Sonoma Deputy Who Fatally Shot 13-Year-Old Andy Lopez Identified as Erick Gelhaus
The Northern California law enforcement officer who fatally shot a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy carrying a toy assault rifle replica has been identified.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports the Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy who shot Andy Lopez has been identified as 48-year-old Erick Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the force.
Last Tuesday afternoon, Gelhaus and his partner, a trainee, observed Lopez carrying what has been identified as an ‘airsoft’ replica AK-47 rifle, a toy resembling a real assault rifle, about a half mile from his family home in the Moorland Avenue neighborhood of southwestern Santa Rosa. The deputies reported a ‘suspicious person’ to dispatch and requested backup. According to police, the men then identified themselves as law enforcement officers as they drove up behind Lopez before ordering him to drop the gun. The deputies say the teen’s back was initially facing them.
According to Santa Rosa police, Gelhaus opened fire when he saw Lopez start to turn towards him. Gelhaus, who is an Iraq war veteran and firearms expert, mistook the plastic BB gun for a real gun and opened fire. A total of eight shots were fired, seven of which struck Lopez. Two of the shots were fatal, according to an autopsy. The other deputy did not fire his weapon.
Eyewitness accounts vary from the deputy’s story. Maria Marquez and Juana Rojas were both right behind the deputies’ patrol car at a stop sign as the incident unfolded. Rojas told KGO that she saw the deputies turn on their police lights, then drive over to Lopez. Both women say they heard Gelhaus order the boy in English to “drop the gun.” She says both deputies then opened their doors and shots were fired.
“Immediately he was shot, they gave him no chance at all,” Marquez said.
A timeline of events in the incident released by Santa Rosa police shows that only 10 seconds elapsed from the time the deputies first reported seeing Lopez to the moment that shots were fired at 3:14 pm.
Santa Rosa Police Lt. Paul Henry told reporters he did not believe Lopez was listening to music on headphones at the time, significant because wearing headphones could have impeded the boy’s ability to hear the deputies’ command to drop his ‘gun.’ Police said Lopez was wearing a ‘hoodie’ sweatshirt, but it is not known whether the hood was pulled up over his head.
The FBI has launched its own investigation into the fatal shooting. An FBI spokesman in San Francisco said the Bureau was conducting a “shooting review” and that it was a “civil rights-type of case.”
Deputy Gelhaus, who joined the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in 1989, is a firearms instructor and range master with special training in firearms safety. According to the Press Democrat, he “has been a frequent advocate… for a prepared, aggressive stance in law enforcement,” which he has called his “calling” and a “contact sport.” In 2004, he was awarded a Medal of Valor for rescuing occupants trapped in a burning vehicle.
Gelhaus is also a veteran of the US occupation of Iraq. A prolific author, he wrote in a 2008 article for S.W.A.T. Magazine about strategies for surviving an ambush in the “kill zone,” describing the “nanoseconds (that) seem like minutes as you scramble to react while simultaneously thinking about your children and spouse.”
“Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home,” wrote Gelhaus.
It’s going to come down to YOUR ability to articulate to law enforcement and very likely the Court that you were in fear of death or serious bodily injury. I think we keep coming back to this, articulation– your ability to explain why– will be quite significant.
While ‘airsoft’ guns are legally required to have conspicuous features, typically bright orange barrel caps, to distinguish them as toys, a photo released by the the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department clearly shows there was no colored marking on the barrel of Lopez’s toy. Removal of such safety features is a misdemeanor in California.
A veteran officer told the Press Democrat that Gelhaus “has a lot of credibility in the department.” Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas called him a “solid employee” and a proven instructor.
The Associated Press reports Gelhaus has been the target of death threats since his identity was revealed. The deputy has been placed on administrative leave.
More than 1,000 mourners turned out to remember Lopez at a Windsor memorial service on Sunday. According to the Press Democrat:
“Described as a handsome, fun-loving boy, Lopez grew up in the Moorland Avenue neighborhood in southwest Santa Rosa, attending Bellevue Elementary School and Cook Middle School, where he played the trumpet in the band until transferring last week to Lewis Opportunity School.”
The boy’s parents, Rodrigo and Sujey Lopez, were distraught. Sujey remained bent over her son’s casket, cradling his face for more than eight hours, while Rodrigo at one point attempted to pull his son’s body from its resting place.
Lopez’s death has sparked widespread outrage in the community and beyond.
“He was not a gang member, he was an 8th grader,” Anita Ruiz, whose son was friends with Lopez, said of the slain teen. “He was not a criminal but yet he’s dead. He’s 13 years old. Couldn’t something else have been done?” she asked in an interview with NBC Bay Area.
Vigils and ‘Justice for Andy’ rallies have been held, and a large demonstration and march is planned for noon Tuesday, starting at Santa Rosa Junior College and Old Courthouse Square. The protest will make its way to the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Department on Ventura Avenue at 3:00 pm.
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