Alex Tresniowski
January 28, 2002 12:00 PM

Maybe, sometime in the past, the Burbank Ice Arena was a place you could take your kid to learn the better lessons of sports—teamwork, discipline, the thrill of victory, grace in defeat. But since July 5, 2000, Burbank also teaches a darker lesson. After that day, “I was uncomfortable about coming back,” says Peggy Quinn, a mother who takes her daughter Caitlin, 4, to skating lessons at the Reading, Mass., rink. “I told her there had been an accident there. I didn’t tell her there was a murder.”

By any name, what happened at Burbank was ugly. On Jan. 11, after an eight-day trial in Middlesex County superior court, a jury of nine women and three men found truck driver Thomas Junta, 44, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the beating death of Michael Costin, 40. Eighteen months earlier the part-time painter and carpet layer had been supervising Junta’s 12-year-old son Quinlan in a hockey scrimmage when the two men came to blows. Junta, a 6’1″, 270-lb. Tony Soprano lookalike who outweighed Costin by 114 lbs., will likely get three to five years when he is sentenced Jan. 25.

The hot-button trial, which featured wrenching testimony from Quinlan—who, along with Costin’s son Michael, 13, witnessed the fight—was the grimmest example yet of parental violence at sporting events. According to Fred Engh, 66, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports—an organization that counsels parents and coaches—roughly 15 percent of parents act aggressively at games, a threefold increase from 10 years ago. “Parents have lost perspective on what sports means to a child,” says Engh. Incidents of physical confrontations between adults at youth hockey, basketball, football, baseball and even slow-pitch softball games have become “an epidemic,” says psychologist Rick Wolff, chairman of the Sports Parenting Center at the University of Rhode Island. “We’ve gotten to the point where every parent who has a kid in youth sports should receive training. We need a zero-tolerance approach.”

The hockey-dad case—the first sports-rage fatality—was a jarring wake-up call. Junta claimed he’d acted solely in self-defense. Frustrated after watching his son take an elbow to the face, he confronted Costin, who shot back, “That’s hockey.”

Junta left the rink but quickly returned, he said, to pick up his son and two friends. In a scuffle that followed, he admitted on the stand, he punched Costin three times on the side of the head while Costin lay on the floor. The blows ruptured an artery in Costin’s neck, which led to a brain hemorrhage; he slipped into a coma and died two days later. Junta testified he hit Costin because “I wanted him to stop hitting me.”

Prosecutors portrayed Junta as an aggressor who viciously pummeled the smaller Costin, a father of four who volunteered to supervise the scrimmage so he could spend more time with his sons. “He was in the middle of folding the laundry when he ran out to take the kids to practice,” says his sister Mary Barbuzzi. “He thought he was going to be home to fold the laundry and cook supper that night.”

The jury bought neither story, at least not entirely. “It may have started as self-defense but it went beyond that,” says juror Kevin McGrattan, 46, a computer engineer. “You shouldn’t be hitting people who are on the ground. Still, I don’t think Thomas Junta said, ‘There’s a little punk and I’m going to teach him a lesson.’ I don’t see the big bully beating up the little guy here.”

Friends and relatives described both men as good-hearted fathers who cared deeply for their children. “He’s always rushing home for the kids,” Gus LaFace, 45, says of his friend Junta, who lived in Reading with his wife of 14 years, Michelle, 43, a part-time swimming instructor, their son Quinlan and daughter Kendall, 17, cocaptain of her high school hockey team. “He’s a fun father.” No explanations were offered by friends for the fact that Junta was charged in 1992 with assault and battery of a police officer.

Costin’s own troubles were well-documented. His father, Gus, fatally stabbed Michael’s older brother Dennis during an argument when Costin was 15. Gus Costin, 68, a former boxing coach, served six months for the killing, which he said was accidental. But the event apparently sent Michael into a tailspin. By the time he was 34, he had served five prison terms for breaking and entering, assault and other charges. An alcoholic, he was estranged from his wife, Linda, and lost custody of their children, Michael, Brendan, 14, Sean, 12, and Tara, 10.

Since recently regaining custody of his children, though, Costin had turned a corner. “He was over his drinking,” says good friend Joseph DiMarzio, 37, adding that Costin attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and even counseled other alcoholics. “His life revolved around his kids. He went to church every Sunday. He was just a real good guy.”

What, then, sparked his violent confrontation with Junta at the Burbank rink? In part, it was an experience common to millions of parents: watching their children compete. “The challenge parents face is that it is a very emotional experience,” says Dan Doyle, 53, founder of the Rhode Island-based Institute of International Sports and author of the upcoming Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting. “You’re going to see your child make mistakes and get bumped and bruised. Parents need to be prepared in terms of self-control.”

