Downtown Palo Alto assault leaves man in critical condition


A late-night fight between two groups of men in downtown Palo Alto last weekend ended with one man unconscious in the hospital and two others arrested for felony assault with a deadly weapon.

He is a Palo Alto resident in his 20s, according to police.

On Sunday, Dec. 21, at about 2:04 a.m. – right after most bars close for the night -- Palo Alto police officers patrolling downtown heard a commotion on the sidewalk near the parking lot next to The Aquarius Theatre between Emerson and High streets, according to a police department press release. They saw one man laying in the street and a group of four men running to a car parked nearby. As the officers ran to assist the man in the street, who had been knocked unconscious, the four men got into the car, speeding off at such a speed that the officers had to sidestep it to avoid being hit, police said. However, as the car (a white 1998 Honda Civic four door) headed eastbound on University Avenue, the officers were able to get the license plate number.

Palo Alto Fire Department paramedics responded immediately and transported the victim, who was unconscious, to a local hospital. He remains in the hospital in critical condition with severe head injuries, police said Wednesday.

The investigation revealed that two groups of men – the four who fled the scene, and the victim and a friend – who didn't know each other previously had left Emerson Street bar The Patio after it closed early Sunday morning. At about 1:55 a.m., they got into a verbal argument outside the bar, which security personnel from The Patio and a police officer witnessed and intervened. The officer determined that no crime had been committed and sent the two groups to go their separate ways, police said.

About 10 minutes later, the two groups reconvened on the other end of the block near University Avenue, and the argument escalated. One man punched the victim once in the face, apparently knocking him unconscious, police said. He fell backwards, hit his head on the street and has not regained consciousness since.

The entire incident, police later learned, was captured by the dash-cam video in an unoccupied patrol car parked down the street. Police said that video will not be released to the public.

Police personnel worked through that night and morning to find the four men who fled in the car. After conducting surveillance at several locations, detectives located three of the men in a different vehicle on Sunday afternoon in San Jose. Detectives stopped the men without incident and detained them for investigation. Detectives found the fourth man about two hours later at his residence in Sunnyvale, and detained him without incident as well, police said.

The follow-up investigation determined that two of the four men had not committed crimes; they were subsequently released. Police booked the other two into the Santa Clara County Main Jail. The man who punched the the victim is 28-year-old Neil Brian Rotroff of Cupertino. Police booked him for a single count of felony assault with a deadly weapon (his fist).

The man who drove the getaway car is a 21-year-old Sunnyvale resident*. Police booked him for three counts of felony assault with a deadly weapon (one count for his role as the getaway driver, and two counts for swerving his car toward the two officers who had been trying to stop him).

After the arrests, detectives continued their follow-up investigation and ultimately presented the case to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office for review. On Wednesday, the District Attorney's Office filed one felony count of assault with a deadly weapon against Rotroff and two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon against the Sunnyvale resident (one count covering the victim, and one count covering the two officers).

If the victim's injuries prove to be fatal, detectives will work with the District Attorney's Office to amend the charges as appropriate, police said.

Anyone with information about this incident is asked to call the police department's 24-hour dispatch center at 650-329-2413. Anonymous tips can be emailed to or sent via text message or voice mail to 650-383-8984.

*Editor's note: The name of the Sunnyvale resident/driver has been removed from this article because the original charge of felony assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon was dismissed and the misdemeanor conviction for being an accessory after the fact was dismissed for constitutional reasons in the interests of justice, pursuant to California Penal Code Section 1385, on Oct. 27, 2016.

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12 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 25, 2014 at 8:09 am

mauricio is a registered user.

The follow-up investigation revealed that two of the four men had not committed crimes; they were subsequently released.>

Those two got into the get away car instead of trying to help the victim-how is that not a crime?

The "vibrant" downtown the pro development people brag abot keeps attracting rowdy and criminal elements from all over the Bay area, especially at night. At night, downtown is creepy and dangerous. How is that an improvement over what we had before the big development orgy is unclear. Those who want to urbanize Palo Alto to death will not be deterred by such incidents, by hopefully those who can stop them will become more determined and resolute.

8 people like this
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 25, 2014 at 11:39 am

When will State of California Alcoholic Beverage Control Type 48 licensees (aka 'bars') in downtown Palo Alto be obligated to pay an annual fee for City of Palo Alto police work necessitated by late-night over-serving of excess alcohol? And, when will the City adopt regulations allowing the City to shut down establishments which over-serve alcohol leading to crime?

