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Gunning Down a Boy with a Toy Gun

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According to the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Lee "refused multiple queries to describe what exactly agents would be doing in Sonoma County -- or whether they would be truly autonomous or working side-by-side with local police or even conducting their own interviews with the deputies involved and witnesses."

Indications were that local officials would head up at least the initial investigation. "My understanding is simply that [FBI officials are] here for support but not actively engaged in an investigation," said Santa Rosa District Attorney Jill Ravish, "The only investigations currently occurring are the sheriff's review for their own internal affairs and the criminal investigation being conducted by the Santa Rosa Police Department."

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A Difficult Case

Senior officials in the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department have described Gelhaus as a "solid employee" with "a lot of credibility in the department," according to local news reports. Gelhaus has testified as an expert on narcotics trafficking and gang-related activities. According to law enforcement records, Gelhaus has never killed anyone before in his capacity as a Sheriff's deputy.

But there were some warning signs in his record. According to local press reports, Gelhaus got into a scuffle with a couple of minors in 1997 and apparently battered them with a flashlight. But a jury later found that Gelhaus and the Sheriff's Office were not liable in a civil lawsuit alleging excessive force against the two minors, Karla and Israel Salazar.

Legal experts say it is rare for a police officer to be charged criminally in a shooting when a claim can be made about a life-threatening situation, even when the threat turns out to be non-existent. A greater legal opening can be available to victims and their families in civil actions claiming wrongful injury or death.

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On Monday, the attorney for the Lopez family, Arnoldo Casillas, announced that the Lopez family had filed three separate wrongful death claims, seeking damages against Gelhaus and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.

Casillas said the lawsuit, filed in Federal Court in the Northern District of California, alleges that "without cause or provocation, Erick Gelhaus shot and killed Andy Lopez on October 22, 2013, as he walked along a rural residential neighborhood sidewalk. The shooting was absolutely unjustified and its plaintiffs' goal here is to show that the killing of Andy Lopez was a senseless and unwarranted act of police abuse."

Casillas said he did not wait to file the lawsuit because it appears that the Sheriff's Department is already involved in a cover-up, trying to withhold crucial information from the public, and suggesting in various ways that the killing of Lopez was justified. Casillas said Gelhaus acted in a "super reckless way with no regard for public's safety. " He unloaded his gun in a public area in an uncontrolled way."

The lawsuit states that Lopez was unarmed and posed no risk or threat to the deputies or others and was shot without cause or provocation, a overzealous use of force condoned by the Sheriff's Office.

"The Sheriff's Department's training encourages deputies to prematurely shoot suspects who pose no threat or danger to deputies or the public at large," the lawsuit states. It also alleges that the Sheriff's Office failed to create and implement policies and training to set out clear guidelines for the use of deadly force and proper tactics for pedestrian stops.

Lopez's parents were at the press conference and were asked what they wanted in terms of justice for their slain son. The mother, who is undocumented along with her husband, noted that their son was a full citizen of the United States.

"Me and my husband came to this country for a better life and to raise a family in the richest and most powerful country on earth," Lopez's mother said. "We were attracted by its freedom and justice and equality. We raised our family believing this, and now I have to live with the death of my son forever and that's never going to go away and no money can replace him or cure the pain."

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Murder Charge?

At an Oct. 29 protest against the killing in Santa Rosa, I spoke to civil rights and human rights attorney John Burris, who has specialized in police shootings particularly in communities of color. Burris said he believes the slaying of Lopez was an "unlawful police shooting" and that Gelhaus should be prosecuted under some type of murder charge.

"What is alleged to happen is that Andy was walking down the street with what appeared to be an AK-47 in his hand. The police come up behind him, jump out of the car and say, 'Drop it.' When he doesn't comply right away, but turns back to look, I imagine, he was shot numerous times by one officer hitting him on his back side three or four times, and on his side three or four times."

Burris continued...

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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