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Monday, July 14, 2014

Deputy Kills 13-Year-Old Boy Carrying Replica AK-47

     On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 22, 2013, in Santa Rosa, a city of 170,000 in California's wine country fifty miles northwest of San Francisco, 13-year-old Andy Lopez walked to his friend's house. The popular boy, dressed in a blue hooded sweatshirt, carried a brown plastic pellet gun with a black banana magazine that looked like an AK-47 assault rifle. The replica weapon did not come equipped with the required orange-tipped barrel. Tucked into his waistband, the boy also carried a toy handgun that did feature the orange tip.

    At three in the afternoon that day, two Sonoma County sheriff's deputies in a marked patrol car spotted Andy Lopez walking in the field not far from his house. The officer behind the wheel, a sheriff's office trainee, pulled the cruiser to the curb, turned on the emergency lights, and chirped the siren. The other officer, deputy Erick Gelhaus, radioed in a suspicious person report.

     Positioned behind an open car door, deputy Gelhaus shouted to the boy faced away from him. Twice the officer yelled, "Drop the gun!" As the Andy Lopez turned, the barrel of his pellet gun rose up. That's when Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran of the force who had served with the Army in Iraq, fired eight shots. Seven of the bullets entered the boy who died on the spot.

     The shooting occurred just ten seconds after officer Gelhaus called in the suspicious person report. Sixteen seconds after the boy went down the trainee called for medical assistance.

     The next day, a hundred or so people marched on city hall in protest of the shooting of "an innocent boy."

     Across the country, over the past few years, more than a dozen people armed with BB, pellet, and replica guns have been shot by the police. In a few places realistic toy guns have been banned by law. In several jurisdictions laws of this nature is moving though the legislative pipeline.

     On Friday, October 25, 2013, the sheriff of Sonoma County announced that his office would probe  the shooting. The county district attorney said her office had opened an investigation of the incident. In the meantime, the sheriff placed the the two deputies on paid administrative leave. Deputy Gelhaus, a certified training officer, had been mentoring the other officer in the car.

     On October 30, 2013, Santa Rosa resident Jeffrey Westbrook told a local television correspondent that on August 21, at eight-thirty in the morning, deputy Gelhaus had stopped him on Highway 101 for failing to use his blinker. Westbrook pulled his black BMW onto a narrow shoulder above a steep hillside. As the deputy approached the car, Westbrook moved the vehicle toward a wider spot on the shoulder. Officer Gelhaus yelled, "Turn off the car!" then pulled his gun and pointed it the weapon Westbrook.
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     Deputy Gelhaus, his gun still aimed at Westbrook, ordered the motorist out of the vehicle. The deputy asked the motorist if he possessed a weapon. Westbrook did not have a gun in the car. Deputy Gelhaus did not issue a ticket to the upset motorist. Mr. Westbook said he intended to file a formal complaint against the deputy.

     In defending the officer, a sheriff's office spokesperson pointed out that Westbrook's car matched the description of a vehicle that was on the "be on the lookout" sheet.

     In July 2014, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced that her officer would not file criminal charges against Deputy Gelhaus in connection with the Lopez shooting. A member of the community protesting this decision, in speaking to a local newspaper reporter, said, "The district attorney is giving permission to the deputies to kill our children. They get a paid vacation and there are no repercussions."  

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