2 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 25, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Not sure one concludes that downtown is "creepy and dangerous" at night from this isolated incident. The city wants a vibrant downtown at night, so that means restauarnts and bars. What rowdy and criminal elements are you referring to? We should wait to hear what the police say after investigate this entire incident. Or does the poster propose to make the downtown accessible to only local residents that have passed a background check.
Also not sure where the comment " late night over serving of excess alcohol" comes from. The has been no mention of the state of any of those involved in this incident.
As I stated on another thread, the comments make it sound like Palo Alto is subject to plagues not experienced in other cities.

1 person likes this
Posted by Heavy Handed
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 25, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Your Agenda is denial?

"There is no problem. Everything is as it should be."

Well, there certainly are people in the government who believe this.

2 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 25, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Heavy handed-- a single isolated incident does not mean that the downtown is creepy and dangerous, it does not mean that a rowdy and criminal element is coming into Palo Alto and it does not mean that there is an excessive over serving of alcohol.
I am not in denial. And I am not in " chicken little" mode. Downtown is full of people in the evening and there really is no problem. Stop trying to stir the pot

10 people like this
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 25, 2014 at 8:59 pm

There have been a great many scary and/or violent incidents downtown in the past two decades. A few that come to mind:

The young Asian woman shot on Alma St., outside a club

The armed robberies/muggings by two different suspects, leading to the former police chief ordering racial profiling of only black suspects.

The muggings/robberies at gunpoint in parking garages

The young man murdered by his car near city hall

Bert Kay being beaten to death downtown

Various other muggings at gunpoint

Various other strong arm robberies where victims were hit or punched

The PAPD incident with the suspect grabbing for the officer's gun

The notorious butt pincher of 1998 or 1999

Some weird pedestrian/road rage/milkshake incident

What I've personally experienced:

Being sexually harassed repeatedly at a coffeehouse to the point I stopped going there

When I worked downtown I was stalked and harassed by some creep and the police had to get involved

The bars certainly contribute to the problems but of course aren't the only magnet for troublemakers. I think it's fairly creepy and potentially dangerous, as a local with a long memory.

5 people like this
Posted by tragic
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 25, 2014 at 11:00 pm

What a tragedy, especially at holiday time, to have someone take so much away from you over nothing. Glad PAPD caught these men, especially so quickly, to hold them to answer for their misdeeds. Praying for the family of the victim. The report states adding charges later if he does not recover?? That does not sound good...

3 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 25, 2014 at 11:33 pm

Amazing that PAPD got the license plate -- great job, PAPD!

4 people like this
Posted by laura
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 25, 2014 at 11:56 pm

This is a tragic incident. I hope the powers that be realize the growth and success of the palo downtown brings in a seedy side element that needs law enforcement now. Great to know the camera in the patrol car was on I hope there are more patrols and undercover cops dispatched to downtown PA. Good to know the DA and investigators nailed it immediately thanks.

7 people like this
Posted by Crime
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 26, 2014 at 12:43 am

Mauricio is exactly right - the more urban Palo Alto becomes, the more crime and violence we can expect. This is not rocket science (or even brain surgery).

Palo Alto became a wonderful place to live because of Stanford, a population that valued education, and strong communities. We used to have a lovely, safe, and walkable downtown. The misguided devotion to urbanization and "vibrancy" (a popular euphemism for crowded streets, over-booked/over-priced restaurants, and late-night bar activity) is destroying what made this city special and desirable.

Late-night bars and over-crowded restaurants can be found all around, from San Francisco to San Jose, but a beautiful town focused on education and community is a rare gem indeed. We are losing our special qualities every day that our city continues to urbanize and chase every opportunity to make money, at the expense of our city's character.

5 people like this
Posted by Crime
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 26, 2014 at 12:50 am


Bravo PAPD in being present and reacting quickly, especially getting the license number of the vehicle while jumping out of the way of being hit! Catching these four immediately sends a message of "not in our town."

We are praying for the injured, Palo Alto man's full recovery.

1 person likes this
Posted by Niel
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 26, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Yep, anything bad that ever happens can be traced back to those darn DEVELOPERS...

4 people like this
Posted by wmartin46
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 26, 2014 at 1:35 pm

wmartin46 is a registered user.

I have done a lot of traffic accident analysis here in Palo Alto, finding that there are a goodly number of alcohol-involved accidents in the downtown area—many late in the evening or early morning. It’s hard to believe that people drink to excess somewhere else, and then somehow get in an accident in downtown PA. No, the drinking to excess goes on here.

Even if the number of assaults on Palo Alto residents, like this young man, are minimal, the threat to life and limb by people (mostly non-residents) drinking and driving will require a constant monitoring of the roads in the downtown area by the police. One could almost make a case for some sort of restaurant/entertainment tax that would be targeted for police budgets. Increased use of surveillance equipment would be a good use of such funds.

Wayne Martin

1 person likes this
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 26, 2014 at 7:56 pm

"One could almost make a case for some sort of restaurant/entertainment [fee] that would be targeted for police budgets."

