80-year-old killed in latest U.S. incident in which alleged mask dispute escalated amid pandemic

A suburban Buffalo bar patron accused of giving a fatal shove to an 80-year-old man during a confrontation about the need to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide.

Donald Lewinski, 65, entered a plea of not guilty at a court on Tuesday and was released on his own recognizance, his lawyer, Barry Covert, said.

Rocco Sapienza confronted Lewinski at a bar in West Seneca, N.Y., on Sept. 26 because he was not wearing a mask, Erie County prosecutors said Monday. Lewinski then shoved Sapienza, who fell and struck his head on the floor, District Attorney John Flynn said.

Sapienza was knocked unconscious and died of his injuries on Oct. 1, WIVB-TV reported.

Covert called Sapienza’s death a tragedy but said in an email to The Associated Press that “we received witness statements that make it very clear that the victim was the aggressor.”

Sapienza was disgruntled for multiple reasons, including the fact that Lewinski’s son’s band was playing a show in the parking lot and had occupied the space Sapienza usually parked in, Covert said.

“He was initially disgruntled that the band set up in the parking lot that prevented him from using his usual parking spot,” the defence lawyer said.

“He was disgruntled that he could hear the music inside, and he was unhappy that my client and other people were bringing tables and chairs from inside the bar outside to the patrons who were enjoying the band out in the parking lot.”

Lewinski was wearing a neck gaiter as a face covering and forgot to raise it over his nose and mouth when he came in and out of the bar, Covert said, adding that Lewinski, “when asked to put his mask on, did so readily.”

As a condition of his release, West Seneca Town Justice Shannon Filbert ordered Lewinski to stay away from Sapienza’s widow, prohibited him from posting about the case on social media, barred him from entering bars or restaurants and prohibited him from possessing any guns.

Deadly incidents in Michigan, California

Since the pandemic began, there have been a number of incidents in both Canada and the United States stemming from disputes over mask-wearing, some of which have been posted to social media. Most have been relatively minor in nature, though there have been allegations of people spitting at election workers or brandishing weapons at big-box retail outlets.

Occasionally, incidents have escalated and led to serious injury or death.

In Pennsylvania last week, a preliminary hearing concluded that there was enough evidence to proceed with the prosecution of a 35-year-old man for attempted homicide and other charges in an August incident.

Prosecutors allege that Adam Zaborowski fired a gun in the parking lot of a cigar store at the store’s manager in Bethlehem Township. The manager had advised Zaborowski he needed to wear a mask inside the building, at which point the suspect stole some merchandise and fled the store.

When police tried to pull him over in his vehicle the following day, it is alleged that Zaborowski — in possession of an AK-47 and a pistol, authorities say — left the truck and opened fire on officers.

Meanwhile, three members of the same family face first-degree murder charges after a Family Dollar store security guard, Calvin Munerlyn, 43, was shot dead on May 1. in Flint, Mich.

It is alleged that Munerlyn refused the business of some members of the family for not wearing masks. Two members of the family then returned to the store, and Munerlyn was shot in the back of the head.  

In California, there is a case before the courts where the store security guard is being accused of murder.

Umeir Hawkins, a security guard with a supermarket in Gardena, Calif., was charged with murder in the July 5 shooting death of Jerry Lewis, 50. The fatality occurred in the parking lot after Lewis was refused entry for not wearing a mask.

A civil lawsuit was filed last week on behalf of the children of Lewis, with Hawkins and the store among those named as defendants.

In the small town of Dimondale, Mich., a 77-year-old man died a month after being stabbed inside a convenience store on July 14.

Police say stabbing occurred after Sean Ernest Ruis was refused service in the store for not wearing a mask, two days after a statewide edict for wearing them inside businesses went into effect.

Within an hour, police approached Ruis, 43, in a residential neighbourhood. An Eaton County Sheriff’s department officer fatally shot Ruis, who, officers allege, was brandishing a weapon at the time.

The deputy who fired the shots won’t be charged, authorities said.

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