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June 18, 2019
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† 17. 5. 1998, Orlová, Czech Republic: Milan Lacko

19.5.2019 10:22
The widow of Milan Lacko with relatives during his funeral in May 1998 in Orlová. (PHOTO:  Czech News Agency)
The widow of Milan Lacko with relatives during his funeral in May 1998 in Orlová. (PHOTO: Czech News Agency)

The investigation of the death of Romani community member Milan Lacko, a father of six, became a protracted matter due to two ills of Czech society:  The hatred felt here toward Romani people, and the boundless loyalty of police officers for their fellow members of the force. The former caused the testimonies of several eyewitnesses to be rejected, while the latter is what most probably caused some evidence about the circumstances of Lacko's death to be destroyed and lost.

Journalists wake up

Marek Wollner, a journalist for Týden magazine who kept the Czech public apprised of the Lacko case over the course of three years, described what happened to Lacko in his first reportage from the scene as follows:  As a small group of drunks with shaved heads bore down on them, the 40-year-old Lacko had shouted to his 15-year-old daughter Denisa and her boyfriend, "You both get out of here, I'll hold them off!" Wollner's article was published seven days after Lacko was murdered in the northern Moravian hamlet of Orlová and was the 12th piece to report on the tragedy.

The murder of Lacko was the second committed by neo-Nazis in the course of three months - perpetrators who were still being inaccurately called "skinheads" at the time. The first had been committed at the end of January, when three neo-Nazi youths had thrown a Molotov cocktail into the home of the Kováč family in Krnov, who were also Romani.

Emílie Žigová, who was there at the time, was severely burned over 40 % of her body, while her husband was burned on his leg. After that attack, it was not possible to confine the next apparently racially-motivated murder just to the crime pages of the newspapers (moreover, all the big dailies in Europe were reporting on it), and all of the important Czech media outlets dedicated a great deal of space to the case as well.

The Lacko murder was also the first time, in the case of a Romani victim, when there was a decline in journalists publicizing negative facts and gossip about the murder victim. While the Czech public did learn that Lacko had been convicted of theft in the past, they also learned that he was a father of six and a person of faith who had not deviated from the straight and narrow since then.

The larger Czech society, judging at least by the responses sent to the newspapers, or by the statements made by local police and the mayor, had a somewhat different response to that of the Czech media - in their view these perpetrators were, once again, just young guys who overdid it a bit, and the most important thing about the victim was that he had a blood alcohol level equivalent to about four large beers in him when he died. Let's recall what basically happened back then on the road in front of the pub "U Malky".

Reconstruction of the night's events

They had missed the last bus of the night. Lacko, his daughter Denisa, and her boyfriend Mirek were returning on foot from a visit to Lacko's mother-in-law.

They were all in a good mood, carrying a hamper of homemade blood sausage wrapped in a plastic bag as they walked past the pub where a disco was underway, just like every Saturday. Suddenly Denisa was struck on the shoulder by a half-liter beer glass that had been flung at her.

"Niggers! Fags!" they heard immediately thereafter, and several drunken men with shaved heads wearing steel-toed boots stood up from the wooden benches where they had been seated so they could spice up their Saturday night by beating people up. Lacko, who was of slight build, decided to hold off the alcohol-fueled gang so the young couple would have at least some chance of escaping.

The two young people hid in the garden of a nearby house. The self-sacrificing father was kicked about by the neo-Nazis and left in the road, where he was later run over by a personal vehicle.

Lacko did not survive. The young couple asked the residents of the home whose yard they were hiding in for help, and while the locals did call the police, they were too afraid to allow the terrified couple into the house or to join them outside.

Police officer as accomplice

In the meantime the police had already come to the location, originally believing they were visiting the scene of a fatal car accident. Thanks to the eyewitness testimony of Denisa and Mirek, however, an entirely different picture of what had happened emerged.

Mirek, who was 16, confirmed to the officers that the dead man lying in the road was Milan Lacko and, along with Denisa, they later described what had happened to them all on that fateful night. Two days later, four local youths were taken into custody, three of whom - Leo Fiedor, Pavel Fučo and David Jureczek - were still minors (all 16), while the fourth, Petr Domes, was 20.

Despite the fact that the four youths were a known quantity in Orlová, the first statement about their arrests by district Sheriff Karel Heran was an indulgent one. "They're still wet behind the ears," he told a journalist from the daily Mladá fronta DNES.

