A mentally ill SF man slept in a planter before being charged with murder. Now acquitted, he risks being left on the street


Ramiro Rocha had only one word to describe what happened on Friday: bittersweet.

The day came with relief when he learned that a jury late Thursday had decided that his older brother Peter, who has long struggled with profound mental illness, was not guilty of the murder of a 94-year-old neighbor during a meet alongside Glen Canyon in San Francisco. two years ago.

According to court testimony, Peter Rocha pushed a crutch towards neighbor Leo Hainzl, who apparently tripped as he rushed away and fatally hit his head.

But the day also produced dread. Ramiro Rocha learned that his brother, thanks to the same jury verdict, would be released from prison and would likely return to live on the streets with his illness untreated – the same scenario that underpinned the tragedy in the first place.

Leo Hainzl and his dog, Fritz, at Glen Canyon in San Francisco on August 3, 2008.

Katy Raddatz/The Chronicle

A spokesperson for the city’s public defender’s office confirmed that Peter Rocha was released from the county jail on Saturday with nowhere to go and no guaranteed care.

“Before he walks through that door, there should be someone there to offer him help and direct him,” said Ramiro Rocha, who lives out of state.

He said he heard about his brother in sporadic calls in prison. Usually, he said, his brother had only one request: “You have to get me out of here.

Ramiro Rocha only learned of the verdict when I called him, and he told me he had no quick or easy way to help his brother. Warned that his brother would be released to fend for himself, Ramiro Rocha said he was “angry and disgusted”.

“It’s a failed and disgusting system,” he continued. “Totally disgusting.”

Doug Welch, a torts officer at the Public Defender’s Office, seemed to have no argument on the matter.

“We live in a state where mental health care is so severely underfunded that many of the most vulnerable members of our community end up unnecessarily incarcerated,” he said in a statement. “Even the courts cannot guarantee access to the care they might need when there is a lack of supply of beds and services.

And so a man who slept for years in a planter in one of the world’s wealthiest cities – and whose hallucinations about ‘big bad dogs’, his brother said, led him to threaten walkers of dogs like Hainzl – will be released with nowhere to live, no mental health care and no services.

Failure doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“It’s totally insane,” said supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who has been following Peter Rocha’s case. “He’s a sick guy, and he’s been causing problems for himself and his neighbors for years, even decades.

“In that sense, he’s not unlike dozens of other people in District Eight alone and hundreds of other people in San Francisco,” Mandelman continued. “We fail them all.”

Mandelman’s repeated calls for a stronger approach to guardianship – forcing people like Peter Rocha to accept care if they are too ill to understand they need it – have come up against the reality of too few treatment beds. At the same time, the state has closed many of its psychiatric hospitals, and waiting lists for beds are incredibly long.

Unfortunately, this leaves the prison system as the primary provider of mental health care in San Francisco, but there is little continuity in treatment once a person is released, particularly if they are not sentenced.

The Public Defender’s Office said Rocha planned to seek treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs; he served in the Marines for four years after graduating from high school in Daly City. But his brother said he had already tried that and it didn’t work.

The city announced this week the opening of a 75-bed facility on Minna Street for homeless people in the criminal justice system who suffer from mental illness or substance use disorders. But Rocha doesn’t seem to be getting a placement there; the Ministry of Public Health, which runs the facility, declined to comment on his case.

There are two longer-term glimmers of hope. Governor Gavin Newsom’s Care Court proposal, which would require counties to provide comprehensive treatment for people with severe psychosis, was unanimously approved by the state Senate and is now heading to Assembly. The measure now contains an amendment allowing judges to impose housing placements in addition to care.

Meanwhile, State Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman of Stockton is proposing a package of bills that would expand eligibility for guardianship, allow judges to consider mental health history when deciding impose care and create a dashboard showing the availability of treatment beds in real time.

Mandelman called these proposals “really clever” and got most of his colleagues to support a resolution endorsing them.

It is, however, very late for Peter Rocha. The 55-year-old needed intervention and help long before he hit the headlines in May 2020 when police arrested him for killing Hainzl while the old man was walking his dog, Rip, near Glen Canyon. Police took him into custody and jailed him on suspicion of murder, assault with a deadly weapon and elder abuse.

For his neighbors and Mandelman, the encounter was devastating, but not entirely unexpected. Peter Rocha was well known in Glen Park, often sleeping on a cushion in a planter outside St. John’s Catholic School on Chenery Street. He slung crutches that he sometimes waved angrily at passers-by.

Neighbors repeatedly reported him to the police, alleging he had threatened them. He almost always targeted women or elderly men walking their dogs alone. The police would show up and offer help, he would refuse and they would send him on his way, officials said.

Ramiro Rocha said his brother suffered from a long-standing mental illness and sought help to no avail. He would walk out of his family’s life for months and years at a stretch, his loved ones feeling powerless to intervene.

After Peter Rocha was arrested, a judge ruled he was too mentally ill to stand trial and ordered him in December 2020 to a closed state mental hospital. But the waiting list for a bed was so long that he languished in county jail for more than a year.

He was transferred to the hospital shortly after I wrote a column highlighting his purgatory behind bars. He was finally arraigned in May, returning to the county jail to attend court hearings.

Two witnesses described the encounter on May 25, 2020. According to these accounts, the two men had an argument, reportedly over Hainzl’s dog being off-leash, and Peter Rocha pushed Hainzl on a crutch. Hainzl, apparently trying to flee, walked 30 feet downhill several times while looking back and tripped on a sidewalk, hit his head, and later died in a hospital.

Juror Mike Amodeo, a retired nurse practitioner who lives in Visitacion Valley, told me in an interview that the evidence did not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Peter Rocha’s behavior toward Hainzl led the man tripping and hitting his head.

“It was unfortunate, but there was no direct link,” he said.

Judith Mahnke, another juror who is a retired teacher who lives in Cole Valley, said Peter Rocha rarely spoke during the trial, sitting at the defense table in orange from head to toe, his gray hair long and wild. She said he covered his face and appeared to be crying when the jury found him not guilty of any of the felony charges.

The panel found him guilty of a misdemeanor assault charge for swinging his crutch at Hainzl. His two years in custody will more than cover any potential jail time for that conviction, and he was released on Saturday.

Mahnke said jurors weren’t allowed to consider anything that happened outside of that brief encounter between the two men near the canyon.

The prosecutor in the case asked Judge Stephen Murphy to allow the jury to hear about five prior incidents of Peter Rocha allegedly threatening dog walkers in Glen Park, but the judge denied it. The district attorney’s office did not return requests for comment on Friday.

The jury deliberated six hours a day for six days. “We were incredibly thorough and understood the seriousness of the situation,” Mahnke said. “It was really tough. One person is sitting in front of you through this, and the other person is dead.

She said she hoped Peter Rocha would be given a permanent place to live, as well as food and water – at the very least.

“We are the richest country in the world, and we have people living on the streets like animals,” she said.

This is also what Ramiro Rocha wants for his brother.

“He needs help – that’s what I’ve been saying all this time,” he said. “We don’t want him back on the streets. He’s not safe on the street.

Asked to describe his perspective on the whole experience, Ramiro Rocha said he was angry that his brother was charged with murder in the first place for an accident related to mental illness. And angry that her brother spent two years in detention for this, only to receive any apparent help on his release.

“I am defeated and heartbroken,” he said. “Like it was all for nothing.”

Heather Knight is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @hknightsf


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