Cop who fatally shot boy armed with replica threatened
Deputy Erick Gelhaus's name was released based on an awareness that it was starting to circulate publicly
By Brett Wilkison and Derek Moore
The Press Democrat
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who fired the shots that killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez last week is a firearms expert, Iraq War veteran and prolific contributor to magazines and online forums dealing with guns and police use of force.
The Sheriff's Office confirmed Sunday that Deputy Erick Gelhaus, 48, fired the shots. A 24-year veteran of the office, Gelhaus has been a frequent advocate in his writing for a prepared, aggressive stance in law enforcement, a profession he has described as a "calling" and likened to a "contact sport."
In a 2008 article he wrote for S.W.A.T. Magazine about strategies for surviving an ambush in the "kill zone," Gelhaus began by describing the "nanoseconds (that) seem like minutes as you scramble to react while simultaneously thinking about your children and spouse."
Sheriff's officials had previously declined to release the deputy's name, citing threats to his safety.
Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas said the office was still dealing with those threats and would, if necessary, take measures to protect Gelhaus. He said the decision to confirm the deputy's name was based on an awareness that it was starting to circulate publicly.
Gelhaus joined the Sheriff's Office in 1989 and is one of its two dozen field training officers — a group in charge of training newly hired and newly minted deputies — in addition to being a firearms instructor and range master with special training in firearms safety and instruction.
He has testified in court as an expert on gangs and narcotics, according to a colleague. In 2004, he was awarded the office's Medal of Valor for pulling occupants of a burning vehicle to safety.
Duenas on Sunday described Gelhaus as a "solid employee" and proven instructor among the office's 275 deputies and roughly 250 correctional officers.
Gelhaus "has a lot of credibility in the department," said a ranking Sheriff's Office veteran, noting his years in the military and experience vetting new employees. Like others interviewed last week, he would speak only on condition of anonymity because the Sheriff's Office command staff asked employees not to talk to the media about the investigation.
On Tuesday, Gelhaus was with a deputy he had supervised for a month, a new hire with 11 years of experience. Just after 3:14 p.m., they drove up behind Lopez about a half-mile north of the boy's Moorland Avenue home on the southwestern outskirts of Santa Rosa.
Ten seconds later, after the deputies had reported a suspicious person to dispatchers, radioed for backup and issued orders to the boy to drop his weapon, according to Santa Rosa police, Gelhaus opened fire when he saw Lopez — his back to the deputies — begin to turn toward him, the barrel of the BB gun rising.
The deputy mistook the BB gun for an assault rifle, investigators said.
Gelhaus fired eight rounds, striking the boy seven times, investigators said. Two shots were fatal, an autopsy determined.
His partner, the trainee, did not fire his weapon, investigators said. Gelhaus and the other deputy were placed on paid administrative leave.
Gelhaus has not returned repeated calls for comment.
Asked about how he is coping, Duenas said Gelhaus is "doing as best as can be expected."
Sheriff's officials have declined to name the second deputy, citing his partial role as a "witness" in the incident and saying they did not want to interfere with the local investigation being led by Santa Rosa police.
The FBI also is looking into the shooting.
Gelhaus' involvement caused ripples as word leaked out last week among the sheriff's sworn personnel.
"Him of all people . . . that was my first thought," said another ranking sheriff's deputy. "He's a range master; he's respected; he's a go-to guy."
He noted the challenge of distinguishing in a moment's flash a BB gun — described by police as a "replica AK-47 assault-style rifle" — with the real thing.
Sheriff Steve Freitas did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
Gelhaus' decision to fire at Lopez has sparked intense criticism of law enforcement and touched off a debate about whether the deputy was right to feel threatened and fire his weapon.
"We don't know the reason why they killed him; they should know if a gun is real," said Katia Ontiveros, 18, one of hundreds of local residents who joined protests and vigils last week in the shooting's aftermath.
But Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said officers are typically justified in the use of deadly force when they sincerely believe lives are at stake.
If the teen was raising the barrel of the gun toward officers, they had little choice about firing, Alpert told the Associated Press.
"If it's a pink bubble-gum gun and an obvious fake to most, then there is no reason to shoot," he said. "But if the gun looks real, the barrel is being pointed at you . . . it's unfortunate, but a perceived threat trumps age, and the officers have to protect themselves."
Aside from those assigned to substations, sheriff's deputies generally do not have specific beats. Gelhaus, nevertheless, would have been familiar with the area of southwest Santa Rosa where he was on patrol Tuesday, Duenas said.
