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Man accused of punching Ohio State linebacker now faces felony charge

A late-night sucker punch at a Treasure Island bar last month cost Ohio State linebacker Tyler Moeller his entire 2009 football season, authorities said.

Now it might also cost the man accused of throwing that punch at least three years in prison.

Ralph Decker Jr. is now charged with felony battery for the July 26 attack that authorities said caused Moeller's head to hit the bar floor, briefly knocking him out. The warrant was signed by a judge Friday, and Decker turned himself in at the Pinellas County jail at 12:26 a.m. Monday.

Moeller and Decker encountered each other that night at Gator's Cafe & Saloon at 12754 Kingfish Drive. Both sides agreed the dispute started over whether Moeller really played for Ohio State.

Both also blame the other for the fisticuffs that ensued. Both said the other was drinking heavily. The state said Decker caught Moeller by surprise. But Decker, 27, told his attorney he was defending himself.

Moeller, 21, was hospitalized in St. Petersburg and then later in Ohio, where he underwent surgery to relieve fluid building up in his brain. Decker, who lives in Kenneth City and works for a title company, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of battery the night of the attack and released from jail.

But after taking a closer look at the case, prosecutors at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office decided to prosecute a more serious felony charge because of the injuries Moeller suffered, which sidelined him this season and cost him a chance to start for the Buckeyes.

The difference between misdemeanor and felony battery is that the latter must lead to "great bodily harm, permanent disability or permanent disfigurement," said Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger.

"(Moeller) had seizures, he had to have an operation to have three holes drilled in his head," the prosecutor said. "That qualifies as great bodily harm in most people's book."

Misdemeanor battery is punishable by up to a year in the county jail. But felony battery carries up to a five-year prison sentence. Ripplinger said he's already calculated that Decker, if convicted, could get a minimum of three years in prison. The charge also reflected the wishes of the victim and his family.

Defense attorney Sean McQuaid convinced a judge Monday to release Decker from jail on his own recognizance, without having to post $20,000 bond.

The defense said it will fight the allegation. McQuaid said several witness will back his client's account that he was defending himself after Moeller came at him threatening to "kill" and knock him out.

Man accused of punching Ohio State linebacker now faces felony charge 08/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 10:25am]
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