Men charged in downtown Palo Alto homicide to stand trial

Tennis instructor was killed after being punched in the head

Two men implicated in the death of a Palo Alto tennis instructor during a drunken brawl in December 2014 must stand trial, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled on Friday, Jan. 15.

Neil Brian Rotroff, 29, and a 22-year-old Sunnyvale resident*, face felony charges in the the death of Oleg Talamai. Rotroff is charged with involuntary manslaughter; the Sunnyvale man faces charges of felony accessory to involuntary manslaughter for his role as a getaway driver.

Judge Vincent Chiariello denied a request by the Sunnyvale resident's attorney to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. Rotroff will also face an enhanced charge of inflicting great bodily injury, which could add to his prison term, if convicted. Both men pleaded not guilty in July.

Talamai, 24, was with a friend at The Patio bar on Emerson Street on Dec. 21, 2014 when he encountered Rotroff and three friends. As the bar neared closing time one of the men from Rotroff's group, a Ukrainian immigrant, asked to bum a cigarette from Talamai and his friend. The initial contact was amicable, according to a police report. But Talamai, of Belarus, apparently got into an argument over the Ukranian man speaking to him in Russian and not Ukranian. All six men were drunk, according to police.

According to Rotroff and his friends, Talamai allegedly slapped one of Rotroff's friends on the head; Rotroff and Talamai then exchanged heated words. Nearby Palo Alto police intervened, and the two groups headed to their cars, according to a police report. Rotroff's group claimed that Talamai and his friend shouted insults to them from across the street, and the four men crossed back to confront Talamai and his friend in a parking lot near the Aquarius Theater, they told police.

As the altercation escalated, Rotroff was allegedly shoved or bumped and fell to the ground. Rotroff stood up, and Talamai allegedly punched him, although the blows were not effective, Rotroff's friends told police.

Rotroff, who is 5-feet-10-inches tall and weighs 250 pounds, then allegedly punched Talamai once in the head with the side of his fist, rendering him unconscious. The lanky tennis instructor fell to the pavement and struck his head, according to police.

Talamai was taken to Stanford Hospital, where he remained unresponsive for nearly three weeks. He was removed from life support on Jan. 9, 2015, according to his employer, Kim Grant, who had remained by his side along with Sheryl Fantom, Talamai's longtime American host.

Talamai began coming to the U.S. starting at the age of 8, living with Fantom's family during the summertime. He arrived through the Children of Chernobyl Project, which provides respite from radiation exposure, Fantom said. He was an active, antsy kid who was always eager to play tennis. He was so excited when she took him to Disneyland that he grabbed her cellphone to call his mother in Belarus, she recalled.

Fantom and Grant have remained attentive to Talamai's case, coming to hearings with other longtime friends and tennis students, they said. On Friday, they said they don't want Talamai's case to be minimized because he was not a U.S. national. The case is on its third prosecutor, they said. Talamai's family is in Belarus, and it is not easy for them to receive visas, Grant added.

Inside the courtroom, two women, Rotroff's and the Sunnyvale man's relatives, wept quietly after the judge announced that the trials will proceed. Both men, who are out on bail, said nothing. Rotroff bent down and hugged his relative for a long time.

*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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11 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jan 19, 2016 at 7:55 am

Alphonso is a registered user.

Based on the information in the story it sounds like the "victim" initiated the fight and died as the result of mutual combat. The DA has overcharged the case.

Like this comment
Posted by Screeedek
a resident of Atherton
on Jan 19, 2016 at 10:21 am

Screeedek is a registered user.

I had not seen the details of this case before. The victim clearly instigated this. Why is the DA charging these men? I am glad they have pled not-guilty. They will likely be vindicated.

5 people like this
Posted by Caitlin
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 19, 2016 at 10:45 am

Caitlin is a registered user.

If the altercation occurred as described here then technically the manslaughter (unintentional homocide) seems correct so long as you disregard Talamai's instigation and perpetuation of the events. I think a jury will take the full story into account if they get to hear it as presented here. I certainly would if I were on that jury.

Actually, it wasn't Rotroff's blow that killed Talamai as I read it... it was the blow when Talamai fell to the ground and hit his head. No winners that night.

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