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Man not likely to get jail time

| Friday, Jan. 14, 2005

A Hampton man convicted Thursday of simple assault for hurling a high school basketball referee to the floor is not likely to face jail time.

Allegheny County Judge John A. Zottola acquitted Peter Dukovich, 48, of three other charges -- disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment and assault on a sports official -- in the February attack on referee Ronald Bell, of Scottdale, Westmoreland County, during a Hampton-Deer Lakes basketball game.

Bell suffered head, neck and shoulder injuries and testified during the two-day, non-jury trial that he has been unable to work or drive since the attack. Dukovich and his wife, RaeLynn, stormed the floor after a fight involving their son, Tim, broke out under the hoop.

Zottola called the assault uncharacteristic of Dukovich and said the crime did not warrant jail time. The judge likely will place Dukovich on probation at his Feb. 18 sentencing. Simple assault carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail.

Pennsylvania is one of 19 states with laws that punish people who assault sports officials. The law, passed in 1990, is considered among the nation's toughest, carrying a maximum fine of $10,000 and sentence of up to five years. Pennsylvania was among the first states in the country to pass such a law.

Regional and state sports league representatives were stunned that Zottola found the law didn't apply in Dukovich's case.

"It sends the wrong message," said Larry Hanley, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. "It doesn't help the law if the court system is unwilling to or shows some unwillingness to carry it through."

Robert A. Lombardi, who administers the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association officials program, expected the ruling to reverberate here and beyond.

"The No. 1 reason across the nation that people do not become sports officials is (verbal and physical) abuse," he said. "An adverse decision like this doesn't help any of us in the officiating community."

Bell said he had hoped the verdict would send a message to parents of high school athletes.

"I hope this will never happen to another person," he said.

Dukovich declined to comment.

"Mr. Dukovich is an example of how somebody should act at games," said his lawyer, Anthony Mariani. "Mr. Dukovich was totally justified. This was a man defending his family from an attack."

The 6-foot, 300-pound Dukovich testified that he saw Bell poking and pushing RaeLynn Dukovich and that he threw the referee aside trying to protect her. Zottola hinted Wednesday that he might acquit Dukovich of assaulting a sports official, saying the law targeted fans who attack referees over unpopular calls. Dukovich said he wasn't disputing a call.

School officials testified that Bell never touched RaeLynn Dukovich, who ran onto the floor after her son, then a junior forward for Hampton, began scuffling with a Deer Lakes player. RaeLynn Dukovich pleaded guilty last year to disorderly conduct and was fined $300.

Two or three reports of assaults on officials are filed each week with the 17,000-member National Association of Sports Officials, said the group's founder and president, Barry Mano.

"There's more bad behavior being directed at officials today that at any time since we started this organization in 1976," Mano said. "The trend is in the wrong direction."

Zottola acknowledged as much.

"It is unfortunately alarming because it is becoming characteristic of sporting events that they will include some sort of violence," the judge said.

Zottola ordered Dukovich to work out a plan for restitution with Bell before the sentencing hearing. Deer Lakes Superintendent Mark King testified that the district has been notified by Bell's attorney that the referee is considering filing a lawsuit over the attack.

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