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.