Easier said than done, even for former professional baseball player and onetime Cincinnati Reds manager Ray Knight. On April 27, 1999, Knight—then coaching his 12-year-old daughter in an Albany, Ga., softball game—was charged with disorderly conduct for striking Jimmy Smith, whose daughter played for the opposing squad. “He sucker-punched me from the back,” recalls Smith, 50.

“His World Series ring left a little gash in my ear.” Knight, who like Smith paid a $265 fine, claims the man baited him after a disputed call but admits he lost control. “It wasn’t about the game or the sport-I wanted to nail him,” says Knight, still a Softball coach but not in the same league. “Never again will I be in a situation where I am verbal with anyone. I will turn and walk away.”

Such restraint is more difficult in the modern culture of over-involvement, a term Leonard Zaichkowsky, professor of sports psychology at Boston University, uses to describe the social transformation that he feels has led fathers to become more involved in their children’s lives. “There’s a fine line between providing support and becoming a negative force,” says Zaichkowsky, a former hockey player and father of two. The problem, he adds, is that most parents who become volunteer coaches “have no experience as teachers and don’t understand how to deal with the issues other parents bring to the table.”

At a July 2000 girls softball game in Covington, Ga., dozens of parents rushed the field after a player was tagged too roughly; two mothers, both of them coaches, each served 10 days in jail. “Basically these were adults acting like children,” says prosecutor Jeannie Ammons, 32. In a case eerily similar to the Junta affair, a youth hockey coach in Pennsauken, N.J., suffered a concussion and a broken tooth after being assaulted by the father of one of the 12-year-olds on the team last February. “My son was right there watching me get beat up,” says the coach, Jack Lyons, 49. (His attacker, George Danenhower, 38, declined to comment; he was sentenced to two years’ probation.)

How serious is it? “To me this is as worrisome as people walking into schools with guns,” says Arizona Diamondbacks ace pitcher Curt Schilling, 35, the 2001 World Series co-MVP and father of three. Parents who pressure kids to succeed and who overreact to failure “should be more interested in their children being happy,” he says. “Losing a competition is part of growing up.”

It wasn’t winning or losing that set off Junta, he claimed, but rough play on the ice. After screaming at Costin from the stands to control the action, Junta confronted him again near the locker room. The two men shoved and grappled with each other before bystanders urged Junta to leave. He did but returned moments later and saw Costin, still in ice skates, in the lobby near the entrance. “He was lunging at me,” Junta testified of this second scuffle. “As soon as we hit the floor he put his feet up. He was trying to knee me. Then he tried to hit me.” Junta’s response? “I threw three quick punches,” he told prosecutor Sheila Calkins. “I wasn’t trying to hit anywhere particular.”

Junta’s son Quinlan took the stand and haltingly backed up his father’s story: “He was trying to punch and kick my dad.” But two other witnesses, including Nancy Blanchard, the arena’s assistant manager, said that Junta repeatedly punched Costin, smashing his head into the floor, despite their cries that he was killing him. By the time Costin’s mother arrived at the arena shortly after the incident, Costin was, doctors testified, probably brain-dead. “I looked up and someone said, ‘There’s [Junta],’ ” remembers Joan Costin. “I walked over to him and said, ‘These children don’t have a mother, so you better get on your knees and beg God nothing happens to their father.’ ”

It took jurors nearly 14 hours to reach their verdict. “When Costin ended up on the bottom,” says juror Richard Rotberg, 53, “that’s when self-defense stopped.” Afterward court officers escorted Junta and his supporters, including all 11 of his siblings, to a private room, where they said goodbye before he was taken to jail. “Everyone got a chance to hug him,” says Bernie Kelly, 45, Junta’s brother-in-law. “He was doing his best to not break down.”

Junta’s lawyers plan to appeal the case, saying that Judge Charles M. Grabau should have allowed them to introduce Costin’s medical and psychiatric records to the jury. In the meantime Junta’s son and daughter have rejoined their hockey teams. Costin’s three sons, too, are back on the ice, though they avoid the Burbank rink. “Nobody is innocent here,” says juror Kevin McGrattan. “It took two people for this to occur. What’s unfortunate is that it was not much more than a schoolyard fight. I’m sure both of them would be happy now if they had just taken their kids and driven away.”

Alex Tresniowski

Tom Duffy, Anne Driscoll and Kathy Ehrich in Cambridge, Lori Rozsa and Steve Ellman in Miami, Kristin Harmel in Gainesville, Fla., Bruce Stockler in New York City, Michaele Ballard in Charlotte, N.C., Gail Wescott in Atlanta and Nancy Wilstach in Albany

You May Like