Livonia — A popular local soccer referee died Tuesday after police say he was brutally attacked by a player he evicted from a weekend game, leaving behind a wife and two sons and questions about how an amateur event could turn deadly.
On a day when soccer fans were riveted by the World Cup, some local recreational athletes and fans said the tragic incident shows aggression in amateur sports has gotten out of hand.
John Bieniewicz, 44, of Westland, died at Detroit Receiving Hospital. According to police, the incident occurred at 11:59 a.m. Sunday during an adult soccer match at Mies Park.
He will remain on a ventilator until his vital organs are harvested and donated through the Gift of Life program this week, said family friend Jim Acho.
Baseel Abdul-Amir Saad, 36, of Dearborn, charged Monday with assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, is now expected to be charged with homicide later this week by the Wayne County Prosecutor.
Witnesses said Saad was angry about being ejected during Sunday’s match and punched Bieniewicz in the head. There were several witnesses to the attack, including 39-year-old soccer player Scott Herkes.
“As (Bieniewicz) presented the red card, the player (Saad) reeled back and swung, hitting him across the face and kind of in the neck,” Herkes told The Detroit News. “He dropped immediately.
“... First, it was just complete shock and disbelief, then guys rushed in to separate the two. We don’t know if he would have continued the assault, but a lot of players converged to calm everything down.”
Players called 911 while one performed CPR on Bieniewicz. Responding paramedics took Bieniewicz away in an ambulance, Herkes said.
Herkes, who’s played in the league for five or six years, said he’s witnessed heated confrontations with referees in the past, but not as violent.
“It’s a shock,” he said. “There’s been confrontations with some players yelling with the referee. I have seen a player bump a referee, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s unbelievable.”
Meanwhile, Saad “voluntarily walked into the Livonia Police Station for booking,” said his attorney, Brian T. Berry.
'It got a little crazy'
Commenting via Facebook, a man who identified himself as Daniel Winkler of Southfield said he played in the game Sunday and the attack came suddenly.
“Punched him out of nowhere … For no good reason other than a second yellow,” Winkler wrote. “Believe me, it got a little crazy right then and there, but with the referee being unconscious we rather tried to help him. Apart from that Baseel took off with one of his buddies.”
Another commenter who identified himself as Dale Anderson of Northville wrote: “You hit a referee in an amateur match so hard that you kill him because he ejected you from the game for playing too rough? Unbelievable.”
“I am stunned that what I thought would happen in Brazil during the World Cup, happened here instead,” wrote a commenter who identified himself as Robert Bodack of Farmington Hills.
Referee a 'placid person'
Bieniewicz was a soccer referee for two decades and was certified on the collegiate, high school and elementary school levels. He also worked in pediatric chronic dialysis care for the University of Michigan Health System. He received a 10-year service award in 2011, according to the health system’s website.
Acho said Bieniewicz was not a confrontational person.
“John was a gentle and placid person,” he said. “He wouldn’t attack a fly.”
Acho also described his friend as a “tremendous person who lived life to the fullest” who loved children.
Despite being a football and basketball standout at Catholic Central High School, Acho said Bieniewicz developed a passion for soccer while in college. He graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1993.
Berry, Saad’s lawyer, expressed sympathy to Bieniewicz’s family Tuesday, saying “our hearts are saddened to learn of this loss of Mr. John Bieniewicz ... may God bless him and his family at this time as they deal with this loss.”
Berry said his client was not the aggressor in Sunday’s incident but also that he was “not suggesting” that Bieniewicz had attacked his client. Saad is “prepared to defend against the allegations brought against him,” Berry said.
“The facts of the case have been mischaracterized,” Berry said. “As tragic as this event is, we must keep our minds open until all the facts are in.”
Berry said Saad is the father of four and works as an auto mechanic in Detroit.
Saad has been playing soccer for about two years without any prior incidents during soccer matches, Berry said.
Meanwhile, at least two memorial funds have been set up to help pay for Bieniewicz’s funeral expenses and to assist with the education of his two sons, ages 9 and 13.
One is at the website Johnbieniewiczmemorial.com. Another fund has been set up through Huntington Bank. Contributions to the Huntington Bank fund can be left at the Livonia Police Department, 15050 Farmington Road in Livonia or at any Huntington Bank branch in the state.