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Thursday, October 31, 2013
Deputy Who Shot Dead Boy With BB Gun IDd As Gun Expert
Tonia Coleman hangs clothing printed with Andy Lopez Cruz's image while Fernando Alducin (center), Cristian Sev, Marisol Hernandez and Carlos Sev wait outside Andy's viewing service in Windsor. Photo: Raphael Kluzniok, The Chronicle
The Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who killed a 13-year-old boy after mistaking his toy AK-47 for a real rifle was identified Monday as a firearms instructor, hunter and war veteran who in the past has warned other officers that they may need to use lethal force to survive an encounter.
Deputy Erick Gelhaus, 48, had broad experience with guns - even relative to others in his profession - before he fatally shot Andy Lopez Cruz last Tuesday just outside Santa Rosa, an incident that has prompted community outrage.
Gelhaus is a frequent contributor to law enforcement magazines and online forums in which he promotes officer safety. He served as an infantry squad leader in Iraq, according to his online profiles, and he describes himself as an avid hunter in North America as well as Africa.
He once accidentally shot himself in the leg in 1995 while on duty with the Sheriff's Office - reportedly while holstering a gun. However, officials said he has not fired upon a suspect in 24 years with the agency, where he serves as a field training officer for new recruits and trains colleagues to shoot at the department's gun range.
Gelhaus pondered such a possibility in a 2008 article for S.W.A.T., a monthly magazine that focuses on policing, weaponry and gun rights.
"Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home," he wrote. "If you cannot turn on the 'mean gene' for yourself, who will? If you find yourself in an ambush, in the kill zone, you need to turn on that mean gene."
He added, "Taking some kind of action - any kind of action - is critical. If you shut down (physically, psychologically, or both) and stay in the kill zone, bad things will happen to you. You must take some kind of action."
Medal of valor
Gelhaus received the sheriff's medal of valor in 2004 for rescuing people from a burning car. Records show he served in the Army from 1983 to 1987, the Army Reserve from 1987 to 1995, and the Army National Guard of California from 2003 to 2010. He served in Iraq in 2005.
Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas, who, along with Gelhaus, was part of a gang investigations team in the 1990s, said Monday of the deputy's online postings, "His opinions are his opinions."
Gelhaus is a "respected and solid employee," Duenas said. He said the office did not release the deputy's name earlier out of concern for his safety, after becoming aware of threats.
An attorney for Gelhaus has declined to comment. The deputy is on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure, pending investigations by Santa Rosa and Petaluma police and the Sonoma County district attorney's office.
According to Santa Rosa police officials, the shooting happened after Gelhaus and a newly hired deputy he was training pulled up behind Andy. They had seen him walking near his home west of Highway 101 with what appeared to be an assault rifle, officials said, but was actually a plastic BB gun that Andy used to play games with friends.
Gelhaus got out of the vehicle and ordered the boy to drop the gun, which did not have an orange tip - a feature that toy guns must have under federal law. When he didn't drop the gun and turned toward the deputies, Gelhaus fired eight times, fearing for his life, officials said.
The FBI has also launched an independent inquiry to determine whether any federal civil rights violations occurred in the case, said agency spokesman Peter Lee, who declined to elaborate.
Duenas said sheriff's officials welcomed the FBI's involvement in the case, "since there has been discussion and questions regarding an independent review." He said his office would fully cooperate and was glad to have "another set of eyes on this tragic event."
District Attorney Jill Ravitch, meanwhile, urged the public over the weekend to be patient, saying that although the community "wears a shroud of grief" over Andy's killing, her office's investigation would take time.
She said she would be unable to release piecemeal accounts of what happened.
"In order for the process to succeed, I ask that we be given the time needed for a deliberate, step-by-step investigation to occur," Ravitch said. "I know we all seek the truth about what occurred on Oct. 22, and there is no one more committed to determining the facts than me."
Andy's family and friends have railed against the Sheriff's Office, saying Gelhaus should have known that the boy was carrying a fake rifle. There have been several protest marches and rallies since his killing, and another is scheduled for noon Tuesday.
At a march Friday, some protesters carried fake guns, and "at least one person displayed the weapon to passing citizens," Santa Rosa police said, adding that officers "were forced to respond to address the situation that created unnecessary risks for all involved."