Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
HAVE YOUR DONATION DOUBLED!

If you are able to donate $100 or more for our Annual Fund Drive, your donation will be matched by another generous CounterPuncher! These are tough times. Regardless of the political rhetoric bantered about the airwaves, the recession hasn’t ended for most of us. We know that money is tight for many of you. But we also know that tens of thousands of daily readers of CounterPunch depend on us to slice through the smokescreen and tell it like is. Please, donate if you can!

FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

More articles by:

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.

October 17, 2017
Suzanne Gordon – Ian Hoffmann
Trumpcare for Veterans? VA Outsourcing Will Create Healthcare Industry Bonanza
Patrick Cockburn
The Real Destabilizer in the Middle East is Not Iran But Trump
Jonathan Cook
The Real Reasons Trump is Quitting UNESCO
Murtaza Shibli
My Friend From ISIS in Raqqa
Kathy Kelly
Wrongful Rhetoric and Trump’s Strategy on Iran
David Bonner
Beyond Taking a Knee: Duane Thomas, Where are You When We Need You?
Tom Gill
Austerity, Macron-Style
Liaquat Ali Khan
Pakistan Faces a Life-Threatening Military Coup
Jeff Mackler
Is Trump a ‘Moron?’
Amena Elashkar
If You Work for Justice in Palestine, Why Won’t You Let Palestinians Speak?
John Feffer
Trump’s Unprecedented Right-Turn on Foreign Policy
Ariel Dorfman
Trump’s War on the Mind
Dean Baker
The Republican Tax Plan to Slow Growth
Gerry Brown
The Return of One-Man Rule in China?
Binoy Kampmark
Climate Change Insurgent: Tony Abbott’s Crusade
Kent Paterson
Assassination in Guerrero: the Murder of Ranferi Hernandez Acevedo
Rob Okun
Men and Sexual Assault in the Age of Trump
October 16, 2017
Vijay Prashad
A Tale of Two Islands
Ben Dangl
Profiting from America’s Longest War: Trump Seeks to Exploit Mineral Wealth of Afghanistan
Jan Oberg
Trump is Moving Toward War With Iran
Thomas S. Harrington
The Baseless Myth of the Poor, Propagandized Catalans
Steve Brown
When a Radio Host Interviews a War Criminal, Is It Churlish to Ask About His War Crimes?
Howard Lisnoff
Capturing the Flag
Patrick Cockburn
ISIS is Facing Near Total Defeat, But It Has Been Beaten and Come Back Before
Julian Vigo
The Fall of Harvey Weinstein and the Sexual Blindspot of Misogyny
James Munson
The Rich Can’t Achieve Plurality, But the Poor Can
Amitai Ben-Abba
The NIMPE Critique of Antifa
Robert Fisk
We Will Soon See What the Word “Unity” Means for the Palestinian People
Alice Donovan
Civil War in Venezuela: a US Joint Operation with Colombia?
Jimmy Centeno
The De-Mexicanization of Duranguito Barrio, El Paso, Texas
Martin Billheimer
The Phantom of Justice in Indian Country
Uri Avnery
The Terrible Problem
Binoy Kampmark
Dirty Ties: the University of New Haven and Saudi Arabia
Ted Rall
Imagine a Brand-New USA
Weekend Edition
October 13, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Richard D. Wolff
The Political Economy of Obama/Trump
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Man in the Soundproof Booth
Becky Grant
My History With Alexander Cockburn and the Financial Future of CounterPunch
Paul Street
Orange Thing: Should It Stay or Should It Go?
Ellen Brown
How to Wipe Out Puerto Rico’s Debt Without Hurting Bondholders
Andrew Levine
Loyalty to the Don
Patrick Cockburn
Underground in Raqqa
Linda Pentz Gunter
Could Trump be About to Kill U.S. Solar Industry Jobs?
Conn Hallinan
Of Leprechauns, Nazis, and Truncheons
Mike Whitney
Cowboy’s Boss Draws a Line in Sand: “Stand for Anthem or Else”
Geoff Dutton
Harvard, the CIA, and All That
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail