Commentary

A case of hit and run?

Updated: November 27, 2012, 3:34 PM ET
By Jeremy Schaap and Yaron S. Deskalo | Special to ESPN.com

This story was originally published in May 2009.

Bryan Steinhauer enrolled at Binghamton University in upstate New York because of its academic reputation. He had graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, arguably the most distinguished secondary school in the United States, and hoped to pursue a career in the world of finance.

Miladin Kovacevic enrolled at Binghamton to get a degree and to play basketball for coach Al Walker's Bearcats. Kovacevic had grown up in war-torn Yugoslavia, in the small town of Kula, two hours north of Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia and now the capital of independent Serbia.

At 5-foot-9 and 135 pounds, Steinhauer did not cut an imposing figure. Intellectually, though, he was a force. At Binghamton, he had a reputation for challenging professors and dominating classroom discussions with his curiosity and intelligence.

At 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, Kovacevic was among the biggest and strongest men on campus. But in two seasons as a Bearcat, he had been unproductive and injured. Kevin Broadus, the coach hired before Kovacevic's sophomore season to replace Walker, did not want Kovacevic back on the team as a junior.

In the spring of 2008, Steinhauer was preparing to graduate. He had accepted a position in New York City at KPMG, a global accounting firm.

Kovacevic's future was less certain. He was a sophomore, without a scholarship for the next season. He might transfer, he might return to Serbia.

Bryan Steinhauer and Miladin Kovacevic were two young men heading in different directions when they found themselves at the Rathskeller, a dark, crowded bar in downtown Binghamton early on the morning of May 4, 2008.

The beating

Miladin Kovacevic
AP Photo/Darko VojinovicMiladin Kovacevic, in front of his lawyer's house in Belgrade, Serbia, last December. The former Binghamton University basketball player is accused of beating American schoolmate Bryan Steinhauer.

We might never know what precipitated the beating Steinhauer suffered at the Rathskeller. Melissa Cartagena, a Binghamton sophomore, told police that Steinhauer pinched her buttocks. Other statements to police contradict her version of events. Perhaps Steinhauer pinched her, perhaps he merely asked her to dance, perhaps he said and did nothing to her. Cartagena was at the bar with her boyfriend, Sanel Softic, and his friends Edin Dzubur and Kovacevic. She has said that after she was pinched, Softic confronted Steinhauer, who was quickly knocked to the floor and kicked in the head … again … and again … and again. Witnesses said one man was delivering most of the kicks -- the largest of the men -- Kovacevic.

Jeffrey Wagner, a Binghamton police detective, said it was one of the "most vicious attacks" he'd investigated. "Maybe the worst," he said.

When it was over, Steinhauer lay motionless on the dance floor. He was rushed to Wilson Memorial Hospital, a regional trauma center, where his brain would swell through the multiple cracks in his skull.

"The kicks were so powerful that one kick actually broke his bone on the left temple four different places," said Dr. Saeed Bajwa, the neurosurgeon who treated Steinhauer. "At that time, his condition started showing the sign of significant deterioration. We were not sure he was going to make it."

Kovacevic and the other alleged assailants fled the bar immediately after the attack. According to a police statement, Cartagena was screaming at Softic, "Why did you do that? He didn't even touch me." The police later arrested Softic, Dzubur and Kovacevic on assault charges. Softic and Dzubur acknowledged they had participated in the beating; Kovacevic denied any involvement.

On June 6, after spending 34 days in the Broome County Jail, Kovacevic posted $100,000 bond and was freed pending trial. In court that day, he was required to surrender his passport. A Serbian diplomat, Igor Milosevic, the vice consul at the Serbian consulate general in New York, signed a document guaranteeing that Kovacevic would not flee U.S. jurisdiction.

Three days later, though, Milosevic apparently defied U.S. and Serbian law by issuing travel papers that allowed Kovacevic to escape the country. Accompanied by his mother, Kovacevic flew from Newark, N.J., to Frankfurt, then to Belgrade. He was back home -- a fugitive, beyond the reach of the American justice system.

"I was furious," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. "I was just furious. And when we heard about the same time that the Serbian consulate had aided and abetted … outrage."

Serbian law prohibits the extradition of its citizens in almost all circumstances. But Schumer, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice demanded that Serbian authorities return Kovacevic. They argued that, because a Serbian official had made it possible for Kovacevic to flee, the normal rules did not apply -- and threatened to cut off the $50 million in U.S. aid that Serbia receives annually.

"The Serbian government itself was part and parcel to Kovacevic leaving the country," Schumer said. "They gave him the visa, and they never should've. Serbia has basically thumbed its nose at the system of justice here in the United States."

Milosevic eventually was recalled to Serbia, suspended for improperly issuing an emergency passport and arrested. He is awaiting trial. Slobodan Nenadovic, former head of the Serbian consulate in New York, also was fired after the incident.

Meanwhile, Steinhauer remained in a hospital bed, stable but still comatose. "They really had no idea how long he'd be in a coma," said his father, Richard Steinhauer, "what he would be like, anything.

The politics, the violence and the background

[+] EnlargeMiladin Kovacevic
AP Photo/Zoran RashKovacevic, accompanied by unidentified Serbian Radical Party members, arrives at the Serbian Parliament in Belgrade, Serbia, in January. Kovacevic, 22, fled to Serbia in June to avoid prosecution in the Steinhauer beating case.

For a brief while, Kovacevic was all but unseen. But a few weeks after his return to Serbia, he emerged from hiding and assumed a higher profile. Far-right nationalist elements took up his cause. Rumors spread that the government had arranged his escape as an act of retribution against the United States, which, for most of the past 20 years, has been in a continual state of conflict with Serbia. In February 2008, the U.S. had recognized Kosovo, which most Serbs consider a renegade province, as an independent nation. By way of retaliation, an angry mob torched the American embassy in Belgrade. Police and firefighters reportedly waited 45 minutes to respond.

But the disagreement over the recognition of Kosovo was only the most recent in a series of issues that have divided Serbia and the U.S. for a long time. In the early 1990s, they were at odds over the status of ethnic Serbs in the newly independent countries of Croatia and Bosnia. Along with much of the international community, the U.S. held the Serbs responsible for most of the so-called ethnic cleansing that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and reduced Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, to rubble. In 1999, in response to Serbian violence aimed at ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the U.S. spearheaded a NATO bombing offensive that destroyed strategically important bridges, communications facilities and government offices throughout Serbia -- and killed more than 1,000 civilians. Even today, there are bombed-out buildings in Belgrade's central district that serve as constant reminders of the extent of the damage. Kovacevic also happened to flee the U.S. at a time of upheaval in the Serbian government. A conservative prime minister openly hostile to the U.S. had lost his bid for re-election but was still in office. The incoming prime minister, on the other hand, was eager to improve Serbia's reputation in the West and apparently was embarrassed by the government's role in Kovacevic's escape.

The emotions Serbs feel about the United States are imbued with ambivalence. The ultranationalist politics of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president who died in prison in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes, have largely been rejected by a Serbia yearning for inclusion in the European community. Slobodan Milosevic was a pariah in the West, and the United States did all it could to neutralize him. Despite acknowledging many of the crimes of the Milosevic regime -- foremost among them its steadfast support for the Bosnian Serb militia that committed so many atrocities under the leadership of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- Serbs feel they were unfairly singled out by the West and point to the relatively mild treatment of Croatia and Bosnia, which also committed atrocities. Some Serbs feel doubly betrayed because, in a region where the past is never past, it was largely the Croatians who fought for Hitler in World War II and the Serbians whose partisans fought for the Allies.

The Serbian ambivalence toward the United States was typified in the Kovacevic household in Kula, about 100 miles north of Belgrade. Kovacevic's parents, Peter, a physician, and his mother, Branka, a psychiatrist, encouraged their son to leave Serbia to play basketball in the United States. "We thought of the United States as the land of opportunity," Peter Kovacevic said.

Miladin Kovacevic and his friend Lazar Trifunovic, teammates on the youth team of the storied Belgrade Partizan basketball team, went to the United States in 2006 to play at a prep school in Virginia. Trifunovic was clearly the star, Kovacevic the project. That was still the case when they were recruited together to play at Binghamton.

The recovery

By July, Steinhauer had been moved to a second hospital. He made occasional noises and there were involuntary movements, but technically he was still comatose.

"It was very frightening," Richard Steinhauer said. "He was still not waking up. [We were] hoping every day, maybe today, maybe today will be the day that he opens his eyes and looks and he's there and he says something -- and every day you're hoping for that, and it's not happening."

For three months, the Steinhauers experienced nothing but anguish and uncertainty. Then, on Aug. 4, a hospital aide was attending to Bryan.

"All of a sudden, she pulls the curtain back and motions me to come in, looks at Bryan and says, 'Can you repeat that?'" Richard Steinhauer recalled. "And in this very faint, hard-to-understand voice, I suddenly hear, 'Thank you.' That's the happiest moment of my life. You're sitting there waiting for months and months, nothing's happening, and then all of a sudden he's there, and it was indescribable."

Bryan Steinhauer said he has no memory of the night when he was beaten into a coma.

"I wish I could remember anything," he said. "Like it's funny, even months before the incident, I have no memory at all."

When he asked how he had ended up in a coma for three months, Steinhauer's parents told Bryan only that he had hit his head in a fall at a bar. Eventually he found out what had happened by searching for himself on the Internet.

The pressure

[+] EnlargeMiladin Kovacevic's Parents
AP Photo/Srdjan IlicLawyer Borivoje Borovic, right, briefs Peter Kovacevic, left, and Branka Kovacevic, center, the parents of Miladin Kovacevic, a Serbian student and basketball player wanted by the U.S. The case strained relations between Washington and Belgrade.

