Upstate NY bar fight turns international conflict

June 28, 2008 8:38:09 AM PDT
New York congressional leaders are asking U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to put pressure on Serbia to return a 20-year-old college basketball player who fled the country after being charged with the violent assault on an upstate New York college classmate. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer demanded Friday that the Serbian government immediately come clean about its involvement in the case of Miladin Kovacevic and help locate and return him to the U.S. or face possible sanctions.

"There are serious national and international implications to this case," Schumer said.

Schumer said Friday night that the Serbian government had recalled a diplomat who reportedly helped Kovacevic get the passport he used to leave the country. Calls to the Serbian Consulate in New York and the Eastern European nation's embassy in Washington rang unanswered Friday night, and an embassy spokespeople did not immediately respond to e-mail messages.

Meanwhile, in an interview with The New York Post, Kovacevic's parents said they helped their son flee the U.S. because the "media circus" here unfairly targeted him.

Kovacevic was "a victim of small-town values ganging up against a foreigner. He was targeted because he was a Serb and a very large man," said Peter Kovacevic, his father and an orthopedic surgeon.

Branka Kovacevic, a psychiatrist, said she urged her son to flee the U.S. after he was bailed out "because it had become a media circus where his voice was not being heard."

The Kovacevics said their son might be willing to return to the United States when the tumult subsides.

The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Kovacevic was recruited to play basketball at Binghamton, where he averaged 1.5 points per game in his freshman year but sat out last season with an injury.

Kovacevic and two other men were arrested on assault charges after a May 4 fight at a downtown Binghamton bar that left Bryan Steinhauer near death. The charges have since been upgraded to first-degree assault and first-degree gang assault.

Steinhauer, 22, of Brooklyn, remains in critical condition and has not regained consciousness since the attack.

"There is hope he'll come out soon from the coma, but nothing is guaranteed," Richard Steinhauer, the victim's father, told the Post.

The FBI and Interpol have issued warrants for Kovacevic's arrest. The Justice Department was investigating his departure from the United States.

State Department officials have had several meetings with their Serbian counterparts about the case and are continuing to monitor it, State Department spokesman Rob McInturff said Friday.

"We do think it's a very important case," he said.

According to police, Kovacevic was at the bar with friends when Steinhauer danced with one of the their girlfriends. Witnesses told police the men exchanged words. At least one account had Steinhauer inexplicably sucker-punching Kovacevic in the back of the head. After knocking Steinhauer unconscious, Kovacevic is accused of repeatedly kicking him in the head, police said.

After several weeks in jail, Kovacevic was released June 6 when his parents posted the $100,000 bail through the Serbian consulate's office in New York City. As a condition of his release, Kovacevic surrendered his passport.

But on June 9, Kovacevic flew from Newark Liberty International Airport to Frankfurt, Germany, using an emergency passport issued to him by the consulate office, Schumer said.

Serbian Deputy Consul Igor Milosevic reportedly furnished Kovacevic with the passport, Schumer said. He has asked Rice to revoke Milosevic's diplomatic immunity so he, too, can be prosecuted.

Milosevic was recalled to Serbia Friday and will face its Foreign Ministry's Discipline Commission, Schumer said.

"This news brings us one huge step forward to finding Mr. Kovacevic and bringing him to long-overdue justice," the senator said.

The State Department had no immediate information about Milosevic's status.

Kovacevic's parents said he returned home on his own passport and no special arrangements were made. It is not uncommon for Serbian nationals to also possess Croatian passports, they said.

"The (Serbian) authorities in New York did not do anything that wasn't part of the protocol," his mother said.

The Consulate General issued a statement Thursday saying it was never its "intention that Mr. Kovacevic flee the country," but did not mention Milosevic or his role in issuing the passport

Because local courts and prosecutors are not required to notify federal officials when they confiscate a passport, it was two days before authorities realized Kovacevic had fled, Schumer said. The senator added that he would introduce legislation to ensure that Customs and Transportation Security Administration officials are immediately notified if a foreign passport has been confiscated because an individual has been deemed a flight risk. Joining in the appeal to Rice were Sen. Hilary Clinton and Rep. Maurice Hinchey, an upstate New York Democrat.

"It is unconscionable that anybody, let alone a foreign government official, would help a person who is accused of such a violent crime flee the country," Clinton said.

Hinchey called the Serbian consulate's actions "irresponsible, incomprehensible and deplorable."

"The U.S. must make it clear to all foreign governments that we absolutely will not tolerate their obstruction of justice," Hinchey said.