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BY JULIE JOHNSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
August 15, 2014

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus will return to patrolling the streets next week, nearly 10 months after he shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez, sparking protests that revealed deep distrust of law enforcement among some residents, especially those in the Latino community.

The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office in July cleared Gelhaus of any criminal wrongdoing for his actions in the fatal Oct. 22 shooting, which ignited an emotional debate about officers’ use of deadly force and the dangers of toy guns made to look like real firearms.

Lopez was shot while walking down a residential street on Santa Rosa’s southwest outskirts carrying an airsoft BB gun made to resemble an AK-47 assault rifle. Gelhaus told investigators he ordered the boy to drop the gun, then opened fire when Lopez turned toward the deputy, partially raising the barrel of the gun.

Gelhaus did not return a call seeking comment about his return to patrol duties. His attorney Terry Leoni said in an email that the veteran deputy welcomed “this assignment, and knows his nearly 25-years in law enforcement will continue to benefit the community.”

“He will continue to proudly serve the people of Sonoma County, as he has always done,” Leoni said.


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Gelhaus, a firearms instructor in the Sheriff’s Office, has been back at work since December, largely in administrative assignments within the department. His return to patrol, including a wide range of duties interacting with the public, marks another potent moment in what has been a painful and tumultuous chapter in Sonoma County history.

For those who have continued to protest the deputy’s actions, news of Gelhaus’ return to patrol was met with surprise and a sense that their concerns had gone unheard. Some signaled that the move would touch off another round of the demonstrations that saw activists, including students, family and friends of Lopez, and other residents criss-cross Santa Rosa, carrying signs and shouting slogans to voice their outrage over Lopez’s death.

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sgt. Cecile Focha confirmed this week that Gelhaus was returning to his patrol post on an unspecified day next week. She said the move mirrored what the department would do for any peace officer involved in a fatal shooting who was found to have acted within the law and department policy.

“He hasn’t done anything wrong. He was cleared by the District Attorney,” Focha said, referring to Jill Ravitch’s decision last month that the shooting was justified and was not a criminal act. “Our internal investigation saw no violation of policy or procedures.”


Sheriff Steve Freitas, reached by phone Friday, declined to comment, saying he was on vacation.

Gelhaus will return to work as a patrol deputy stationed at the main office. His assignment, including whether he will return to the Moorland Avenue area where the shooting took place, will be decided by a sergeant each day based on staffing needs, Focha said.

The Lopez family’s attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, did not respond to several emails and phone calls requesting comment. The family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that accused Gelhaus of acting recklessly and questioned his fitness to be a deputy. The lawsuit also faults the Sheriff’s Office, accusing it of “encouraging, accommodating, or ratifying” the use of excessive force by deputies. The county has strongly denied the claims.

The shooting took place in a neighborhood long plagued by gang activity, including gun violence. Households along Moorland Avenue, including the block where Lopez grew up and where he died just a half mile to the north, on the edge of a vacant field, are among the poorest and most heavily Latino in Sonoma County, according to school and census data.

Many residents in the area said they have long endured the heavy hand of law enforcement, a complaint the Sheriff’s Office and Santa Rosa police have sought to address especially in recent months, holding various public forums and revisiting talk of how the area is patrolled by officers.

State legislators have also introduced and advanced a bill that would more strictly regulate the manufacture and use of airsoft guns like the one Lopez was carrying at the time of the shooting.

The eighth-grader was spotted near Moorland and West Robles avenues at 3:14 p.m. Oct. 22 by Gelhaus and Deputy Michael Schemmel, who were on patrol in a car.

Gelhaus reportedly mistook the BB gun Lopez was carrying for a real weapon and opened fire after yelling at Lopez to drop the gun. He told investigators Lopez was turning toward him and he felt threatened by the manner in which the teen was raising the BB gun. Gelhaus fired eight shots, hitting Lopez seven times. Schemmel, who had been driving the patrol car, did not fire his weapon.

Gelhaus was placed on administrative leave after the shooting and underwent a mental health screening, both routine steps taken by agencies after officer-involved shootings. The Iraq War veteran and firearms expert returned to work nine months ago in an administrative capacity, including a post with the department’s armory, an assignment that Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Dueñas said Gelhaus would hold until the District Attorney’s investigation was complete.

Ravitch announced July 7 that the shooting was not a criminal act and, based on a lengthly and costly review of the facts, was justifiable. The announcement prompted another wave of protests by an outspoken group of community members. Some have sought to have Gelhaus prosecuted for murder while many say the shooting served as another tragic reminder of the need for changes in how law enforcement employs force, especially in its interaction with the county’s immigrant and minority communities.

Michael Rothenberg, a Guerneville resident and member of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez, which has been active in most of the protests, said that while Ravitch’s decision was expected by many involved in demonstrations, they didn’t anticipate that Gelhaus would return to patrol duties.


“To put him back on the streets here, that’s just plain stupid, that’s an affront,” Rothenberg said after being told by a reporter of Gelhaus’ return to patrol. “You expect him to be able to walk around the street and get respect from anyone?”

Rothenberg said that activists were planning a protest at the Sheriff’s Office for 1 p.m. Saturday.

Caroline Bañuelos, chairwoman of the community task force studying options for civilian oversight of law enforcement, said this week she also had not heard that Gelhaus would return to patrol.

“We all know he has been cleared (of any criminal wrongdoing),” Bañuelos said. “But there are members of the community — and we’ve heard that over and over again — who don’t agree with the DA’s decision and won’t be happy to hear he’s coming back.”

Bañuelos said that the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, formed by the county in the wake of Lopez’s shooting to address a range of issues, had prepared for a response to the District Attorney’s decision in July but had not prepared for Gelhaus’ return to work.

She encouraged people — both those in support of Gelhaus and those with concerns about his return to work — to attend task force meetings, the next one set for Sept. 22.

“I didn’t imagine that he (Gelhaus) would want to continue working here,” Bañuelos said. “Whether it’s right or wrong isn’t the issue, but whether he will continue to be accepted by the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjreport.




 


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