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The Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez has been "very emotional" about the fatal encounter in the midst of a massive public response that has fueled marches, vigils and heated public commentary, his attorney said.

Nonetheless, Deputy Erick Gelhaus believed Lopez held a high-powered assault rifle during the Oct. 22 incident and acted appropriately to protect himself, his partner and the neighborhood, attorney Terry Leoni said.

"No law enforcement officer wants to have to do this," said Leoni of the Pleasant Hill firm Rains Lucia Stern. "He feels emotional about the loss of this young man's life. He is emotional about the effect on the family."

Amid widespread media coverage, others have begun stepping forward to defend and question Gelhaus' actions. A longtime local paramedic credits Gelhaus with saving his life as he wrestled with a distraught patient along Highway 101 amid traffic. Another man said he was deeply rattled after Gelhaus held him at gunpoint twice during a traffic stop.

Leoni, part of the firm's peace officers criminal defense practice group, said she also is representing the deputy who was with Gelhaus at the time of the shooting. She did not identify the deputy, who did not shoot at Lopez and has not been named by law enforcement.

"He also believed that this was a real AK-47, he understood the dangerousness of it, and he believed there was a lethal threat, as well," Leoni said of the deputy with Gelhaus. "He has 11 years' experience; he's not new to this situation."

Gelhaus and the deputy he was training were on routine patrol when they spotted Lopez just after 3 p.m. walking on Moorland Avenue carrying what appeared to be an AK-47 assault rifle, which was later found to be an airsoft BB gun. Gelhaus was in the passenger seat and the other deputy was behind the wheel.

The deputy pulled up behind Lopez and Gelhaus ordered Lopez to drop his gun "at least one or two times," Leoni said. He got out of the patrol car and, in the cover of the open car door, fired eight rounds.

"Mr. Lopez began to turn in his direction and raised the gun in his direction," Leoni said. "He (Gelhaus) was faced in a lethal situation by an extremely dangerous firearm."

Gelhaus' attorney defended the veteran deputy's actions as based on a 24-year career with the Sheriff's Office during which he's never had to fire his weapon.

Just 10 seconds elapsed from the time of the deputies' first report of a suspicious person to their report of shots fired, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department, which is investigating the shooting.

"This was a rapid, quick situation, and Deputy Gelhaus only fired his weapon because of the lethal threat that was posed," Leoni said.

The shooting has triggered community outrage, drawing crowds for near-daily vigils, marches and demonstrations. Community response continues Friday with a vigil and rosary readings at the vacant lot where Lopez died. Another demonstration is planned for Tuesday in downtown Santa Rosa.

The community's sustained and vocal response has been an "emotional situation" for Gelhaus as well, his attorney said. "This is a tragic situation."

That response has also spurred a fellow emergency responder to speak out publicly in defense of Gelhaus.

Former Sonoma Life Support paramedic Aram Bronston, 43, of Santa Rosa said that his "heart sank" when a friend told him the deputy involved in the shooting was Gelhaus, whom he worked with on many calls over about 13 years.

Bronston wrote a letter to the editor published Thursday in The Press Democrat recounting a time eight years ago when he believes Gelhaus saved his life.

"He's being characterized incorrectly. These people that talk about him as this angry, frustrated, looking-for-violence guy, they don't get it at all," Bronston said in an interview Thursday.

About eight years ago, Bronston was struggling on the shoulder of Highway 101 in south Santa Rosa with a woman who was distraught over her brother's death and became "verbally and physically abusive."

"She wanted to die and she didn't care if anyone else died, too," he said.

Gelhaus drove up to the scene as the woman began running into traffic, pulling Bronston with her, he said.

Gelhaus "grabbed me by my shirt — with cars literally two inches from hitting me — and pulled me to safety," Bronston said. "He was able to subdue her in a way that didn't injure her. He didn't use a gun; he didn't use a baton. She was kicking, biting, spitting."

"He wanted to make sure everyone got home safe, not just him, not just me, but also the lady," he said.

Gelhaus' involvement in the shooting also sparked another Santa Rosa resident to speak out about his encounter with the deputy two months ago that left him rattled and in the midst of filing a complaint with the Sheriff's Office.

"In the moment I was scared to death. Later, I said, 'What the heck is going on?'" Jeff Westbrook, 57, of Santa Rosa said.

Gelhaus had pulled Westbrook over on his way to work at about 8:30 a.m. Aug. 21 on Highway 101 south of Cotati.

Gelhaus walked up to the passenger door, slipping on the steep hill. Westbrook asked the deputy if he should make more room on the roadside for him and when he put his BMW into neutral, Gelhaus pulled out his gun, according to Westbrook.

"He's screaming and he's ballistic — 'Turn off your vehicle' — I go, 'Sir, it is off,'" Westbrook said. "He jumped to an extreme situation in no time at all."

Westbrook said that moments later he faced Gelhaus' gun again outside the car when Gelhaus asked if he had any weapons and Westbrook pulled up his shirt to show he had none.

Westbrook said he had exchanged several emails with a sheriff's sergeant since the encounter, the most recent just days before the Oct. 22 shooting. The sergeant told Westbrook that Gelhaus had pulled him over because his BMW matched the description of a car deputies were searching for, Westbrook said.

"I don't know if there's anything I could have done," Westbrook said. "I have a very remorseful feeling, I feel like I should have been more aggressive with my complaint."

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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