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Law & Order in Pennsylvania

by WALTER M. BRASCH

Dick Wolf, who created “Law & Order” and its two successful spin-offs, “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” should probably consider establishing a branch office in Pennsylvania.

It seems that whenever any of the New York City cops take a road trip to find a fugitive or track down a witness, they go to Pennsylvania. Apparently, New Jersey is only a buffer zone.

Part of the reason why Pennsylvania routinely figures into the hour-long dramas may be because Wolf, a New Yorker, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Another possibility, although much more remote, may be because his first of three wives was named Susan Scranton.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvania has been the site of sufficient plots the past couple of years as the three TV series have increased their levels of social consciousness.

Pennsylvania’s attorney general has already issued 25 arrest warrants for state legislators and their aides of both political parties—including former House Speaker John Perzel, a Republican, and Bill DeWeese, the House Democratic majority leader. They are accused of a variety of charges, including theft, conflict of interest, obstruction, and conspiracy.

But it is northeastern Pennsylvania that is fertile ground for the writers. Luzerne County, with Wilkes-Barre as the county seat, has provided the background for at least two shows from “Law & Order.” Both had plots set in New York City but featured Pennsylvania misconduct that included an undercurrent of corrupt judges who took kick-backs for sentencing juveniles to privately-run juvenile detention centers. When that plot finally plays out, there are also stories to be developed about corrupt courthouse officials, corrupt school board officials and, just recently, the vice-chair of the county board of commissioners, a former pro football player, who accepted a bribe.

Nearby Schuylkill County, specifically the people of Shenandoah, played a critical part in an April 2009 “Law & Order” hate crime story about the beating and murder by teens of an undocumented Hispanic worker. In Shenandoah, 25-year-old Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala, an undocumented Mexican with no criminal history, was beaten by a gang of high school football players in July 2008. In the “Law & Order” episode, the victim was also an undocumented Hispanic who was targeted by a gang of high school basketball players who had anonymously made a video, “Beaner Hunt: Taking Back America One Street at a Time.” In both the Ramirez Zavala case and the fictional “Law & Order” case, a mother covers up evidence; people in the town spew racial hatred, with many claiming if the victim wasn’t an “illegal,” he would still be alive; a “windbag” TV pundit rants about illegals taking over the country; and a jury refuses to present a guilty verdict on all but the least of the charges against the teens.

The Ramirez Zavala murder is likely to provide seed for several more episodes. This past week, the FBI arrested two teens who had been convicted by an all-White jury only of simple assault, and four police officers, including the chief. Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarski, 18, are charged with federal hate crimes. A third teen, Colin J. Walsh, had accepted a plea bargain and is in federal prison. Among the charges against Chief Matthew Nestor, Lt. William Moyer, and Officer Jason Hayes are conspiracy to obstruct justice for allegedly manipulating and covering up the facts of the murder; Moyer was also charged with witness and evidence tampering and providing false testimony to the FBI.

In an unrelated case, Nestor and Capt. James Gennarini are charged with several counts of extortion and civil rights violations in illegal gambling operations. An unindicted coconspirator is Brandon Piekarsky’s mother, Tammy, who was dating Officer Hayes. U.S. District Court judge Malachy Mannion at the arraignment said that the evidence against the officers was “strong,” and that they depict a “vile set of activities.”

Another “Law & Order” episode could focus upon the death of 18-year-old David Vega, who Shenandoah police claimed hanged himself in the town’s jail in November 2004. The police could have issued a citation to Vega, who was arguing about a Giants–Eagles football game with friends and relatives, all of whom were vocal, none of whom had attacked anyone. But, the police arrested Vega, locked him in the town jail, and then within two hours claimed he had committed suicide by hanging. A more realistic story would be the brutal beating by racist police and a subsequent cover-up, combined with the coroner accepting the police version. No charges were filed against Chief Matthew Nestor, Capt. Raymond Nestor (the chief’s father), or James Gennarini, who are alleged to have beaten Vega. Vega’s parents, however, have filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Attorney John P. Karoly, Allentown, says that based upon an independent investigation and several depositions, there is “significant evidence” to back up charges against the police. The suit charges that an independent second autopsy confirmed that Vega “suffered extensive, massive injuries consistent with a profound beating” and “did not die of hanging.”

Police neglect and an attack upon David N. Murphy Sr., an Afro-American, who was recovering at home from spinal fusion surgery, could be the base of another episode. In March 2009, according to a civil law suit filed by Karoly in federal court, Chief Matthew Nestor and Officer George Carado, who lied about having a warrant, arrested Murphy on a claim he was selling prescription medicine to his wife, refused to allow him to take needed medication, punched him in his back, and left him alone overnight in the police station. During the night, Murphy had a heart attack and lay on the floor several hours crying out in pain. However, before seeking medical treatment, Shenandoah police took Murphy for arraignment before a district justice. The DJ ordered the police to take Murphy to a hospital. Instead, the police, according to Karoly, who is also Murphy’s attorney, took him to the Schuylkill County prison. Only when the prison wouldn’t admit him because of his medical condition did Shenandoah police take the victim to a hospital.
In a sworn affidavit, Murphy says Nestor told him that the police “would harass me and put me in jail as soon as I come to Shenandoah if I filed a lawsuit or tried to press charges on him,” and that if Murphy filed suit, “I wouldn’t make it out of the police station’s cells next time.” The complaint further alleges that “Nestor said I could end up like the Mexican that hung himself, that tapes can be erased or edited.” (The Shenandoah police station did not have surveillance cameras at the time of Vega’s death.)

“Law & Order” writers could also look at a “suicide” in Coaldale, about 20 miles east of Shenandoah. James Hill, 17, was visiting Greg Altenbach and his parents in January 2004. A corrupt police chief performed only a cursory investigation and decided that Hill committed suicide with a .22 semi-automatic rifle. However, Police Chief Shawn Nihen rejected a coroner’s report that concluded Hill couldn’t have killed himself. Nihen, who was friends with the family in whose house Hill died, as well as Altenbach’s mother, stepfather, and a friend who witnessed the accidental shooting, had tried to cover up evidence. Nihen also had known that Shawn Becker, the stepfather, was forbidden by the courts to have a gun in the house. Nihen and Coaldale police officer Michael Weaver were later convicted of planting evidence in several cases. Altenbach later acknowledged he had fired the gun, and is now in prison after conviction for involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.

Future stories of “Law and Order” may continue to be “ripped from the headlines,” but in northeastern Pennsylvania, they are torn from greed and racial and cultural hatred.

Walter Brasch is author of 17 books, a syndicated columnist, and professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award. You may contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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