DETROIT (WWJ/AP) – A weekend soccer player whose punch killed a referee will spend the next 8 to 15 years behind bars in a case that inspired Michigan lawmakers to discuss a new class of sports crimes.
Bassel Saad appeared in court Friday after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter last month. He received credit for 256 days served and was also ordered to pay upwards of $9,000 in restitution to the victim’s family and to the court. After serving his sentence, Saad faces deportation because he is not a U.S. citizen.
Saad, a 37-year-old auto mechanic from Dearborn, admitted to striking referee John Bieniewicz on June 29 as the 44-year-old referee was preparing to eject Saad during the second half of a Michigan United Soccer League adult game in Livonia. Bieniewicz died two days later.
Before learning his sentence, Saad listened with his head down as members of Bieniewicz’s family addressed the court.
“You think you have years left with someone and suddenly you don’t,” said his older sister, Donna. “This did not have to happen. Mr. Saad chose to punch my brother, John. Mr. Saad could have been sportsmanlike and accepted the call from the referee but instead, he chose to punch John with such force that it killed him.”
Saad, who stood stoically, only appeared to get emotional once Bieniewicz’s wife, Kris, spoke. She expressed extreme disappointment than Saad wasn’t convicted of murder.
“In all honesty, if he ran over to the sidelines and pulled a gun and it was one bullet that took my husband’s life, there would be no question in anybody’s eyes that this was murder. But because of the fact he took the one weapon that was available to him, his fist, there’s doubt,” she said.
“There is no doubt in my mind, Mr. Saad murdered my husband. And the sentence, it is what it is. Do I necessarily agree? No, because now I have a 9-year-old son who says to me, ‘But mom, I thought if you kill somebody you go to prison for the rest of your life,'” she continued. “How do I explain that the system didn’t do his father the justice he deserved? I can’t.”
Before stepping away from the podium, Kris Bieniewicz did one final thing to make her husband proud.
“I would like to serve Mr. Saad with the red card that he was entitled to,” she said, holding up a red referee card.
A tearful Saad then addressed the judge, expressing remorse for what he’s done.
“I think about him and his family every day. I hope one day they can forgive me,” Saad said. “I’m so sorry from the bottom of my heart. I didn’t know that this was going to happen.”
Judge Thomas Cameron chided Saad for destroying so many lives, including those of his very own family, with such a senseless act.
“For better or for worse, you’ve come to personify all that’s wrong with, in many people’s belief, the escalation of violence in sports,” the judge said. “You stand before this court as a man whose been convicted of a senseless, childish act, taking another man’s life with no excuse or justification other than your own rage that you were unable to contain.”
According to witnesses, Bieniewicz reached into his pocket and was in the process of pulling out a red card when he was punched. [HEAR THE 911 CALL]
“He put his head down, put his hand in his pocket, and went to raise the red card, as he did that, I saw Mr. Saad take a few steps and throw a punch,” said a witness.
“It was a pretty quick motion,” the witness added, “sort of looked over the left shoulder, saw the ref approaching him from this direction – about to give him the card – and sort of turned back … and he turned back and swung in the direction of his head.”
The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office says the blow knocked Bieniewicz out before he even hit the ground. He died two days later at a local hospital. The cause of death was “blunt impact to left side of his neck” the Medical Examiner said.
Kris Bieniewicz had earlier said that she hoped Saad “never sees the light of day.”
In exchanged for Saad’s guilty plea to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors dropped a second-degree murder charge, which carries a sentence of life in prison.
The incident is prompting legislators to consider making Michigan the 20th state with a criminal law that targets assaults on sports officials, with bills pending in the Senate to lengthen jail or prison sentences. An assault now classified as a 93-day misdemeanor would become a one-year misdemeanor or, if an official is injured, a two-year felony.
Among those lobbying for the Michigan measure is Bieniewicz’s wife. “They’re (referees) out there on an island with no one to defend them,” she said.
Kris Bieniewicz recounted a recent incident at one of her son’s games in which an opposing coach, angry about a non-call, was nose to nose with the scorekeeper.
“I don’t even know where I got the courage from, but I went up and yelled in his face: ‘Hey. My husband was the soccer referee that was just killed this past summer. It’s because of people like you with attitudes like you. This man asked you to walk. I suggest you walk.’
“Thankfully, he walked. He could have very easily taken a swing at me,” she said.
While statistics on the number of attacks on officials is limited, referees nationwide report such incidents are on the rise.
Attorney Jim Dworman said there were two attacks on Detroit-area basketball officials on the same day in 2013. In one, a female spectator struck an official in the face with a water bottle after a middle school game. In the other, a parent slugged an official following a junior varsity game, but the case was dropped before trial.
And last week in western Michigan, a high school basketball referee was slammed to the ground while trying to break up a fight at the end of a boys’ game, said Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, which supports laws targeting assaults on officials.
“We are living in an amped-up society. We are living in a world where people in some measure have lost respect for authority,” he said.
In Bieniewicz’s case, a number of players testified that Saad had been issued a yellow card following a foul during the June 29 match and Bieniewicz was about to issue him a second one for being verbally abusive. That is when the referee was struck, the players said. Two yellow cards in the same game mean a player is ejected.
Supporters say Michigan’s bills would send a message that assaulting an official is serious and make people think twice. They worry about the ability to recruit referees, especially volunteers who complain about abuse from coaches and spectators.
The legislation’s future is uncertain because some conservatives in the Republican-led Legislature have concerns about treating assaults on a referee differently from other attacks.
“Since when did Lady Justice not have a blindfold on?” Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township said, arguing that people should be treated equally regardless of their jobs. Officials and others counter that people who attack human services caseworkers, utility workers, police officers and others already receive harsher penalties.
Sports officials work in hostile environments and every decision they make is going to upset someone, legislation sponsor Sen. Morris Hood III, a Detroit Democrat, said.
“If this legislation can preserve one life, then it’s well worth it,” he said.
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