Beaten student's parents speak out

July 24, 2008 7:21:20 PM PDT
It started as a bar fight in a college town in upstate New York.Police say a hulking basketball player from Serbia beat a fellow college student to a bloody pulp and fled to his home country, sparking a diplomatic crisis.

U.S. senators have intervened on the victim's behalf, even reaching out to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and threatening to pull back aid to Serbia over the episode. Serbia has refused to cooperate, damaging relations between the two countries just as the nation's new pro-Western government was hoping for a new era in diplomacy with the U.S.

American officials in Belgrade delivered a diplomatic note to the Serbian government Wednesday demanding that the suspect, Miladin Kovacevic, be returned to the United States by Aug. 1. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he has spoken to Rice about the case, and "neither the executive branch nor the Senate will rest until Mr. Kovacevic is returned to the United States to face justice."

"There is a great deal of leverage we have on the Serbian government and if we have to look at foreign aid, we will," Schumer said Thursday.

In a statement, the Serbian consulate in New York did not address the Aug. 1 deadline, but said, "The Serbian government remains committed to cooperation with American authorities at all levels."

As the U.S. government stepped up pressure for the return of Kovacevic, the parents of Bryan Steinhauer, who authorities say was viciously assaulted by Kovacevic in Binghamton, N.Y., said Thursday that their son is slowly emerging from a coma.

"He doesn't have full consciousness," said the 22-year-old's father, Richard Steinhauer. "He's kind of sleepwalking."

The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Kovacevic and two other men were arrested on assault charges after Steinhauer was nearly beaten to death on May 4.

The injured student's parents said their son was repeatedly kicked in the head while he lay bleeding on the floor and suffered multiple skull fractures.

"He remains unable to eat, sleep or walk," said Richard Steinhauer, 57, of Brooklyn, a systems analyst who spoke at a news conference at a Manhattan hotel. "His prognosis remains uncertain. We do not know when or even if we will ever get our son back."

The student's mother, retired teacher Marlene Steinhauer, 60, added, "We miss our only child, Bryan, whom we love and have raised for 22 years. ... He was quick-thinking, kind and had his own big dreams. He only gave his family and friends pride and joy throughout his life."

Bryan Steinhauer and Kovacevic, 21, were students at Binghamton University, where Kovacevic had been recruited to play basketball.

According to police, Kovacevic was at a bar in Binghamton when Steinhauer danced with the girlfriend of one of his friends.

Witnesses told police the men exchanged words. At least one account had Steinhauer punching Kovacevic in the back of the head before being knocked unconscious by Kovacevic.

Steinhauer's mother said her son was an assault victim, not a bar brawler.

"Bryan weighed 130 pounds," she said. "Now he weighs around 100."

She said Steinhauer was about to graduate with honors and was looking forward to starting a job as an accountant with KPMG.

After several weeks in jail, Kovacevic was released June 6 when his parents posted the $100,000 bail through the Serbian consulate.

As a condition of his release, Kovacevic surrendered his passport.

But on June 9, Kovacevic (pronounced koh-VAH'-cheh-vitch) flew from Newark Liberty International Airport to Frankfurt, Germany, using an emergency passport issued to him by the consulate office, the Steinhauers' lawyer, Irwin Rochman, said.

Serbian Deputy Consul Igor Milosevic reportedly furnished Kovacevic with the passport.

In its statement Thursday, the Serbian consulate said two diplomats who aided Kovacevic in fleeing the United States were brought before the disciplinary commission of Serbia's Foreign Ministry and are in the process of being dismissed.

The consulate said the diplomats may face criminal charges.

But Serbia has refused to turn Kovacevic over, saying its laws do not allow the extradition of its citizens to the United States.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told reporters this week that the "case has dealt a serious blow to the already strained relations between Washington and Belgrade," adding that he will apologize to American officials this week during a visit to the U.S.

Kovacevic's lawyer Veselin Cerovic said earlier this month that his client fled because he didn't trust the U.S. justice system.

Cerovic said Kovacevic told him that while in detention, he was subjected to "torture and disdain" because he is a Serb. In the meantime, Kovacevic reportedly signed a contract to play basketball in Serbia after fleeing to the country. He has been vilified in the New York tabloids, with photos of him smoking a giant cigar and above a front-page New York Post headline "KISS MY ASH."

The other two men charged with assaulting Steinhauer, Sanel Softic and Edin Dzubur, are being held without bail in upstate Broome County.

Asked what he would say to Kovacevic if he could, Richard Steinhauer said, "Come back. ... If someone commits a crime, they should take the consequences for it."