A New York man was arrested this week in the death of an 80-year-old bar patron stemming from a mask dispute last month, authorities said.
Donald Lewinski, 65, was arrested Monday in connection with the Sept. 26 incident in West Seneca, a suburb in Buffalo, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn announced.
The victim, Rocco Sapienza, allegedly confronted Lewinski twice for not wearing a mask at a bar, Flynn said.
"The defendant was not wearing his mask regularly at the bar," per the bar rules, Flynn said during a press briefing Monday. "The victim was not happy that he was not wearing a mask, and the victim apparently let him know that, verbally."
The two had a "verbal confrontation" before Sapienza went back to his seat, Flynn said. A video allegedly shows Sapienza again approach Lewinski, who then "stood up from the bar school and pushed him with two hands," Flynn said.
"He pushed him pretty hard," the district attorney said. "The victim went flying back and hit his head on the ground."
The shove appeared to be without warning, he added.
Sapienza was unresponsive and had a seizure on the floor of the bar, authorities said. Responders took Sapienza to a nearby hospital, where he remained unresponsive until his death on Thursday, according to Flynn. The cause of death was blunt force trauma, he said.
At this time this is no indication that alcohol played a part in the dispute, the district attorney said.
"We have an extremely unfortunate incident that has occurred here," Flynn said, referencing other recent confrontations over mask compliance in stores and on airplanes. "It's unfortunate that we had an incident here now in Western New York where this escalated into an 80-year-old man passing away, allegedly at the hands of a 65-year-old."
Lewinski was set to be arraigned Tuesday evening and charged with negligent homicide, a felony, the district attorney said. Lewinski, who has no prior charges, faces up to four years in prison if convicted, said Flynn.
In an email to the Associated Press, Lewinski's attorney, Barry Covert, said his client plans to plead not guilty.
“I have watched the bar videotape, and it does appear that Mr. Sapienza does come from a different part of the bar to initiate the confrontation with my client, who was at a different section of the bar," Covert said in his statement to the AP.
Both men were regulars at the bar but did not appear to know each other, Flynn said.
In a statement to Buffalo ABC affiliate WKBW, the owner of the bar, Pamp's Red Zone Bar & Grill, said, "We are all deeply saddened by the loss of Rocco. He was a part of our Red Zone family and loved by all. Our deepest sympathies go out to Rocco’s family."
The incident was one of several involving mask compliance in the region that week. In an eerily similar case, police responded on Sept. 22 to the report of a gym employee having a seizure following a physical altercation with a gym member "whom the employee had confronted over not wearing a proper face covering," according to the West Seneca Police Department blotter. And on Sept. 26, a man allegedly trashed a store after a clerk refused to serve him because he was not wearing a mask, West Seneca police said.
The incident at the Buffalo-area bar is the nation's latest mask-compliance confrontation to turn deadly.
In May, a Michigan security guard was killed after instructing a woman to leave a store because she was not wearing a mask, authorities said. In July, a security guard at a Southern California market was charged with murder after fatally shooting a man who refused to wear a mask, authorities said. Also in July, a man was fatally stabbed after allegedly confronting another man about not wearing a mask in a Michigan store. The suspect was shot and killed by police following the stabbing, authorities said.