The Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff, who shot and killed a popular Latino eighth-grader holding a toy gun, has a history of over-reaction that dates back years, according to an attorney for the slain youth's family who has filed a federal lawsuit for wrongful death.
On Oct. 22, Deputy Sheriff Erick Gelhaus, a seasoned marksman with 24 years experience in the department, shouted to the boy, Andy Lopez, to drop the toy gun, a replica of an AK-47, and -- as the boy turned toward Gelhaus and his partner in a police car -- Gelhaus claimed to feel threatened and riddled the 13-year-old with seven bullets.
Lopez family attorney Arnoldo Casillas told me in an interview that people have been coming out of the woodwork to share stories about their encounters with Gelhaus, who is also an Iraq War veteran and a commentator for S.W.A.T Magazine. Casillas said he has debriefed and taken depositions from a number of witnesses with direct knowledge of the shooting or alleged abuses by Gelhaus,
"With the media coverage and the tsunami of attention that the Lopez lawsuit has received," said Casillas...
"...folks are coming to us from everywhere with stories about his repeated instances of recklessness. We are recording stories as far back to the mid-Nineties that indicate his reckless use of firearms ... and the shocking part about all of this is that he is the firearms expert, the instructor. In other words Gelhaus lays down the foundation as to how other sheriff deputies are going to be exercising the use of force and that is truly shocking."
Casillas said five eyewitnesses -- four people in a vehicle immediately behind the patrol car and a man in front -- said the fatal incident began when the patrol car accelerated into the intersection and crossed into the opposing lane of traffic. The police officers screamed out a command as they were exiting the cruiser and opened fire on Lopez, possibly in a matter of only two or three seconds, Casillas said, adding:
"Our forensic evidence suggests that Andy was shot as he was turning to his right, as the officers called out to him. The first bullet hit in the chest, literally went right through his heart. And it killed him. The police officer continued to shoot as Andy fell, and as Andy was on the ground."
According to police reports, it was 11 seconds between the time that the squad car called in to headquarters about a suspected sighting of someone carrying a gun and the fatal shooting. More crucial, in terms of the incident, was the amount of time that elapsed between the time Gelhaus called out to Lopez and opened fire.
"We do know that the important sequence, the calling out a command to the shooting, was just two to three seconds," Casillas said. "The two women behind the patrol car said that they [the deputies] were shooting as they were getting out of the patrol car. Andy wasn't given a chance to respond or react."
As Gelhaus opened fire, the deputy with him, who was driving the car and who did not open fire, said 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 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.
In any legal proceeding, Gelhaus's record in his use of a gun as a police officer will be relevant. Lawyer Casillas said some witnesses have recounted what they consider Gelhaus's "history of reckless and hyper-aggressive policing."
Casillas said one troubling account of Gelhaus's quick-draw mentality was an incident in the 1990s in which Gelhaus was called to the scene of a dispute between neighbors. After Gelhaus arrived, one of the neighbors reported that "Gelhaus literally chased her around her truck pointing a gun at her, while she was holding a 2- or 3-year-old child in her arms," Casillas said.
Jeffery Westbrook, a program manager at an information technology company and resident of Santa Rosa, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Gelhaus pulled a gun on him twice during a routine traffic stop without provocation, just two months before the killing of Andy Lopez.
According to the report, Westbrook said "he was mistreated by Deputy Erick Gelhaus after being pulled over Aug. 21 in Cotati for failing to signal a lane change in his BMW. The interaction troubled Westbrook so much that he recalled asking Gelhaus at one point, "Sir, is there something wrong with you?'"
Westbrook said, "I felt like I was watching somebody I needed to help."
According to the Chronicle's report, Westbrook was traveling south on Highway 101 when Gelhaus stopped them and then approached the BMW from the passenger side.