A San Francisco Recreation and Park gardener who struck and killed a woman as she lay at a Bernal Heights park last month pleaded not guilty today to felony charges of vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of a traffic accident.
Thomas Burnoski, 58, is accused of going off a designated pathway in Holly Park on the afternoon of Sept. 5 and running over 35-year-old Christine Svanemyr, who was in the grass with her 11-month-old daughter.
Burnoski then drove off in his green Ford F-250 Rec and Park truck but was arrested shortly afterward, prosecutors said.
At his arraignment at the Hall of Justice this afternoon, Burnoski’s attorney Tony Tamburello said his client went off the pathway and into the grass after a dog darted in front of his truck.
Tamburello said Burnoski felt a bump under his truck, but then looked in his sideview mirror and saw the dog alive and continued driving to a parks staff meeting.
After discussing the incident with a supervisor and thinking he may have hit something, Burnoski decided to come back to the scene but was stopped by police on the way and was eventually told he had struck and killed Svanemyr, Tamburello said.
Burnoski “is a sensitive human being,” the attorney said. “He would never leave the scene of a person being injured.”
Assistant District Attorney Omid Talai said Burnoski did not leave the path to avoid a dog, and was merely taking a shortcut across the grass, which is against city policy and “inherently a dangerous or reckless act.”
Talai said Burnoski waited 30 to 60 minutes before telling the supervisor and said he hit something that was “maybe a dog or a child.”
Talai said there was no evidence to corroborate the argument that Burnoski swerved to avoid a dog and that the excuse was not believable.
“I would press the brakes,” he said. “I wouldn’t swerve into an area where there might be people.”
After his initial arrest on the day of the accident, Burnoski had posted bail, but surrendered to police after being charged Tuesday with the two felony counts.
He faced a higher bail amount of $350,000 at today’s hearing and Talai argued it should remain at that amount given Burnoski’s alleged negligence and that he may have tried to flee when he encountered police on his way back to the park.
However, Judge Monica Wiley reduced the bail to $100,000 after Tamburello noted the defendant’s lack of a criminal record and support in the community.
Many family and community members of Burnoski’s attended the hearing but most declined to speak to reporters outside of court.
Sharon Haynes, who says she knows him from church, said she came to pray for her friend.
“He’s a man of much great integrity,” Haynes said. “He loves God and he loves his family.”
Burnoski’s attorney Tamburello added that his client had his 20-year-old daughter die in a traffic accident earlier this year so he understands the pain that the Svanemyr family is going through.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “He’s a very sensitive man, this is very difficult for him.”
District Attorney George Gascon held a news conference following this afternoon’s hearing and said Burnoski faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
“We must ensure that San Franciscans have the ultimate confidence in the safety of their parks,” Gascon said. “This confidence was betrayed.”
Burnoski will return to court on Monday for a status hearing.
Dan McMenamin, Bay City News