Soccer referee dies after player punches him in head

DETROIT — A man who was punched in the head over the weekend while refereeing an adult-league soccer match in suburban Detroit died Tuesday, authorities and a longtime friend of the referee said.

John Bieniewicz, who was attacked Sunday at a park in Livonia, died at Detroit Receiving Hospital, said hospital spokesman Alton Gunn, Livonia police and the man’s longtime friend, Jim Acho.

Police Lt. Tom Goralski said a 36-year-old man punched Bieniewicz in the head after the referee indicated he planned to eject the man from the game. Baseel Abdul-Amir Saad of Dearborn was arraigned Monday on a charge of assault with intent to do great bodily harm. The Wayne County prosecutor’s office said the charges would be reviewed and possibly amended when it had the necessary documentation.

Bieniewicz, 44, was a dialysis technician at Mott Children’s Hospital who lived in the Detroit suburb of Westland with his wife and two sons, said Acho, who was a classmate of Bieniewicz’s at Catholic Central High School.

“I speak for all his friends when I say we are devastated. Crushed. Just a senseless way for a great guy to go out,” Acho said. “He deserved better.”

Bieniewicz, Acho said, was the only student-athlete in the class of 1988 to letter in both football and basketball at the ultra-competitive Detroit-area parochial school. Acho, who ran a basketball camp with Bieniewicz for four years after high school, said his 6-foot-5 friend would “wow the kids with dunks.”

But much to the surprise of his friends, Bieniewicz gravitated to soccer. He had been a well-respected referee for two decades.

Another friend, Anthony Arrington, said he would often seek Bieniewicz’s advice when coaching his sons’ youth soccer teams.

“We have a special bond,” said Arrington, who added that Bieniewicz’s passion for soccer spurred members of their group of friends to watch the World Cup in Brazil.

“Just heartbroken. Just a good person, good family man,” Arrington said.

Bieniewicz was doing what he loved on Sunday when he was attacked, Acho said.

Saad was not at Mies Park when police arrived, but surrendered Monday, Goralski said. At Saad’s arraignment in Livonia District Court, bond was set at $500,000 and a probable-cause hearing was set for July 10.

Saad’s lawyer, Brian Berry, said his client was cooperating with police and was not guilty of the charge.

“As the case progresses we expect to learn the cause of the referee’s injuries,” Berry said.

Acho said a fund was being set up to help pay for his friend’s funeral and burial expenses as well as his children’s futures. Bieniewicz’s organs were being donated, Acho said.

Violence is not unheard of in soccer and other sports. The recorded telephone message at the National Association of Sports Officials in Racine, Wisconsin, says, “For NASO insurance or assault information, press 3.”

Barry Mano — the president and founder of NASO, which has 21,000 dues-paying members in sports ranging from football and soccer to rodeo and water polo — said his group spends 20 percent of its time on assault and liability-related issues, up from around 3 percent 20 years ago.

“When we’re unhappy with sports officials, irrespective if the calls are right or wrong, the idea that we believe that we can go smack somebody because we’re unhappy is disturbing,” he said.

In April 2013, a 17-year-old player punched referee Ricardo Portillo after being called for a foul during a soccer game in Taylorsville, Utah, near Salt Lake City. Portillo, a father of three, died after a week in a coma. The teen pleaded guilty to a homicide charge.

In Brazil last year, a 20-year-old referee was killed, dismembered and decapitated by spectators after he stabbed a player to death during an amateur soccer match. And a volunteer linesman was beaten to death following a 2012 youth amateur match outside Amsterdam. Six teenage players and the father of one of the boys were convicted of manslaughter.

It’s part of a worrying trend, Mano said.

”We have trouble getting men and women and young people to come into refereeing. No duh. This is the reason why,” he said.

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