On Oct. 22, at 3:14 in the afternoon, 13-year-old Andy Lopez was walking to a friend's house on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, California, to return the friend's toy rifle, when two Sonoma County sheriff deputies drove up behind him in a marked police car and say they mistook the replica AK-47 for a real gun.
Sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a training officer with 24 years experience in the department, later told investigators that he shouted at the boy to drop his "gun" and that when Lopez turned, Gelhaus feared for his life and opened fire, riddling the eighth-grader with seven bullets from a 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun. According to the other deputy, who was driving the car and who did not open fire, the shooting was over in just a few seconds, even before he had time to move from behind the wheel and take cover behind his door.
The slaying also has raised questions about blowback from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where American soldiers often find themselves in dangerous surroundings and develop a tendency to open fire at the first hint of a threat. Now, some of those veterans are returning to jobs in domestic law enforcement sometimes without adequate counseling or screening before they begin patrolling city streets.The legal question in the aftermath of the slaying is whether Gelhaus, a master marksmen and former military trainer in Iraq, reacted rashly without giving Lopez any reasonable chance to respond to the police order and without properly assessing the actual danger of the situation from his position behind his door of the patrol car.
The Latino, Chicano and indigenous communities in and around Santa Rosa are still reeling from the slaying, but have moved from mourning at a mass funeral to various actions, demanding justice for the killing. Many see the case as another example of profiling a brown-skinned youth in a hoodie as somehow dangerous and deserving of a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later response. Almost every day since the killing, there has been some kind of protest, vigil or community meeting.
As details about the shooter and the shooting accumulate, alarm in the community has grown. Signs posted around a makeshift memorial for the popular eighth-grader, who was a member of the school band, read: "Sheriff Wanted for Murder" and "A good cop wouldn't have shot."
Gelhaus, 48, is assigned to the patrol division as well as being a senior firearms instructor. Before that, he was part of a gang enforcement team. He and the unnamed deputy who was driving the patrol car are now on administrative leave.
But Eric Gelhaus is a lot more than your typical deputy on the beat. He is a seasoned weapons expert, firearms instructor, veteran trainer in the Sheriff's Department, and a range master with extensive training in firearms. He also served in Iraq as a combat leader and a weapons trainer.
According to his own bio, Gelhaus was an infantry non-commissioned officer in the California National Guard: "My assignments included operations assistant for a 600+ soldier unit, small arms trainer, and squad leader during a combat employment. While in Iraq, in addition to supervising a heavy weapons squad and being responsible for the soldiers and the equipment, I testified in Iraq courts during the prosecution of insurgents."
Gelhaus is also an adjunct instructor for various gun-training centers, among them, the Arizona-based Gunsite Academy that provides extensive weapons training for law-enforcement as well as "free citizens of the US" and has close ties to the National Rifle Association and various gun manufacturers. Gelhaus's LinkedIn page notes that he worked for Aimpoint, a company that develops new technology for a whole assortment of firearms.
Besides his training and other gun expertise, Gelhaus is a columnist and contributor to S.W.A.T Magazine and various other gun-culture forums that deal with the use of deadly force by police. He described his work with law enforcement as a "Contact sport."
In a 2008 column, entitled "Ambush Reaction in the Kill Zone," Gelhaus reflected on the need to possess the "mean gene" to survive in "the kill zone," adding that "Today is the day you may need to kill someone to go home. If you cannot turn on the Mean Gene for yourself, who will?"
Acting as a moderator for "The Firing Line," an online forum for gun enthusiasts, sponsored by S.W.A.T Magazine, Gelhaus, in his own name, reflected on all aspects having to do with the owning and use of guns including the use of force if someone fires a BB gun at another person.
Whether Gelhaus will ever have to answer any hard questions as to whether he was trigger-happy when he cut down an eighth-grader with a toy gun in the middle of the afternoon is already in doubt. Given his extensive relationship with the military and his position as a senior police trainer, Gelhaus may be very well insulated.
In the initial stages of the investigation, it was announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would be conducting a thorough and independent probe to see if there was cause for federal civil rights charges to be filed.
On Oct. 25, three days after the slaying, FBI spokesman Peter Lee told local reporters that the Bureau had begun a "shooting review," calling the incident "a civil-rights type of case." But last week, Lee was non-committal and said nothing about any kind of independent investigation that the FBI would do.