Put Gelhaus in the jailhouse

November 18, 2013

Jeffrey Boyette and Zachary Aslanian-Williams report on the police murder of a 13-year-old in Sonoma County--and the determined movement demanding justice.

ON OCTOBER 22, 48-year-old Sonoma County sheriff's deputy Erick Gelhaus spotted 13-year-old middle school student Andy Lopez walking alone in his neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif. A few moments later, Lopez was dead--his body riddled with six of the seven rounds filed by Gelhaus.

The popular young man had committed no crime nor provoked the deputy in any way. His murder is a tragic reminder that domestic security forces in the U.S. are not deployed to keep the peace, but to terrorize working-class communities and people of color.

The official police story goes like this: Gelhaus and a younger officer saw Lopez carrying a BB gun designed to look like an AK-47. Gelhaus claims he mistook the toy gun for a real military-issue assault rifle and immediately determined the 5-foot-4-inch boy to be a threat.

The officers drove up behind Lopez and, without announcing themselves as law enforcement or exiting their car, demanded that he drop the weapon. Within a few seconds Gelhaus did get out of the car and opened fire. Gelhaus claims that Lopez was turning and raising the BB gun in his direction, which justified the use of lethal force.

Demonstrations demanding justice for Andy Lopez have grown as large as 1,000 people
Demonstrations demanding justice for Andy Lopez have grown as large as 1,000 people (Daniel Arauz)

Even if this story were true, it gives slim ground for two armed officers, shielded by their patrol car, to end the life of a 13-year-old boy. But the autopsy report and eyewitness accounts raise bigger doubts that Lopez could have appeared threatening by any standard.

Lopez fell to the ground after the first shot, which struck him in his side and entered his heart, indicating that Lopez was still turning to face the officers. The remaining six rounds were fired at Lopez while he lay on the ground. Nor did witnesses see Lopez raise the BB gun. The entire confrontation--from the moment the officers spotted Lopez until the last shot was fired--spanned only about 10 seconds.

All these facts indicate that Gelhaus arrived guns blazing--while Andy Lopez did what anyone would in his situation. He turned around.

A GLIMPSE at Gelhaus' background raises even bigger questions about his use of deadly force--and about the Sonoma County sheriff's department in general.

Gelhaus, a longtime law enforcement officer and Iraq war veteran, also trains and consults security agencies and private gun users. He started one 2008 article he wrote for SWAT Magazine--the self-proclaimed "Nation's Favorite Gun Magazine"--with the sentence, "Driving along with your mind on mundane matters, you suddenly find yourself in the kill zone of an ambush fighting for your life."

Gelhaus goes on in the article to claim that there are three things someone in this situation must keep in mind: "Today is the day you may need to kill someone to go home, law enforcement is a contact sport... and someone needs to make a decision." He reiterates the necessity of being able to turn on the "Mean Gene" and take action--and from there expounds on the tactics needed to defeat militarily trained "bad guys" and crooks in a firefight.

Unfortunately, Gelhaus isn't the only person in Sonoma County with twisted ideas about neighborhood policing. In an eerie echo of the killing of innocent Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, a Santa Rosa police spokesperson made a point of mentioning that Lopez had been wearing a blue hoodie--apparently marking him in their eyes as a gang member.

According to community activist and lifetime Santa Rosa resident Michael Fuentes, this sort of profiling and counterinsurgency-style policing is nothing new for people of color in Santa Rosa:

I lived one block up from where Andy was murdered, so I know what it's like when coming into contact with any kind of law enforcement in that area. They automatically assume you are drug-related, gang-related or up to no good. Me being a person with tattoos, I guess I fit the part. The Sonoma County law enforcement have been trained in paramilitary tactics, rather than taking the time to become educated and culturally sensitive to that area and towards the people of that area.

Sonoma County has a record of deadly police violence. Since 1995, 34 people, including Lopez, have been killed at the hands of local law enforcement. Though each of these killings was deemed justified by official investigations, 16 cases led to civil lawsuits that cost the public a total of $5 million. In other words, the officers were let off the hook while the community paid twice--once with a life of one of its own and again with tax dollars.

