FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 10, 2022
MEDIA CONTACT: SF Public Defender’s Office | Valerie.Ibarra@sfgov.org | (628)249-7946
SF Man Acquitted in Death of Elderly Dogwalker
SAN FRANCISCO – A San Francisco jury found Peter Rocha not guilty of murder and all felony charges in the accidental death of an elderly Glen Park resident, Leo Hainzl. The jury convicted Mr. Rocha on one count of misdemeanor assault for swinging his crutch toward Mr. Hainzl as the two men engaged in a brief confrontation near the entrance of Glen Canyon Park where Mr. Hainzl was walking his dog. Deputy Public Defender Will Helvestine argued, and medical evidence and witness testimony showed, that Mr. Hainzl suffered a mortal fall when he tripped on a curb and hit his head on the steep hill of Elk Street after he had walked more than 30 feet away from Mr. Rocha.
“While Mr. Hainzl’s death was a tragedy, it was a tragic accident. The jury did the right thing in avoiding another tragedy by finding Mr. Rocha not guilty of a murder he did not commit,” said Mr. Helvestine.
Mr. Rocha is a military veteran and former martial arts teacher whose life drastically changed in the early 2000s when he began suffering from mental illness. For several years, he has mostly lived outside in the Glen Park area and many neighbors recognize him as a vulnerable member of the community.
On March 25, 2020, Mr. Rocha was sitting on a bench in Glen Canyon Park when Mr. Hainzl came walking down the path with his large dog. Separate witnesses heard a brief commotion of barking and voices, and then saw Mr. Rocha swing his crutch in the air. The witness who was closer to the incident testified that the crutch did not make physical contact with Mr Hainzl. Both witnesses saw the men separate uninjured. The second witness called 911 only after she saw Mr. Hainzl trip and fall on his head as he was looking back up the hill for his dog. This was after Mr. Hainzl had walked at least 30 feet away from where he’d encountered Mr. Rocha. Mr. Hainzl died at the hospital several hours later.
Mr. Rocha’s arrest made headlines, and he was later charged with murder and detained without bail despite early evidence that this had been an accidental death. Initially, a judge found him incompetent to stand trial, but he remained in jail for over a year due to the lack of space at the state psychiatric hospital. He was later hospitalized for three months before being found competent to stand trial, but his trial was delayed due to the growing backlog of cases in San Francisco Superior Court. He will now be released from jail and plans to seek medical help at the Veterans Administration.
“We live in a state where mental healthcare is so severely underfunded, that many of our most vulnerable community members end up unnecessarily incarcerated, and even the courts can’t guarantee access to the care they may need when there is a supply deficit of beds and services,” said Doug Welch, a Felony Manager at the Public Defender’s Office. “I commend Mr. Helvestine and his team, who were able to reveal the truth to the jury and have worked hard over the past two years to support Mr. Rocha throughout his incarceration in this devastating case.”
The defense team included Deputy Public Defender Will Helvestine, Paralegal Nathan Conn, and Investigator Nigel Phillips, who also testified in the trial.