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May 9, 2013

Teen charged with homicide by assault in ref death

SALT LAKE CITY — Family and friends honored the memory of a Utah soccer referee at an emotional funeral service Wednesday evening just hours after the teenager who punched him before he fell into a coma was charged with homicide by assault.

After an afternoon wake at a community center, a group of men carried a wooden casket with the remains of Ricardo Portillo in silence about a quarter mile to a nearby Catholic church. There, about 200 people — most wearing white shirts — listened to a funeral service conducted in Spanish.

The Rev. Javier Virgin told them that Portillo completed his life mission by sharing his talent for refereeing with hundreds of teenagers who played in games he worked. Portillo, 46, was born in Mexico, but had lived in Utah for the past 17 years.

"He reached his goal of serving others," Virgin said in Spanish.

Earlier Wednesday, the teenager who police say punched Portillo was charged with homicide by assault, a count issued when an attack unintentionally causes death.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he will seek to try the teen as an adult.

The charge is less serious than manslaughter. It carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison for adults, but penalties can be less for juveniles.

Gill said it became clear in looking at the facts that the teenager's actions didn't amount to murder or manslaughter.

"We did not believe we could demonstrate the premeditation or intent to justify those charges," Gill told The Associated Press. "Those other charges require another type of mental state. We did not believe that type of mental state was present."

The fact that the teenager will soon turn 18, combined with the seriousness of what happened, led Gill to push to have him tried as an adult. The chance of the teen's rehabilitation is minimal, prosecutors said in court documents. A juvenile court judge will ultimately rule on that request.

The 17-year-old, whose name is being withheld by The Associated Press because he's a minor, has been in juvenile detention since April 27 when the incident occurred at a recreational-league soccer match in a Salt Lake City suburb.

It's unknown when he'll make his first court appearance, and the judge has ordered that no information be made public about future proceedings. His attorney, Monica Diaz Greene, did not return phone messages.

Not much is known about the teenager, although Utah courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said he does not have any prior history in juvenile court.

His coach, James Yapias, has said he was playing his first game with the team but has declined to elaborate any further about the young man or his family.

Police reports and court documents paint a picture of a young man who appears to have made a fatally flawed decision in the heat of the moment.

The punch occurred after what often are the most dramatic moments of any soccer game — the issuance of a yellow card by the referee. Portillo whistled the teen for pushing an opposing player during a corner kick.

As soccer players often do — professionals included — the teenager began arguing with Portillo about the call. But then the teenager went past the usual bickering, hitting Portillo in the rear jaw area with a closed fist, court documents state. Portillo was writing the teen's name on his notepad and didn't see it coming.

Portillo fell to the ground and lay in a fetal position, complaining of pain and saying he felt nauseated, police reports show. There were no visible injuries, but when he spit up blood, an ambulance was called.

Portillo was taken to a hospital in fair condition. Hours later, he went into a coma. He never regained consciousness and died Saturday.

The medical examiner's autopsy concluded he died from injuries related to the blow to the head. The death was ruled a homicide.

The incident occurred in a game held by La Liga Continental de Futbol, an unaffiliated soccer league created in 2009.

The oldest of Portillo's three daughters, Johana Portillo, declined to comment about the charges through family spokesman Tony Yapias.

Friends and family spent Wednesday remembering Ricardo Portillo at an afternoon wake that was to be followed by an evening religious service. The wake attendees wore white T-shirts with a drawing of an orange referee jersey in the middle with the words, "In loving memory of Ricky" around a soccer ball.

After the funeral, Portillo's remains will be returned to his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico.

Tony Yapias said Portillo was well known in the community and once said that he would someday be a famous soccer referee.

"How ironic," he said. "What has happened as a result of this is just that."

Follow Brady McCombs at https://twitter.com/BradyMcCombs .

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