By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) – A 17-year-old soccer player in Utah, whose punch out of anger over a penalty call ultimately killed a referee, pleaded guilty to homicide on Monday and was sentenced to three years in a juvenile detention facility, prosecutors said.
The teen, a goalie whose name has been withheld because of his age, became upset and punched the referee in the face after he penalized the teen for shoving an opposing player during a game in suburban Salt Lake City this past April.
Referee Ricardo Portillo was hospitalized for treatment of what were initially thought to be minor injuries, but an examination later showed he had suffered more substantial head injuries. He then lapsed into a coma and died at a Utah hospital one week after the attack.
The teen was charged in May with homicide by assault. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped a push to try the teen as an adult.
“For us, this case was always about trying to recover some measure of justice for Mr. Portillo’s family and to convey with no uncertainty to the young man the degree of disruption and loss caused to this family, to his family and to the entire community,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told Reuters.
The case made international headlines and raised questions about violence in youth sports. As part of the plea deal, the teen admitted that he killed the referee and agreed to the three-year sentence the judge ultimately recommended.
“To paraphrase, he told the judge he was frustrated and hit Mr. Portillo in the head, causing his death,” Gill said.
The teen will be required to have a photograph of Portillo, 46, on his wall and to write weekly letters to the referee’s family to tell them of his efforts toward rehabilitation, Gill said.
Officials with the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), the country’s largest soccer association for players aged four to 18, have said they were not aware of another such incident in the history of youth soccer in the United States.
Portillo had been refereeing a match put on by La Liga Continental, which is not affiliated with the AYSO.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, G Crosse)