Cheryl Heinonen has happy memories of raising her four children on 39th Avenue in the Outer Sunset. She left San Francisco for New York for her career as a communications executive nearly a decade ago and recently moved back to the city. But her homecoming, she says, became a nightmare in August.
Heinonen’s house shares a wall with the home next door, occupied by an older couple—whom she called “kind, lovely people”—and their adult son. The 33-year-old son had occasionally behaved oddly but mostly harmlessly, she recalled. For instance, he would leave items like random slices of pizza on her front porch.
But over an early August week, she said, the man’s mental health appeared to deteriorate as he began issuing threats and committing acts of vandalism. Heinonen went to the police to make a report about a broken window. When she returned from the police station, she was stunned to find it was not just her window that was broken—her bedroom wall had been smashed through from the neighbor’s side, she said at a court hearing on Aug. 29.
"I was horrified that our houses were open to each other," she said. Video footage of the damage was played in court as San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick S. Thompson weighed whether there was enough evidence for the case to proceed. He ruled that there was.
Mitchell Coloma was arrested and booked into San Francisco County Jail the next day on suspicion of criminal threats and vandalism. He is set to be arraigned in October and remains in jail as of Wednesday.
“[It’s] a nightmare, but it feels like somebody else's nightmare,” Heinonen said.
Coloma’s mother and two brothers attended the preliminary hearing to show support for him. On Wednesday, Coloma’s mother declined to speak to The Standard.
At least twice this year, San Francisco residents have been slain by family members or neighbors experiencing mental health crises.
In June, police fatally shot Marc Child after he killed his mother and the family dog in the Richmond District. Child’s family and former girlfriend had previously been granted restraining orders against him, and Child had gone to jail and been detained on psychological evaluation holds.
In May, Mei Ran Hu, 64, was stabbed to death by her neighbor, Jesus Esparza, in a public housing complex in Duboce Triangle. Esparza had mental health issues, Hu’s son said.
For Heinonen, the first real sign of trouble came in early August, when she received a notification from her home security camera in the middle of the day. Coloma was on her property.
“He was literally trying to break in my front door, screaming insane things at my dogs and banging on the door with a stick,” Heinonen said. “Eventually, he gave up and left. My son ended up leaving his car in my driveway and taking my car so that it would look like he was here, which we felt at the time was going to keep this person off of my property.”
Heinonen did not call the police that day or the next. Coloma, she said, spent most of the day outside, yelling at neighbors and passing cars but not approaching her porch.
But around 7 p.m. Aug. 12, he was outside and appeared to be agitated, she said.
After waiting until he returned to his house, Heinonen decided to take her dogs for a walk. When she returned about a half hour later, Coloma appeared and shouted that he wanted to fight her dogs, she said.
She hurried into her house and called 911. Coloma, she said, came onto her porch and yelled “that he wanted to kill me, that I was a whore, that [I] needed to die.”
Police had still not responded when, 20 minutes later, she heard a noise at the back of her house along the wall that adjoins Coloma’s home.
“I could see he was banging on the wall, trying to break it down, and I could see the walls shaking,” she said. “I took a quick video of that so the police would believe me.”
She made a second call to 911, before deciding to leave the house. While her adult son came and distracted Coloma, she gathered her dogs and a toothbrush and ran to her car. Over an hour after her first call, a police dispatcher called her back. When the operator asked where she was, she answered that she was in her car, not in her house.
“They hung up on me, and never called back,” she said.
Heinonen said she later learned from one of Coloma’s brothers on Aug. 13 that his parents had also called 911 and that Coloma was taken to a University of California San Francisco facility for a psychiatric evaluation.
Given that involuntary holds for mental health evaluations when someone is a danger to themselves or others—known as 5150s—are supposed to last 72 hours, Heinonen believed she would at least have a few days without having to see Coloma.
However, less than 24 hours later, one of Coloma’s brothers phoned her and informed her that Coloma had been released without anyone notifying the family. Less than an hour after the call, she said Coloma was outside shouting. He then began banging on their adjoining wall.
After she called 911, Heinonen said, she was told she had been placed on an “expedited” call list and was waiting with an operator who asked her to stay on the line. Moments later, she heard glass breaking.
“He broke in through the back windows of my bedroom,” she said. “I ran out onto the sidewalk because I was afraid he was coming in through that window. The police arrived shortly after that. They were there for about an hour. He barricaded himself in his room, apparently. Then, they eventually took him away.”
When she returned home, she saw holes in her bedroom wall.
Neighbors had told Heinonen that they had seen Coloma with what appeared to be a firearm and that they had called police about it. “One of those times, the rear neighbor called 911, but by the time the police got there, he was inside so they couldn't do anything," she said.
This time, Heinonen said, police entered Coloma’s home.
“When the police searched his room, it turned out to be an air gun, but it wasn't marked that way,” she said.
The San Francisco Police Department confirmed officers seized two air rifles from Coloma’s home.
One neighbor, who would not give her name, said she had never had any noteworthy or harmful interactions with Coloma, recalling brief but neighborly exchanges around barbecues or fishing trips and remembering a time when he had called the police after her car's catalytic converter had been stolen one night.
Amro Issa, a clerk at the nearby Royal Gas station, said he recognized Coloma as someone who would always come in on his bicycle or his scooter and spoke softly when he would purchase packs of Camel cigarettes.
In court, Coloma was represented by Public Defender Pardeep Heyer. In a statement on behalf of the Coloma family, Heyer acknowledged Coloma’s actions were obviously out of character and that his client was suffering from some mental health issues. Heyer said he would seek a resolution to the case that factored in Coloma’s lifelong Bay Area residency, devotion to caretaking of elderly parents and lack of criminal record.
Prosecutors, however, have said that in addition to charges of criminal threats and vandalism, they may also seek to add a burglary charge with the intent to commit a felony offense.
Now, Heinonen says she needs to repair her home.
“It's probably around $20,000,” she said. “It's not minor.”
Heinonen is anxious that he may be released and return home.
“I’m terrified of this guy,” she said.
The Department of Emergency Management, which manages 911, said they could not release records due to an ongoing criminal investigation.
George Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org