The mounting legal troubles involving local public officials in Pennsylvania's coal region paint a disturbing picture of an area rife with racial tensions and corruption straight from a John Grisham novel.
Last week, the police chief in Shenandoah, a small town about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was indicted on charges of orchestrating a cover-up in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant and extorting illegal gambling proceeds.
Two other police officers were charged in the cover-up. A third officer was charged in connection with the extortion of the gambling proceeds from a local businessman.
Federal prosecutors allege Police Chief Matthew Nestor tried to intimidate a cooperating witness in the extortion investigation by driving him to a remote location and forcing him to strip.
Nestor and the other officers have pleaded not guilty to all of the charges before a federal magistrate in Wilkes-Barre.
Shenandoah is a blue-collar town of about 5,000 located in Schuylkill County. Neighboring Luzerne County — where Wilkes-Barre is located — has had its own run of public officials in legal trouble.
Two judges there have been indicted for taking nearly $3 million in kickbacks in return for shipping hundreds of teens to a private prison for minor offenses. A third judge faces unrelated tax and fraud charges.
Last week, a Luzerne County commissioner resigned as part of a plea deal stemming for a bribe he allegedly took from a developer seeking approval of a project.
In all, nearly two dozen people have been ensnared in a broader federal probe of corruption in Luzerne County government and the local schools, including a scam to sell teaching jobs.
Meanwhile in Shenandoah, four cops, including the chief, face criminal charges. That leaves just three officers on the job. The alarming actions of the rogue officers call for an overhaul of the force.
The police troubles came to light after Luis Ramirez, 25, a Mexican immigrant, was beaten to death by a group of high school football players. The teens were acquitted in May of the most serious charges, but convicted of minor ones.
Prosecutors contend that the police helped orchestrate a cover-up of the beating, which undermined the case against the teens. Apparently, one of the police officers was dating the mother of one of the accused teens, and another officer's son played on the football team.
Separately, Chief Nestor and another officer were named in a civil lawsuit involving a Hispanic teen who was also beaten to death. The suit alleges that police arrested David Vega, 18, after responding to a domestic dispute.
One of the arresting officers was Nestor's father. While in police custody, the suit alleges, Vega was beaten to death and then hung from his holding cell to make it look like a suicide.
Chief Nestor denies the allegations and says Vega was injured while trying to resist arrest and hanged himself. The civil suit is still pending. The elder Nestor hasn't been charged with any crimes.
The shocking allegations involving high-level local officials sworn to uphold the law in Pennsylvania's coal region cries out for increased scrutiny by federal authorities.