The other shoe has dropped in the aftermath of the Sept 5 tragedy in which SF Recreation and Park employee Thomas Burnoski ran over and killed Christy Svanemyr while she was relaxing on the grass in Holly Park.
Yesterday the San Francisco DA’s Office filed felony vehicular manslaughter and hit and run charges against Burnoski. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Vivian Ho has the story:
Thomas Burnoski, 58, turned himself in to face the charges leveled by the district attorney’s office in connection with the Sept. 5 death of Christine Svanemyr, 35, at Holly Park. He is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.
Burnoski was arrested the day of the accident, but had been free on $25,000 bail while police and prosecutors continued to investigate. Prosecutors did not explain Tuesday’s decision, but the charges suggest they believe Burnoski acted recklessly.
The Recreation and Park Department employee ran over Svanemyr in a city pickup truck as she relaxed in the grass with her dog and her then-10-month-old baby, Isa Amalie.
Burnoski’s attorneys said he veered onto the lawn from a paved pedestrian path to avoid an unleashed dog. However, park department policy does not allow workers to drive on pedestrian paths.
After hitting Svanemyr, the gardener continued down the grassy hill, hopped off a curb to Holly Park Circle – which surrounds the park – and drove to a staff meeting at nearby St. Mary’s Park. According to his attorneys, he then told his supervisor that he believed he hit something, but didn’t know what, and they returned to Holly Park.
“We believe in this case it was a tragic accident, but it wasn’t criminal,” attorney Tony Tamburello, whose firm is representing Burnoski, said Tuesday.
Burnoski, a parks employee since 2006, was placed on unpaid leave after Svanemyr’s death. He had no recent criminal record, though he was cited last year for talking on a cell phone while driving, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Tamburello said Burnoski was devastated by the incident. The gardener’s 20-year-old daughter, Tiffany Burnoski, had died in a car accident in April in Fresno County.
“He understands what this all means and is devastated and feels very strongly,” Tamburello said. “He relates to the child that has to grow up without a mother and a husband who has to parent by himself. He understands all that. It’s been very difficult.”
A press conference on the charges filed against Burnoski is scheduled for this afternoon; Bernalwood will update this post if additional information becomes available.
UPDATE 24 October: SF Chronicle reporter Vivian Ho follow up with additional details about the prosecutors’ case against Burnoski:
The San Francisco city gardener accused of fatally running over a woman in a Bernal Heights park before leaving the scene told his supervisor that he thought he hit “a dog or a child” after he tore down the grassy hill where the victim lay with her baby, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Prosecutors outlined some of their case against the gardener, 58-year-old Thomas Burnoski, a day after charging him with felony vehicular manslaughter and felony hit and run in the Sept. 5 death of Christine Svanemyr, 35, at Holly Park.
The district attorney’s office said the felony manslaughter charge, which requires a finding of gross negligence, was merited because Burnoski was simply looking for a shortcut when he veered onto the grass.
After he left the scene, prosecutors said, his supervisor forced him to return – before he made a second effort to get away.
But an attorney for Burnoski, who pleaded not guilty to the charges at his arraignment Wednesday, said his client had no idea he struck a person after he was forced to swerve off a pedestrian path to avoid an unleashed dog.
The Department of Park and Recreation gardener quickly alerted his supervisor to what happened, and they returned to Holly Park, said the attorney, Tony Tamburello.
The prosecution and defense argued over Svanemyr’s death as they fought over bail. In the end, Superior Court Judge Monica Wiley decreased Burnoski’s bail from $350,000 to $100,000, which Tamburello said Burnoski’s supporters plan to raise.
Burnoski drove his Ford F-250 truck about 30 feet down a hill and over a spot where Svanemyr was relaxing with her dog and 10-month-old baby. He continued about 30 feet more over the grass, then jumped a curb onto the roadway below.
Tamburello said Burnoski had felt a bump under his wheels, but saw a dog running from under the truck and a baby about 45 feet away – and assumed both were safe.
Of the unleashed dog that purportedly darted in front of Burnoski’s car on the pedestrian path, Assistant District Attorney Omid Talai said, “There’s no evidence of that. Even if that was the case, I would press the brakes. I wouldn’t swerve into an area where there might be people.”
Talai said Burnoski drove to a staff meeting at nearby St. Mary’s Park, where he told his supervisor, “I hit something. It was maybe a dog or a child.”
The supervisor told Burnoski they needed to return to Holly Park, and they headed back in separate cars. When he saw police there, Burnoski tried to make a U-turn that was consistent with an attempt to flee, according to Talai.
IMAGE: Illustration by Bernalwood. Inset, Thomas Burnoski via SFPD. Background, tire tracks at Holly Park incident scene on Sept 5, 2013, by the San Francisco Examiner.