UPDATED: Felony Charges Filed Against City Worker In Holly Park Tragedy; Driver Allegedly Made Two Attempts to Flee Scene


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.  

10 thoughts on “UPDATED: Felony Charges Filed Against City Worker In Holly Park Tragedy; Driver Allegedly Made Two Attempts to Flee Scene

  1. I’ve often wondered about the vehicles on the paths all over the city. There’s often trucks on the middle path at Precita when kids and parents are on their way to Flynn elem. in the morn. This is so unnecessarily tragic. I’m sure this guys feels terrible.

  2. I don’t have a problem with park workers or police driving around in parks as it is usually done safely. It is usually part of their jobs and if a cop wants to take a break up at the top of Holly Park in his cruiser, more power to him.

    In this case though, given what I have read, this person was doing it in a non-standard and very unsafe way. If he says he had to swerve to avoid a dog, he was going too fast. Plus, part of driving is making split-second decisions. He could have swerved and slammed on the brakes. In addition, he shouldn’t have been “driving” on the side walk, he should have been crawling along at 1-2 mph. Seems like a yarn to me, but let him present at trial.

    Though I am guessing (as redwagon above says) that he probably feels terrible, it is totally irrelevant and the charges are entirely justified. The tragic part is the death and not that this guy is charged with felony vehicular manslaughter.

  3. A tragic accident all around. Was the unleashed dog the victim’s? Witnesses had said that there was a dog running around. Crazy to fall asleep with a child & a dog, especially in such a busy park.

    • First, there is no evidence that the victim was asleep, and reports have only said she was relaxing. Anything more is conjecture since of course no one can ask her (or the dog or the baby). Nor is it crazy to lie in a grassy area in the sun on a nice day with a dog and child, and assume that you won’t be run-over by an off-roading truck. Any attempt to place blame or responsibility on the victim here is really, well, please think about what you are saying.

      This was not an accident “all around,” nor was it tragic “all around.” The driver was somewhere that he wasn’t supposed to be, and in fact was nowhere near the path where he supposedly swerved to avoid the alleged dog. If he has stopped, and gone right back onto the path (which he didn’t, and which it sounds like he wasn’t even supposed to be on to begin with), this never would have happened. Entirely preventable on one side. Also, anyone who thinks they might have hit a dog or child (!) and leaves the scene instead of immediately stopping to check, well, that weighs against alleged humanity referenced below

      The fact that he feels terrible makes him human, but still careless, possibly negligent, and subject to manslaughter charges (I leave those legal determinations to the legal system).

    • ? wow. are you really going to get into victim blaming here? have you seen how far up the lawn the victim was compared to the road? no driver in their right mind should have gone that far up onto a non-driving surface to avoid any kind of road obstruction, dog or not.

    • It approaches the unbelievable that your first thoughts are blaming the person that got run over by someone while reclining and enjoying the sunshine over a hundred feet away from traffic and in a park, no less.

      If the news report is read at all the driver is the only one talking about swerving to avoid a dog and he said that as if he was driving down a highway or something. He drove over the lawn without any regard for humans or canines.

      Everything that alf & KM say, plus one.

    • This kind of talk is beyond outrageous. Have you been following he story? Have you looked at the photos of the tire tracks? Have you been to the scene of this crime? Please look inside yourself and ask whether you really think it makes sense to blame a young mother relaxing on the grass in the middle of a park, sitting on the grass under a tree with her baby and dog, for the fact that she was run over by a reckless driver who was breaking all his department’s rules and then fled the scene – twice. Luckily the DA is prosecuting him for the his criminal behavior. I hope to see him held accountable. And I hope that you will apologize for making up stories about how the innocent victim of this crime was somehow responsible for her own death. Shame!

  4. 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.

    If you look at the site this seems to me the most plausible explanation. Driving over the grass on that side of the park would be the shortest way to drive to the St. Mary’s Rec Center from Holly Park. The paved path out is on the other side of the park.

    One might choose to do that if, for example, one was running late for a staff meeting at St. Mary’s.

  5. Pingback: Young Son of Accused Holly Park Hit and Run Driver Is Arrested for Hit and Run | Bernalwood

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