BUT IT appears that Gelhaus may not get off so easy. Community outrage over Lopez's murder has spilled into an ongoing nonviolent protest movement. Demonstrations led primarily by youth and united behind the slogan "Jailhouse for Gelhaus" have ranged from a few hundred protesters to more than 1,000.

In one of the largest protests, on October 29, middle- and high-schoolers skipped class to join community members and supporters from around the Bay Area in a march through downtown Santa Rosa to the sheriff's office.

Supporters included activists with Occupy Oakland, as well as three vanloads of protesters from Stockton, Calif., led by Dionne Smith-Downs, whose 16-year-old son, James Earl Rivera Jr., was slain by law enforcement in 2010. Also present were family members of Oscar Grant III, whose death at the hands of a BART transit officer on an Oakland, Calif., train platform in 2009 prompted a protest movement that pressured prosecutors to file criminal charges against Grant's killer.

More recently, activists called a national day of protest around Lopez's case for November 9, which led to demonstrations in at least half a dozen cities across the country. On that day in Santa Rosa, around 400 people participated in a daylong event at Julliard Park, featuring Aztec dancers and speeches from other victims of police brutality across the state.

Despite their heartbreaking loss, Lopez's family have been active in the protests from the start, and now run a "Justice for Andy Lopez" Facebook page that has become a hub for organizing in the movement. They have also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit arguing that Gelhaus acted recklessly and placing heavy blame on the Sheriff's office for "encouraging, accommodating, or ratifying" excessive force amongst its deputies.

The outcry over Lopez's murder is an expression of the discrimination felt by poor communities and communities of color in Sonoma County. In Fuentes' view, "The Hispanic community, the American Indian community in the area are tired, just really tired of being stepped on, of being treated in some way, all because of where we live."

In the words of another protester and Santa Rosa resident, this protest movement is:

bringing the community together to support each other and to stand up against police brutality. Because it's been going on for so long in this county, everybody is standing up and saying this needs to stop, and to investigate what's going on here. These cops have been getting away with it for years and years, and it's not going to stop until this comes about.

So far, city officials have reacted to the demonstrations much like Gelhaus reacted to Lopez on the day of the shooting. During the biggest mobilization on October 29, the city mobilized riot police and even canceled a city council meeting, claiming protesters were a threat to safety.

In reality, the demonstrations have been an inspiring example of unity, nonviolence and community building. According to Fuentes:

We've seen people from all walks of life, whether white, Black, Mexican, American Indian, come together in the same crowd. I've seen miracles happen in these movements. I've seen North Siders and South Siders and gang kids coming together in the same crowd and the same movement, marching side by side, chanting the same slogans. And that's something that wouldn't happen, but this movement has come on so strong--and Andy's name has been honored that way.

Demonstrators also see the deeper aspects of discrimination beyond police brutality. As Santa Rosa resident Sylvia Sandoval pointed out:

There should be some type of community center or program for the kids in that area, and there's nothing. They've been promising for years that they're going to make a boys' and girls' club. They have one in Montgomery Village, but they don't have one in the South Santa Rosa area. So that's discouraging.

In an effort to challenge these inequalities, activists have started a petition to turn an empty lot near where Lopez was killed into Andy Lopez Memorial Park. Community members have already taken action by adding plastic play structures to the lot.

Meanwhile, community members and activists continue to push their primary demand--that Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, bring criminal charges against Gelhaus. Ravitch insists that she won't make any decision until after an official investigation, which in this case is being conducted by the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Given the county's history with officer-involved shootings and the department's own history of mistreatment of communities of color, it isn't likely that official investigators or Ravitch will take a stance against Gelhaus unless the protest movement continues. As Fuentes said:

It's going to be very crucial that we keep the people aware, so that this doesn't become just another passing phase. Because if that does happen, I'm 99.9 percent certain that the DA will not file charges against the officer.

As the list of innocent people of color murdered by law enforcement or vigilantes continues to grow, the people of Sonoma County and around the country need to stand up and demand an end to police terrorism and the militarization of our communities.

In Erick Gelhaus' eyes, Andy Lopez was a target, not a threat. His training was not to protect and serve his community, but to go to war. But as city officials show their true colors in reaction to Lopez' murder, the community has a chance to rise up and present their own demands, starting with: Justice for Andy Lopez!

Further Reading

From the archives