chief is behind bars. Three other officers are on home confinement.

NPR's Robert Smith traveled to the town.

ROBERT SMITH: In Shenandoah, geography is destiny. It's an old coal town shoved into a narrow valley in central PA. And so the 5,000 residents here live right on top of each other in these narrow row houses. It may be local lore, but everyone in town tells me the same historical factoid.

Mr. DENNIS YASLINAS(ph): At one time it was the most densely populated square mile in the United States.

SMITH: Dennis Yaslinas says now the town has a different reputation.

Mr. YASLINAS: It really can't get any worse. So, it's all up from here.

SMITH: Last summer, a group of football players from the local high school beat 25-year-old Luis Ramirez to death. Two of the boys were acquitted of more serious charges and went to jail on a minor assault rap. People in the town thought the worst was behind them. Then this week, federal prosecutors announced that they were charging the two with a hate crime.

Even more remarkable was the arrest of four of the town's seven police officers. In court this week, prosecutors laid out a tale of how justice works in an insular town. One police officer investigating the case was dating the mom of one of the accused. Another cop had a son on the same football team. Prosecutors say that the Shenandoah police intimidated witnesses, coached the kids to lie and helped dispose of evidence.

The police chief, Matthew Nestor, was charged with additional counts of extortion. His lawyer, Patrick Rogan, left court saying that they would fight all the charges.

Mr. PATRICK ROGAN (Attorney): Yes, there are allegations. We believe they'll be unfounded. And I think in the end, Matt Nestor will be fully exonerated.

SMITH: But some people in the town say they could see all this coming. Thomas O'Neill was mayor when the killing occurred. He says he tried to take the police off the case, but the father of the chief was a local politician.

Mr. THOMAS O'NEILL (Former Mayor, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania): The chief's father was on council, and he was a former policeman himself. So, no matter what I tried to do, they tried to stop me.

SMITH: O'Neill resigned as mayor and moved away from Shenandoah late last year. He claims he was being harassed.

Mr. O'NEILL: You know, my tires were slashed, back window was shot out with pellets. On New Year's Eve, my front window, there was an explosive attached to the window and that was blown out.

SMITH: The former mayor says he doesn't believe that the police were racist. They were doing what they always do: protect the longtime residents of the town at the expense of outsiders. Mickey Holland is one of those local residents, and although he says the cops made a mistake, he understands why.

Mr. MICKEY HOLLAND: You are born and raised with people. Something happens, there is a tendency, being human, to look out for your own.

SMITH: But one Hispanic resident says after living in Shenandoah for 19 years, he still got treated as an outsider.

Mr. CARLOS VEGA: Dirty looks, not making any friends, having a lot of trouble in school, my boys.

SMITH: Five years ago, one of Carlos Vega's teenage sons was arrested. About an hour later, he was found hanging in a cell. Vega is suing the police department, including two of the officers arrested this week, claiming that they beat David Vega and made it look like a suicide. No one believed his claims, Carlos says, until this week.

Mr. VEGA: People stopped me in the middle of the block and say that I don't even know: Thank you, thank you. Somebody took action on these cops.

SMITH: Vega's lawsuit will go to court next summer. The federal charges against the cops will get a hearing in the spring. And a small town has a long way to go before its reputation gets any better.

Robert Smith, NPR News, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

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