Sapienza hit his head on the hard floor and immediately began having a seizure, Flynn said. He remained unresponsive in a nearby hospital for four days before dying on Sept. 30.
After being arrested, cited and released earlier in the week, 65-year-old Donald M. Lewinski pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to a negligent homicide charge for allegedly pushing Sapienza and causing his death.
The deadly incident is just the latest in a long list of violent confrontations over mask rules in public spaces as the U.S. has grappled with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Even in hard-hit states like New York, which has reported at least 466,908 cases and 32,939 deaths since the start of the pandemic, some have protested policies requiring masks and other precautions to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The clash in West Seneca, N.Y., a suburb near Buffalo, allegedly began with Sapienza and Lewinski repeatedly butting heads at Pamp’s Red Zone Bar & Grill. The two men were both regulars at the bar and lived in the same West Seneca neighborhood, though the district attorney said it’s unclear if they knew each other before their clash on Sept. 26.
Witnesses saw the men arguing over how Lewinski talked to bar staff and a young woman, officials said. Flynn said the men were “jawing” at each other in the moments before the alleged assault. Then, Sapienza confronted Lewinski over his lack of a mask as he carried buckets of beer from the bar to a band playing outside.
Surveillance video reviewed by prosecutors allegedly shows Lewinski shove the 80-year-old hard enough to knock him to the ground. Lewinski quickly settled his bill and left the bar. Sapienza died four days later and a preliminary autopsy found the cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head, Flynn said.
Lewinski’s attorney said that video from the scene will show the shove was in self-defense.
“The video tape and the witness statements that we received this evening make it very clear that Mr. Sapienza was the aggressor,” Barry Covert told The Washington Post in an email. “He left his bar stool and aggressively confronted my client.
The owner of Pamp’s Red Zone described Sapienza, who was a retired Marine, as “part of our Red Zone family and loved by all,” WKBW reported.
“He could fill a room with his personality,” Sapienza’s stepson, Robert Graziano, told the Buffalo News. “It’s good to see that this was recognized for what it was and justice is going to be served.”
If Lewinski is convicted, he could face up to four years in prison.
“It’s certainly a tragedy that Mr. Sapienza passed away,” Covert told the News. “My client and his family want to express their best wishes and sympathy to the family of Mr. Sapienza.”
Mask mandates have roiled communities where the policies are seen by some residents as politically driven or a violation of personal freedom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks in public when around anyone who does not live in the same household. But that advice has been unevenly applied, even by the nation’s top leaders.
As the pandemic has spread, killing more than 210,000 people in the U.S., political battles over whether to require masks in public have grown increasingly heated. President Trump, who long resisted wearing a mask in the early days of the pandemic, again raised alarm on Monday when he removed his mask before walking into the White House even as he has tested positive for the virus. Other Republican officials have also opposed strict restrictions that limited public gatherings and closed businesses. Many still oppose those policies, even as the party is coping with a coronavirus cluster that has sickened more than a dozen high-profile Republicans.
“We see these ‘Karens’ out there in Walmarts who aren’t wearing masks and who get in confrontations with people not wearing masks,” Flynn said Monday. “We see it everywhere, where people are confronting one another and having arguments about not wearing masks. And it’s unfortunate that we have an incident now, here in western New York, where this escalated into an 80-year-old man passing away.”
Darren Sands contributed to this report.