"Most deputies are," he said.
The area has had an uneasy relationship with law enforcement and long been confronted by a high concentration of assaults and gang and drug activity, according to Duenas, who grew up in the neighborhood and went to the same schools as Lopez.
He touched only in general terms on how the area's past might have affected the deputies' actions in their encounter with the boy.
"For any situation, you're going to take into it the totality of what you know," plus information you gather, he said. It would be oversimplifying to say: "We go into any given neighborhood and say 'This is a bad neigbhorhood.' "
Duenas did not have access Sunday to records detailing the level of Sheriff's Office patrol in the neighborhood, statistics on crime or answers about whether deputies had been in the area in the days before the shooting.
Duenas said Gelhaus has served as a training officer since 2007. The role includes instruction in a wide range of operations, including arrest procedures, citizen contacts and office policies. It requires years of experience, good judgment and careful evaluation of co-workers, Duenas said.
"They're good deputies. They're good performers," he said, speaking of the group.
He said he was not aware of any office policy that would have prohibited the trainee from firing his weapon. As to why he didn't and Gelhaus did, "Santa Rosa police will be looking into that," he said.
Gelhaus' role as a firearms instructor dates back to at least 1995. In an accident that made the news that year, he shot himself in the leg with his service handgun while holstering the gun to frisk a teen for weapons.
Aside from that incident, Gelhaus has not been involved in a shooting while working with the Sheriff's Office, Duenas said.
His military career spans roughly 10 years, according to Sheriff's Office records, and includes service in the Army and National Guard.
An online profile posted on LinkedIn states that Gelhaus served as a non-commissioned officer with the Army National Guard from 2004 to 2010. While serving in Iraq, he reportedly supervised a heavy weapons squad and testified in court trials of insurgents.
He also is an adjunct instructor, according to his LinkedIn profile, for Gunsite Academy, an Arizona company that teaches markmanship, gun-handling and other skills to military personnel, law enforcement and "free citizens of the U.S."
In his writing, he cuts an usually high profile, with a voluminous number of online posts and magazine articles. They shed some light on his worldview and outlook on law enforcement.
He wrote for S.W.A.T. in 2008 that among the things he tells his trainees early on is that "Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home."
"If you cannot turn on the 'Mean Gene' for yourself, who will?" he wrote. "If you find yourself in an ambush, in the kill zone, you need to turn on that mean gene."
Duenas, asked to provide some law enforcement context that would explain the comments, said "the statement is just saying that today is the day you may have to engage and fight for your life."
"From an officer perspective, the reality is you could be making a traffic stop and walk back to the car and have someone shoot at you," Duenas said.
As a prolific poster and moderator on The Firing Line, an online forum for gun enthusiasts hosted by S.W.A.T, Gelhaus, using his real name, offers his opinions on everything from weapons and technology, law enforcement and military tactics, and what it's like to work as a sheriff's deputy.
Gelhaus' participation in the forum was confirmed Friday by Denny Hansen, S.W.A.T.'s editor-in-chief.
In one revealing thread, forum members debated whether the use of force is justified if someone brandishes or fires a BB gun at another person.
Gelhaus chimed in, writing that "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," Gelhaus wrote.
A jury in 1997 found that Gelhaus and the Sheriff's Office were not liable in a civil lawsuit alleging excessive force against two minors, Karla and Israel Salazar. The pair were walking on Kenton Court when an officer approached Israel in the belief he had escaped from police custody, according to court records submitted by attorneys representing the minors.
Israel muttered, "f---- pigs," prompting a fight that drew a crowd of up to 75 onlookers and other officers, including Gelhaus, who struck the boy in the leg with a flashlight, records show.
Criminal charges of resisting arrest were later dropped. But the family sued in Sonoma County civil court, alleging the minors' rights were violated. The jury in 2002 sided with Gelhaus and the other defendants.
In another online post, Gelhaus described his tenure as a deputy as a time of "the good, bad, terrible & indifferent," and advised one person asking for career advice to consider the potential of having to face the "very rare" situation of "having to take a life so that you survive and go home to yours."
"The time to make that decision is now, not at 1 a.m. in a muddy ditch or garbage-filled parking lot," Gelhaus wrote.
Staff writers Julie Johnson, Randi Rossmann and Paul Payne and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Press Democrat
McClatchy-Tribune News Service