LIVONIA, Mich. (AP) — A Detroit-area soccer player accused of killing a referee with a punch to the neck made an initial court appearance on a second-degree murder charge Thursday, the same day family and friends were saying a final goodbye to the referee.
Baseel Abdul-Amir Saad was arraigned in Livonia District Court, less than 10 miles from where a funeral service was being held for John Bieniewicz.
“This is a horrendous tragedy,” Judge Kathleen McCann said before ordering a $1 million bond for Saad. A second-degree murder charge carries a punishment of up to life in prison.
Bieniewicz died last week from injuries sustained June 29. Police and prosecutors said Saad struck Bieniewicz as the 44-year-old referee announced his decision to eject him from a men’s league game in Livonia.
Saad, a 36-year-old auto mechanic from Dearborn, had been charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm before Bieniewicz died July 1. That charge was formally dropped at Thursday’s hearing.
McCann entered a plea of not guilty on Saad’s behalf and set a probable cause hearing for July 30.
Saad stood mostly silent during his arraignment, saying only “yes” a few times when McCann asked if he understood his rights.
Defense lawyer Ali Hammoud said his client was “extremely remorseful” and still stunned by what happened.
“One day he’s playing soccer, the next he’s charged with murder,” said Hammoud, who added that Saad “has been crying ever since.”
The attack on Bieniewicz came during the second half of an over-30 Michigan United Soccer League game in Mies Park. Bieniewicz reached into his pocket and was in the process of pulling out a red card when he was punched, according to witnesses and police, who said Saad later took off with another person as Bieniewicz was being tended to.
Hammoud said in court Thursday that Saad left the field because he feared the situation “would escalate.”
Bieniewicz worked in the pediatric dialysis unit at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. He lived in Westland with his wife and two sons.
His death touched those at the highest levels of the sport. Referees working Major League Soccer games recently wore black armbands in tribute, and the president of soccer’s international governing body expressed his condolences in a letter to the head of U.S. Soccer.
“I was deeply shocked to learn of this tragic incident,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter wrote.
Bieniewicz’s funeral was held Thursday morning at Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church in Redford Township.
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