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.
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