The San Francisco city gardener accused of fatally driving over a young mother as she laid with her infant in a Bernal Heights park, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a pair of felony charges.
An attorney representing 58-year-old Thomas Burnoski answered “not guilty” in San Francisco Superior Court to charges of felony manslaughter and hit and run.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, the Parks and Rec gardener remained silent, but briefly acknowledged his family and supporters who crowded into the courtroom. On September 5th, Burnoski allegedly veered off a park path onto the grass of Holly Park where he ran over and killed 35-year old Christine Svanemyr.
In court, prosecutor Omid Talai told the judge Burnoski cut across the grass as a shortcut toward a maintenance yard.
Following the hearing, District Attorney George Gascon said Burnoski ignored Parks and Rec vehicular policies.
“The rules are very clearly,” said Gascon. “You’re supposed to stay on the pathway and if you go off the path way you’re supposed to have a spotter.”
Following the accident, prosecutors said Burnoski drove to a maintenance yard where he reportedly told a supervisor he believed he’d hit something.
In court, Talai said Burnoski didn’t want to return to the scene, even at the urging of the supervisor. Talai said Burnoski insisted on driving his own car to the park, and began to make a U-turn when he saw police as if intending to evade officers.
Gascon refused to comment on Talai’s statement, but said he hoped the charges would send a message. “I think it’s important we send a very clear message that this behavior was grossly negligent,” said Gascon, explaining the decision to file felony charges. “That’s why we’re taking such a strong approach to the prosecution of the case.”
Burnoski’s temporary attorney Tony Tamburello said his client veered his city truck onto the grass after spotting a dog in his path.
He said Burnoski felt a bump and believed he may have hit the dog. “He checked his side-view mirror and he saw the dog,” said Tamburello. “By that time he had been moving on and was not aware of anything else.”
Tamburello said Burnoski willingly returned to the scene with the supervisor, and only learned of the death after he was arrested.
During the hearing, a Superior Court judge agreed to lower Burnoski’s bail from $350 thousand to $100 thousand, citing his lack of a criminal record. Burnoski surrendered to police on Tuesday after prosecutors filed charges.
Tamburello said Burnoski, whose 20-year old daughter was killed in a car accident in April, is undergoing counseling following Svanemyr’s death.
“He is very devastated and he wishes he could change what happened,” said Tamburello, “and he knows he cant.”
Burnoski is due back in court on Monday for a status hearing.
Gascon said he faces 11 years in prison if convicted.