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Police reports on Andy Lopez killing sent to District Attorney's Office

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 7:29 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 7:29 a.m.

Santa Rosa and Petaluma police Wednesday delivered their final report on the fatal October shooting of Andy Lopez to District Attorney Jill Ravitch, but it may be many months before she decides whether to press any charges against the sheriff's deputy who shot and killed the 13-year-old boy.

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Andy Lopez

“I recognize the community would like me to complete my review and make a decision in short order, however it's essential it be done in a thorough and complete fashion ... I have no intention of delaying this review but I will not be committed to a specific date for completion,” Ravitch said after receiving the report.

Customarily, the D.A. reviews shootings involving an officer within 90 days of receiving the investigative report, but it is not a legal requirement that she do so.

Neither Ravitch nor Santa Rosa police, who led the investigation, would discuss the contents of the report or what, if any, recommendations investigators made about filing charges against Deputy Erick Gelhaus.

Gelhaus shot Lopez, a Santa Rosa eighth-grader, Oct. 22 as the youth was walking up Moorland Avenue carrying an airsoft-style BB gun designed to resemble an assault rifle. Gelhaus encountered the boy while riding in a patrol car being driven by another deputy. He reportedly mistook it for a real weapon and opened fire after yelling at Lopez to drop the gun. He told investigators Lopez was turning toward him and he felt threatened by the manner in which he was raising the BB gun.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has not revealed the name of the second deputy involved in the shooting, citing his potential role as a “witness” in the incident. Santa Rosa police investigating the shooting have said the second deputy, who was still behind the wheel of the patrol car when Lopez was shot, was on a training assignment with Gelhaus.

The shooting sparked a wave of outrage and a series of protests that have continued into the new year. Protesters have called for Gelhaus to face charges, saying he did not give the youth proper notice of his presence or enough time, mere seconds, to respond. They have also called for broader change, including greater investment in the heavily Latino neighborhood where Lopez lives and an overhaul of how law enforcement agencies are trained and monitored.

Activists have pushed to turn the vacant lot at the corner of Moorland and West Robles avenues, next to where Lopez was shot, into a park in his memory. The lot has been covered with make-shift memorials and remains the sight of frequent protests and vigils.

The shooting has added urgency to a decadeslong discussion about annexing unincorporated pockets of Sonoma County into Santa Rosa. The neighborhood in which Lopez was shot is commonly regarded as part of Santa Rosa but falls outside city limits and is served by sheriff's deputies rather than Santa Rosa police.

County supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council have appointed a 21-member task force to recommend possible changes to the county's law enforcement system. That group held its first two meetings this month.

“The board completely understands the passion, angst and frustration that is being felt out there,” Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said, though he cautioned that the public should be patient for as long as Ravitch needs to consider the report.

“The outcome is certainly more important than some other timeframe,” he said.

Ravitch has consistently said she would not be rushed in her review of the incident, though she has promised to be clear and transparent with whatever decision she does make.

“When the review is complete the public will be aware of what the decision is and the reason for the decision,” she said Wednesday.

After the shooting, Gelhaus was placed on administrative leave but subsequently returned to desk duty after being cleared by a preliminary sheriff's office investigation.He has not commented publicly on the incident.

Local activists who have been protesting the shooting reacted to Ravitch's comments Wednesday with frustration.

“On behalf of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez, we're extremely disappointed that the public has not been informed of the so-called results and finding of the 'tremendous amount of time and effort' allegedly devoted to the investigation,” said Jonathan Melrod, a local attorney and active member of the coalition.

Melrod said the results of the report should be made public and that Ravitch should not delay her findings.

“If the investigation is thorough, we expect that the district attorney will have no cause to prolong the 90-day period in which it is advised that she issue her findings regarding criminal liability,” he said. “All along, the public has feared a whitewash and an opaque investigation. Failure to release the results of the investigation only confirm our worst fears.”

In California, police records generally are confidential and law enforcement is under no legal obligation to release them.

Melrod said the Andy Lopez coalition will continue to “mount a justice offensive demanding that she indict Deputy Gelhaus.”

Although Santa Rosa police declined to discuss the report, Lt. Paul Henry said the department would continue the investigation should Ravitch ask for additional information.

He also said police are asking any additional witnesses or others with information to come forward.

“We've talked with everyone we've been able to identify so far,” he said, though there may be others with relevant information.

Ravitch said she would indeed ask for more information if she finds the report, written with the assistance of officers from the Petaluma police, incomplete.

“We're going into this with a completely open mind,” she said. “If we find we need to do additional investigation, we will.”

Staff Writers Paul Payne and Mary Callahan contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com and Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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