Two men charged in the killing of a Palo Alto tennis instructor pleaded not guilty in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Tuesday, July 14, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office.
Neil Brian Rotroff, 28, of Cupertino and a 21-year-old Sunnyvale man* entered their pleas in the death of Oleg Talamai, 24, after a brawl near The Patio nightclub on Emerson Street in Palo Alto.
The altercation happened on Dec. 21, 2014, when Rotroff allegedly decked Talamai with a single punch, causing the athletic instructor to strike his head on the pavement. Talamai sustained a fatal head injury and never regained consciousness. He was removed from life support on Jan. 9.
Rotroff is charged with involuntary manslaughter. A judge denied upgrading the charges to second-degree murder on Tuesday, according to Kim Grant, the owner of the Palo Alto tennis school where Talamai worked, who attended the hearing.
The Sunnyvale man faces charges of assault on a peace officer with a deadly weapon -- for allegedly nearly striking two officers with his vehicle as he, Rotroff and two friends fled the scene -- and a felony count of accessory to involuntary manslaughter for his role as a getaway driver.
Talamai was out with a friend at The Patio bar on Emerson Street when he encountered Rotroff, the Sunnyvale man and their two friends. All six of the men were reportedly drunk, according to police.
Rotroff and his three friends had started their evening in Cupertino on Dec. 20 celebrating the recent return of one of the men from serving in the U.S. Army, they told police. They each had two or three beers, with the Sunnyvale man, the driver, having one. At about midnight, they went to The Patio and had a few more strong drinks. Talamai and a friend, both Belarus immigrants, were also there drinking, according to police reports.
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 and conducted in Russian, according to the report. But Talamai apparently got into an argument with three men from the group. No one recalls or will say what the argument was about. According to Rotroff and his friends, Talamai allegedly slapped one of Rotroff's friends on the head. Rotroff and Talamai exchanged heated words.
Palo Alto police who were nearby intervened, according to the report. The friends on both sides kept the two apart. Separately, they told police they were going to go home. But as Talamai and his friend allegedly shouted insults to the four men as they walked to their vehicle, Rotroff and his party returned to confront Talamai and his friend.
Versions of what happened next vary. One of Rotroff's friends told police that, as the exchange became more heated, he tried to defuse the situation. He said he pushed Talamai's friend away by the shoulder because he was allegedly making things worse. But the Talamai's friend told police that he was struck, and the Sunnyvale man confirmed that in his statement to police. Rotroff, who was probably bumped during this altercation, fell to the ground, the Sunnyvale man said.
Talamai allegedly punched Rotroff, although the blows were not effective. Rotroff, who is 5-feet-10-inches tall and weighs 250 pounds, then allegedly punched Talamai once in the head, sending the lanky tennis instructor to the pavement.
A preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 13.