Jureczek, the youngest, was a graduate of "special school" and was known in the small town for his brutality, for his sympathy with the racist branch of the skinhead movement, and a few months before had also beaten up a different randomly-selected Romani man on the street. Police officers from Karviná not only made strange statements to the media about the case from the very beginning, but also began working, with a peculiar certainty, on a version of the case involving two vehicles driving over the injured Lacko.

A truck carrying ash away from the nearby power plant in Dětmarovice was alleged to have driven over Lacko without stopping, while the driver of a second, personal vehicle was alleged to have driven over the body and then called for an ambulance and police. That version was subsequently confirmed by a controversial analysis by a medical expert, Igor Dvořáček.

The expert alleged that Lacko had been beaten by the four young men "with just light intensity" (because he had not suffered any serious head injuries), had then been run over by the truck as he was in either a huddled or a sitting position and rolled for 40 meters beneath its five axles, which caused his death when the chambers of his heart ruptured. The driver of the personal vehicle - who was a police colleague of the expert's - was said to have then driven over Lacko's practically dead body.

Disappeared evidence

The court in Karviná worked exclusively with this version of two vehicles, which was solely based on the medical expert's report. In August the four neo-Nazis heard a very mild verdict in their cases, suspended sentences ranging between 15 and 22 months.

The youths benefited from the fact that the case was divided into two files and therefore between two courts. The one case addressed the assault, while the other addressed negligent grievous bodily harm and failure to provide first aid - where, however, there was no perpetrator to charge, because neither the driver of the truck nor the truck itself were ever found.

A suspected driver from the power plant who was interrogated by police consistently rejected being to blame for running over Lacko, and no traces of such an incident were found on the vehicle he was driving on the night in question. Marián Telega, the police officer who was driving the personal vehicle, was never charged for running over Lacko, had never been asked to undergo a blood alcohol test that night, and his vehicle was also never properly examined for evidence.

By the time the case was tried, it was as if there was no direct association between the attack and Lacko being run over, although if the four young men had not assaulted him, he would never have been lying in the road in the first place. The court's message was: This Romani man was beaten up a bit, and because he was drunk, he didn't manage to get out of the road and was run over by a truck that was never identified.

Friends of the defendants were present in the courtroom during the trial, openly making their racist opinions apparent and threatening the Romani people who were present. The bailiffs never intervened even after the journalists present drew their attention to the criminal behavior.

The ridiculous sentences exasperated not just the journalists covering the case, but mainly representatives of the local Romani community. The family's attorney, the anarchist Jakub Polák, decide not to accept the verdicts and wrote up a 10-page analysis drawing directly from the case file pointing out its many inconsistencies and the detectives' errors.

"It seems very unlikely that the impact of such a tractor-trailer colliding with the victim's back would have failed to cause significant injury to his torso, his upper or lower limbs, or even his head," Polák wrote in the analysis that he sent to the Office of the President and to the chair of the Czech Government Human Rights Council, Petr Uhl. That overview of the detectives' errors and imprecise work were covered by Wollner for Týden, and probably the most famous part became the story about the moldy moccasins.

"... David Jureczek, reportedly the most furious assailant, gave a pair of moccasins covered with mold to the court for examination instead of his steel-toed gladiator boots," Wollner wrote. In the interim, prosecutor Josef Bláha appealed the verdict and the case continued to the Regional Court in Ostrava.

Epilogue

The appeals court returned the case to police for re-investigation after concluding that the last moments of Lacko's life had transpired differently than the investigation described; three other medical experts refuted the analysis provided by Dvořáček, who insisted on his conclusions nevertheless. The investigating officers had to explain to the court not just why a great deal of evidence was missing, but also why they were unable to agree on basic matters such as the position in which the body of the deceased was initially found.

A reconstruction of the case confirmed that Lacko had been run over by just one automobile, that of officer Telega. Deputy Sheriff Jan Jonáš still considers that first investigation to have been an objective one and has never given any statement about its errors, not even after it came to light that Telega had been previously convicted of battery but continued to work for the police nonetheless.

The four neo-Nazis were then convicted of bodily harm resulting in death: Petr Domes was sentenced to three years in prison without parole, Jureczeck to 16 months without parole, and Fiedor and Fučo walked away with conditional sentences, as did Telega, who ran Lacko over by accident. Three of the five neo-Nazis who shouted abuse at the Romani community members present during the first hearing in Karviná were sentenced to between 14 and 16 months in prison without parole.

In the year 2000, Polák was given the František Kriegl award by the Charter 77 Foundation for his work to reveal the truth. Milan Lacko was laid to rest at the cemetery in Orlová.

Kateřina Čopjaková, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Hate violence, Rasistické vraždy, Soud, Svědectví



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