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.