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The FBI is not conducting a full, independent investigation into the death of a teenage boy who was shot by a sheriff's deputy last week, but instead offering local police "support," several local law enforcement leaders said this week.

The stance is an apparent reversal from the bureau's notice last week, when its agents told command staff at the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and Santa Rosa Police Department that the agency would conduct its own investigation of the Oct. 22 shooting death of Andy Lopez, looking for potential violations of federal civil rights laws.

Meanwhile, the lawyer representing the Lopez family filed three claims for unspecified damages against Sonoma County on behalf of each of the boy's parents, as well as Andy Lopez's estate.

Arnoldo Casillas, an attorney with Moreno Becerra & Casillas, said the family will file a federal lawsuit today in San Francisco over the shooting and that it would hold a news conference Monday to discuss details of the suit.

The FBI's role in the case has grown more murky since Friday, when Sheriff Steve Freitas and Santa Rosa Chief Tom Schwedhelm welcomed what each called an "independent investigation" by the bureau.

But this week, after agents met with Santa Rosa police officials and District Attorney Jill Ravitch, the bureau's intentions appear less clear.

Both Ravitch and Schwedhelm understood the agents to mean there would not be a separate FBI criminal investigation paralleling Santa Rosa's inquiry.

An FBI spokesman insists the agency is conducting an independent investigation "to determine the facts to see if a federal crime was committed."

"We're doing a separate, independent investigation," said spokesman Peter Lee. "It is separate from what everyone else is doing."

But he refused multiple queries to describe what exactly agents would be doing in Sonoma County — or whether they would be truly autonomous or working side-by-side with local police or even conducting their own interviews with the deputies involved and witnesses.

Santa Rosa police are reviewing the incident under a two-decades-old countywide protocol that requires fatal shootings to be investigated by a separate agency.

According to Santa Rosa police, sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot Andy Lopez, 13, on Oct. 22 as the boy walked on a sidewalk in southwest Santa Rosa carrying a BB gun that closely resembled an AK-47 assault rifle.

The airsoft gun, which fires plastic BBs, apparently did not have the manufacturer's plastic orange tip that is meant to distinguish it from a real weapon.

Gelhaus told investigators that he and his partner drove up behind Lopez and ordered him to drop the gun. As Lopez turned to face deputies, the barrel of his airsoft gun rose in their direction, police said. Gelhaus shot Lopez seven times. He later told police that he feared for his and others' safety.

A second deputy riding with Gelhaus hasn't been identified. Investigators said he did not fire his weapon.

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets to protest Lopez's death and decry police tactics, staging five marches in eight days. Another demonstration is scheduled for Tuesday in downtown Santa Rosa, when protesters plan to march from Old Courthouse Square to the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office.

A series of rosary readings will continue tonight at the vacant lot where Lopez died. His family has decided to cremate the boy and is currently trying to arrange for the boy's grandparents to travel to Sonoma County from Mexico.

Community justice advocates, who have led the emotionally charged rallies, were buoyed last week when the FBI appeared to intervene in the case. In their view, the federal agency was better positioned to conduct an unbiased review of the shooting because it is unconnected to local law enforcement agencies.

But after FBI agents met with representatives of Santa Rosa police and the District Attorney's Office on Monday and Tuesday, local leaders came away with a different understanding of the role the federal agency intends to play in the investigation.

"I met with a representative of the FBI and he said his role was to 'provide support to his law enforcement partners during the investigation' into the incident," Ravitch said Wednesday. The Monday meeting was attended by two FBI agents, Ravitch and her chief investigator, Brian Davis.

Schwedhelm said two members of his command staff met with the FBI on Tuesday and received the same message.

Schwedhelm said he didn't know of any plans for FBI agents to interview witnesses, interview the deputies involved, subpoena documents or examine records.

"My understanding is simply that they're here for support but not actively engaged in an investigation," Ravitch said. "The only investigations currently occurring are the sheriff's review for their own internal affairs and the criminal investigation being conducted by the Santa Rosa Police Department."

Tuesday "the assistant special agent in charge met with some of my staff and shared that information ... about what level of investigation they will have now," said Schwedhelm, who didn't attend the meeting.

Lee, the FBI spokesman, in two interviews this week repeatedly declined to describe the scope of the federal inquiry.

Last Friday, Lee said the agency had initiated a "shooting review" into the "incident itself (and) the deputies' response."

"We're going to look into the facts of that," he said Friday. "It's a civil-rights type of case."

On Wednesday, he said the agency "still has an assessment open with this case."

Local law enforcement sources said they believe the FBI will review the Santa Rosa Police Department's completed report — which aims to determine if any state laws were broken in the shooting — with an eye for potential federal law violations.

Lee refused to say if the FBI would conduct its own legwork, work with local police or rely after-the-fact on Santa Rosa's report.

"This investigation is going to be looking at the facts. What it may or may not entail, I don't want to get into that. That's for the special agent in charge," he said.

When pressed, he refused to define what exactly agents would be investigating. "I don't want to put a metric on what the word 'independent' means," he said.

Lee declined to explain how the county's top law enforcement officers would come away with a different understanding of the agency's intent to conduct an investigation.

"In terms of semantics, I'm not sure what they discussed," he said.

Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas said as of Wednesday afternoon his department hasn't been notified of the scope of FBI involvement.

"We received a letter indicating that they were going to do an investigation. The goal of the investigation, per their letter, was that it was surrounding a civil-rights allegation," he said.

Schwedhelm said the FBI's involvement, at whatever level, "doesn't change what our role in the investigation is."

"We wouldn't hesitate to ask for assistance if need be in this type of investigation," he said. "At this point, the investigation is continuing and we're not ruling out any offers of help or assistance. I am confident that our investigation will get all of the facts as to what occurred."

The Santa Rosa police review of the shooting will be forwarded to the District Attorney's Office, which will determine whether there was any legal wrongdoing on behalf of the deputies involved.

A coalition of social justice groups said this week it will call for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to send an independent review committee to Sonoma County. Leaders of the groups said that, whatever the FBI intends to do, they will continue to seek independent review.

"We would like another set of 'outside' eyes to go along with this," said organizer Mary Moore. "We will soon be approaching the U.S. Civil Rights Commission with this request."

In the claims against the County of Sonoma, Lopez's attorney says the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office failed to develop proper policies and training for pedestrian stops, and that it negligently hired and continued to employ the deputies involved in the shooting.

The claims filed on behalf of Lopez's parents seek unspecified damages for loss of financial support, funeral and burial expenses, the value of household services the boy would have provided and for the loss of Lopez's "love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society and moral support."

Under California law, such claims must be processed before a lawsuit can be filed in state courts. Sonoma County has six months to decide whether to accept or reject the claims. Lawsuits are typically filed once such claims are rejected.

Last year, Moreno Becerra & Casillas won a $24 million jury verdict against the Los Angeles Police Department in the shooting of a 13-year-old boy who was playing cops and robbers with an airsoft gun.

The boy, Rohayent Gomez, was left paralyzed after Officer Victor Abarca fired a single shot to the boy's clavicle during the encounter.

Staff Writer Brett Wilkison and Martin Espinoza contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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