Suspect in murder of elderly man was known as menacing and mentally ill — why didn’t SF intervene?

San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2020

By Heather Knight

Leo Hainzl was a distinctive fixture in Glen Park. The 94-year-old had the mind and body of a much younger man, working regularly on his roof, doing complicated metal work in his garage, religiously reading the Economist and taking his German wirehaired pointer, Rip, for multiple walks daily.

Peter Rocha was also a distinctive fixture of Glen Park. The 53-year-old was homeless and believed to be mentally ill. He often slept on a cushion placed in a stone planter box next to the front door of St. John’s Catholic school on Chenery Street. He carried crutches slung over his shoulder that he waved around at strangers, neighbors said. He allegedly threatened multiple neighbors — strangely seeming to target those walking dogs — with bodily harm.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman had heard enough troubling reports about Rocha that he placed him early this year on a list that tracks the most distressing and distressed people in District Eight. The idea is to press police and public health workers into helping those on the list — even if it means seeking to compel them into treatment if they’re too ill to know they need it.

In February, the list included 17 people. Now it’s up to 22. It’s a list nobody wants to be on — and in a city so hamstrung over its dire mental health and homelessness crisis, it’s a list that seems nearly impossible to get off.

Due to strict privacy laws, Mandelman can only tell public health officials what he knows, and never receives any information in return. He has no idea whether Rocha was assigned a case manager or if any kind of formal plan was crafted to help him.

The supervisor knows where Rocha is now, though: jail. He stands accused of killing Hainzl as the elderly man walked Rip near Glen Canyon on Monday morning. He was taken into custody later Monday and booked on suspicion of homicide, assault with a deadly weapon and elder abuse, police said.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin said through a spokesman late Wednesday he will charge Rocha with murder and ask that he be kept behind bars without bail. Rocha is expected to be arraigned as early as Thursday.

Police say Hainzl and Rocha encountered each other at 8:20 a.m. Rocha allegedly attacked Hainzl with a stick; police wouldn’t say if it was one of his crutches. According to police, Hainzl fell and hit his head, was transported to the hospital and died of his injuries. Rocha was arrested hours later.

“It’s horrifying,” Mandelman said. “It’s the worst-case scenario you could imagine. If we had our criminal justice and public health systems aligned in a better way, we could have had an intervention earlier and prevented this.”

Police at the Ingleside station knew Rocha well, according to Mandelman and neighbors. They responded to calls about him. They offered him help. He always refused, according to neighbors. And the hassling continued.

“It was so preventable,” said Shawn Zovod, 49, a Glen Park neighbor. “I’d like to think that if I’m still living here when I’m 94, I can go walk my dog. I don’t blame any one person within the city, but I’m so disappointed in the system given all the warnings that were out there.”

One of those warnings came from her.

She was walking her Belgian Malinois dog, Birdie, in Glen Canyon on Christmas morning when Rocha got in her face, crutches in hand. She’d seen him around the neighborhood for a few months leading up to that encounter.

“He approached me totally unsolicited and started complaining about dogs and told me I needed a beating,” she recalled. “He added, ‘I should be the one to do it.’”

Zovod said she told him she would call the police, and he said, “Go ahead.” She called 911, at which point he wandered off. Police arrived and told her they were familiar with him and had offered him services, but he always declined to accept them.

Zovod also learned Rocha had been threatening an 89-year-old woman who walks her dog in the neighborhood, shaking his crutches at her, too. But officers told Zovod they couldn’t do anything since the threats had been verbal and hadn’t led to physical violence. Under California law, verbal threats are illegal if the recipient is “in sustained fear for his or her own safety.”

Ignoring Rocha’s alleged threats seems unwise — even for notoriously look-the-other-way San Francisco. Have we really sunk so low that we’re letting people repeatedly threaten elders with violence with no repercussions? Capt. Christopher Woon of the Ingleside station did not return requests for comment.

Officer Robert Rueca, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, wrote in an email, “We cannot speak to past contacts with the suspect due to the open investigation. We cannot paint a story to the media of any suspect’s history that may compromise the current investigation.”

Zovod got Mandelman’s attention with an email Dec. 31 describing the untenable situation. She wrote that officers told her that Rocha has reported having a mental illness but lacked the necessary medication. He also told them, according to the email, the neighbors are “all out to get him.”

“He is often seen shouting to himself ... and exhibiting signs of severe, irrational, paranoid and aggressive behavior,” Zovod’s email to Mandelman continued. “We would appreciate your support and coordination with the police and city services in resolving this situation before someone is seriously injured, particularly since this individual has shown a propensity for lashing out at the elderly.”

You might call that the writing on the wall, but apparently it went unheeded.

Mandelman created his list last summer — the one he added Rocha to — to track people who are clearly a danger to themselves and neighbors. His team met monthly with key city officials to review each individual’s progress, or lack thereof.

The idea is not to attack mentally ill homeless people, the vast majority of whom are not violent and don’t pose threats to their neighbors. Instead, the goal is to help them lead fruitful, healthy lives — rather than deteriorate on the streets or, in Rocha’s dire case, in a jail cell.

But the meetings have ceased during shelter in place as COVID-19 has sucked up city attention, time and dollars. Mandelman said he’ll continue to press for 100 additional locked treatment beds in the city. Adding those beds would give judges who were petitioned to compel people too ill to know they need treatment a place to send those who are a danger to themselves or others. Last year, the city budgeted for 252 of these beds; Mandelman’s proposal hasn’t gotten far enough to attract much opposition, though it will likely be unpopular among civil rights advocates and some of his fellow supervisors.

City officials had promised to compel more people into treatment — those who are too ill to care for themselves and need more structure to get help. A new law to make it easier to mandate treatment was passed in 2019, but so far, not a single petition has come from the city attorney’s office and public conservator, Mandelman said.

“There has not been one done yet,” Mandelman said. “Not a single one.”

A planned program called Mental Health SF to overhaul the city’s broken mental health treatment system would have cost at least $100 million a year, which would have been tough to pay for even when the economy was booming. It’s unclear how it would be paid for now that the city is projected to lose up to $1.7 billion in revenue over the next two years.

Meanwhile, homeless shelters are closed to new residents to maintain social distancing inside. Capacity at San Francisco General Hospital’s psychiatric emergency room has also been cut to give people more space, and once people are discharged, there’s hardly anywhere to send them. Clinics and treatment facilities are closed or have also cut capacity.

And so the mentally ill people on Mandelman’s list continue to deteriorate. The woman notorious for walking into traffic at Castro and Market streets is still walking into traffic. The mentally ill man known for spreading his belongings all over Jane Warner Plaza is still there. Stories like these play out all over the city — including the man who threatened women and girls in Cole Valley.

Meanwhile, Hainzl’s neighbors are devastated.

“He was really smart, really interesting, really independent. He was like the model of self-sufficiency,” said Stephany Wilkes, a neighbor, adding that Hainzl was an avid fisherman, hunter and gardener.

He lived in the neighborhood for decades, moving from Austria after World War II. He had no family nearby, and a neighbor has taken in Rip.

Julien Mayot, another neighbor, saw Hainzl every day for 10 years. Mayot and his family are leaving the city in June, weary of the city’s street misery. He figured he’d be the one to leave Hainzl, not the other way around.

“I cried. I couldn’t help it,” Mayot said of learning his friend had been killed. “We leave with a very sour taste in our mouth. San Francisco shouldn’t be this way.”

No, it shouldn’t. Hainzl deserved much better. We all do.

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