+1 (with a slight wording change). Just last year, the City of Hayward adopted new regulations of alcoholic beverage outlets, including, but not limited, Type 47s and 48s. It has worked very well this year, as seen in the recent staff update given to the City Council. Palo Alto would be wise to study this issue and review the work done by Hayward -- and other municipalities, like Walnut Creek and Oakland -- in adopting new regulations or fine-tuning existing regulations.

2 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 27, 2014 at 2:11 am

Crime said:
> Catching these four immediately sends a message of "not in our town."

Not without successfully prosecuting ALL of these lowlives.

Also, it is an illusion that creating another tax on, what bars? is going to do anything significant. This is not a spend money kind of problem, this is a opening places where a certain kind of people go problem. Any cost to the trouble-makers is not going to be enough to cause them to shift their behavior, it is a ploy to get more money for the City. Streams of tax income are being created or floated to give more money and control to the City when they have not proved they can do anything successful with it. That is a recipe for disaster.

Maybe after the people get control of Palo Alto more, we can think about stuff like that, and some very good discussion.

As I recall there used to be some kind of law in Palo Alto that forbid the sale of alcoholic beverages within a certain distance of Stanford? Is that right. Because back when our City had less crime, and was admittedly a bit boring, there were very few bars or even places where you could drink alcohol.

It's hard to lobby for return to that, but there are arguments for it. I would not want to go for a walk up and down University with children these days because you never know what you are going to see or run into. Is it worth curtailing a whole side of the economy to allow family walks down University? So, the economic argument always seems to push in favor of jettisoning community to allow the City to grow, and the argument is always, every other City does it.

Like this comment
Posted by ndtn
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 27, 2014 at 8:04 am

What an extremely boring place to live, PA is, unless you have children. I would say that an even less vibrant "town" is the cemetery and it should please those who like to be behind doors after dusk. No crimes there at all.

Of course, incidents happen unless you live in a police state they will continue to happen, but the rate at which they happen in PA is so small that using the present event to claim and deride those of us who really want a more vibrant city strikes me as quite biased. Also, the more people on the streets the less likely crimes of this nature, I do have to live in PA-it was a good place when I had children at home, but now that I'm older frankly is not very appealing-very little to do.

Like this comment
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Dec 27, 2014 at 11:04 am


How do you know the guys from "out of town" were the "bad guys"? The fight was a single punch and only two people were involved. Perhaps "the victim" was responsible for the fight.

1 person likes this
Posted by wmartin46
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 27, 2014 at 12:35 pm

wmartin46 is a registered user.

> As I recall there used to be some kind of law in Palo Alto that
> forbid the sale of alcoholic beverages within a certain distance of Stanford?

Yes .. it was a State law that was introduced by Palo Alto State Senator Marshall Black in 1912 (if memory serves). However, this was just one of many anti-alcohol ordinances that had been passed by the City Trustees, and then re-autorized upon by the voters when the City adopted its Charter in 1909.

> there were very few bars or even places where you could drink alcohol

Not as simple as this. Nearby Mayfield allowed bars until roughly 1906, and Menlo Park also had a number of bars which were very popular with the Stanford students until the 1.5M law went into effect. Beer trucks made home deliveries to Palo Alto customers, and the local pharmacies would, per a doctor's perscription, sell alcohol to their customers. Restaurants also had "back rooms", where alcohol was served. And the dorms at Stanford were also locations where a lot of drinking was done. Stanford moved to regulate drinking on Campus sometime in 1908.

People also could get to San Francisco in little over an hour on the train. There were lots of saloons open there.

Passage of the Volkstead act pushed all of this above-ground alcohol consumption underground for a time. San Mateo County became a hub of anti-prohibition resistance (otherwise called smuggling at the time). People interested in getting their hands on alcohol could look there.

Like most things--if you wanted to live a boring life here in Palo Alto, you can do so. If you wanted more excitement--all you had to do was look around for it.


1 person likes this
Posted by Crime
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 28, 2014 at 11:30 am


>> How do you know the guys from "out of town" were the "bad guys"? The fight was a single punch and only two people were involved. Perhaps "the victim" was responsible for the fight.

I didn't make any assumptions or assertions about who started the fight.

No matter who started it, someone was injured and the other party fled the scene (which is a crime), evaded police (another crime), and then nearly hit police officers with their fleeing vehicle (another crime, if proven to be intentional). The activities of these four AFTER the confrontation make them "bad guys."

I could be wrong, but this would be somewhat unusual behavior to engage in for a "victim." And to your point, if there was only a single punch, then one of the four "bad guys" turned the altercation physical, which makes the injured guy the "victim" of assault.

Paint it however you like, but I would prefer people like these four find somewhere else to hang out.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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