Meanwhile, the United States continued to apply pressure on Serbian authorities to extradite Kovacevic, which they said was a constitutional impossibility. On Oct. 28, however, Serbian authorities did arrest him for assaulting Steinhauer and for using false travel documents. Kovacevic spent 55 days in prison in Belgrade, but he was released because Gerald Mollen, the district attorney in Binghamton, was unwilling to share his case file with the Serbs, who had failed to convince him that they would take the prosecution seriously.

Those sentiments were understandable in light of the way the Kovacevic case had been politicized in Serbia. For some elements of the government, the fugitive had become a symbol of resistance to the country they revile above all others. In January, Kovacevic stoked nationalist passions when he paraded through the Serbian parliament, apparently at the invitation of anti-Western lawmakers.

The diplomatic machinations between Belgrade and Washington were of little concern to Steinhauer. He was too busy relearning everything. How to walk. How to talk. Shown the video his father recorded last fall, when Bryan weighed less than 100 pounds, of him trying to walk, he says, his speech still impaired: "I have so much more to go, to get better. I want to give me motivation to continue and keep improving because I'm never satisfied, this is not enough."

The possible prosecution

Two hours north of Belgrade, in the small city of Vrbas, not far from his hometown, Kovacevic has returned to the basketball court, signing with a low-level professional team. On March 9, "E:60" attended a game in which Kovacevic scored 11 points and led his team with 11 rebounds. He wouldn't speak to a reporter that night, but his attorney said Kovacevic might consent to an interview the next day in Belgrade. But Kovacevic again declined an interview request. Before a practice in Vrbas, he would say only that he had no comment. It is unlikely he was aware that the Serbian government was in serious negotiations with the United States that would make it possible for him to be tried in Serbia for assaulting Steinhauer.

On March 13, in Washington, Serbian prosecutors met with Mollen, the Binghamton DA; justice department officials; and Irwin Rochman, the Steinhauers' lawyer. The Serbs persuaded Mollen that there would be an effective and fair prosecution in Serbia. He handed them his evidence. A trial is to be held.

Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian foreign minister, expressed contempt for Kovacevic, who has single-handedly complicated relations with a nation with which Jeremic's government is eager to make peace.

"To be honest, I regret that he's currently here," Jeremic said. "We really need to try and engage with each other, to work together to make sure that (A) justice is served and (B) that the least damage is done to the relationship between the United States and Serbia."

[+] EnlargeBryan Steinhauer's Parents
AP Photo/Mary AltafferRichard and Marlene Steinhauer, the parents of Bryan Steinhauer, speak to reporters during a news conference in July 2008 in New York. Their son has emerged from a coma and continues his recovery.

As a gesture of its good faith, Serbia agreed to compensate the Steinhauers, whose medical bills are likely to climb into the millions. From the Serbs, they received $900,000.

"We aren't paying for Kovacevic; we are paying for the mistake of our civil servant," said Slobodan Homen, the senior justice ministry official overseeing the Kovacevic negotiations.

The Steinhauers are also suing two bars in Binghamton, the Rathskeller and Dillinger's. They claim that Kovacevic was served at both establishments, even though he was underage at the time, and that his drinking led directly to the beating.

"We are dealing with the alcohol," Rochman says.

As for Kovacevic, his trial might take place as early as next month. He continues to maintain his innocence, and his attorney argues that Steinhauer was beaten by the other men charged in connection with the assault, not by his client.

"What Steinhauer did was he hit Kovacevic with his fist twice in the face," said Kovacevic's lawyer, Borivoje Borovic. "He was surprised, he could not believe that this guy who was shorter than him had hit him, so he grabbed him and pushed him away. That was his only action."

In the U.S., Kovacevic remains under indictment and would face up to 25 years for gang assault. In Serbia, the maximum sentence he could receive is 10 years. Sen. Schumer is skeptical that justice will be served.

"Most of us are willing to await the outcome of the trial to see if prosecutors will really go after Kovacevic in his own country, to see if there will be a real jail sentence," Schumer said. "If there's not, we're going to go right back at trying to extradite him and cutting aid to Serbia. The chapter is not over until Kovacevic does real, serious, hard jail time."

The rehab

A little more than a year after the attack, Steinhauer's days are spent mostly in rehab, trying to recover his motor and cognitive skills. Four days a week, he leaves his home in Brooklyn with his parents and takes the B train to Manhattan for his therapy sessions.

"I think the hardest part is learning how to live twice, independently," he said. "Independently. It's my fight to be independent, and it's very tough.

"I mean, who knows if I'll ever be there."

Whatever was taken from him that night at the Rathskeller, Steinhauer is determined to get it back.

"I really want to succeed," he says. "I really want to be a valuable member of society. I can't get revenge. The best revenge I can get is to motivate myself and get the best I can."

Jeremy Schaap is a reporter for "E:60," and Yaron S. Deskalo is a producer for "E:60."

Jeremy Schaap

SportsCenter Reporter/Host, Classic Sports Reporters
Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a New York Times best-selling author ("Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History") and a contributor to "ABC World News Tonight" and "Nightline."