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New documentary film challenges law enforcement in shooting death of Andy Lopez

Air Times

“3 Seconds in October: The Shooting of Andy Lopez”

10 p.m. Thursday, July 15: KRCB, PBS affiliate station for the North Bay. Channel 22 on Comcast, AT&T and Dish.

10 p.m. Saturday, July 17: KPJK, PBS affiliate station for the South Bay. Channel 17 on Comcast, and Channel 43 on DirecTV and ATT.

Nearly eight years have passed since the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus — yet for many, the emotions prompted by that event are still raw.

Sonoma County independent filmmaker Ron Rogers revisits the incident in his new 28-minute documentary film, “3 Seconds in October: The Shooting of Andy Lopez,” airing July 15 and 17 on two Public Broadcasting Service TV stations in the greater Bay Area.

With narration by nationally known Sebastopol area actor and activist Peter Coyote, the film draws on interviews, previously confidential police investigative files and litigation records to give a second-by-second account of the shooting and a detailed chronology of efforts by local police and public officials to defend their actions.

“The ‘3 Seconds in October’ project turned out to be pretty massive,” Rogers said. It encompassed 45 filmed interviews; 1,000 written pages; numerous photos, radio calls, videos and other materials from the Santa Rosa Police Department investigative files on the Lopez shooting; and voluminous records of the federal litigation by the Lopez family against Gelhaus and Sonoma County, he said.

“In addition, in a rare move which a clerk of the court could not remember ever happening before, the U.S. Court of Appeals allowed the filming of the hearing in the Andy Lopez litigation for this documentary,” Rogers added.

In the aftermath of the Lopez case, police and local officials have contended that there is a simple explanation for the shooting — a deputy sheriff mistook a toy gun for a real one, Rogers said.

Armed with previously unpublished information, Rogers’ film asserts that the truth was not that simple, but rather part of a longstanding pattern of aggressive policing and friction with community members of color.

An afternoon in October 2013

On Oct. 22, 2013, Lopez was walking through a vacant lot on Moorland Avenue, on the southern outskirts of Santa Rosa near Roseland, and carrying an airsoft gun. An airsoft gun fires small plastic BB’s, and police said the gun closely resembled an AK-47 assault rifle.

At 3 p.m., Gelhaus and his partner, Michael Schemmel, were patrolling in the area of Moorland and West Robles avenues and saw Lopez walking with what sheriff's officials said appeared to be some type of rifle. Lopez was ordered to drop the weapon.

Gelhaus was a 24-year veteran of the sheriff’s office at the time and a firearms expert, Iraq War veteran and contributor to magazines and online forums dealing with guns and police use of force. That day, Gelhaus was partnered with Schemmel, a new hire with 11 years of experience whom he had supervised for a month.

After encountering Lopez, the deputies reported a suspicious person to dispatchers and radioed for backup, according to Santa Rosa police. Seconds later, Gelhaus fired the fatal shots when he saw Lopez begin to turn toward him. Schemmel did not fire his weapon.

Lopez was hit seven times and died at the scene. Months of public protests followed the shooting. A five-month investigation by Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s office determined the shooting was lawful, and that decision sparked new protests.

Within two weeks of the shooting, the Lopez family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit at the U.S. District Court, which the sheriff’s office ultimately settled for $3 million in 2018, without an admission of liability by the county.

Timeline

Oct. 22, 2013: Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus fatally shoots Andy Lopez.

Nov. 4, 2013: The Lopez family files a federal civil rights lawsuit at the U.S. District Court.

July 7, 2014: Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch announces no charges will be filed against Gelhaus.

July, 2015: After originally announcing it would investigate the Lopez shooting, the FBI decides not to conduct an independent investigation.

May, 2015: Gelhaus is promoted to sergeant by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. (Gelhaus retired in 2019.)

June 25, 2018: The U.S. Supreme Court denies Sonoma County’s petition to review the U.S. Court of Appeals decision in favor of the Lopez family and against Gelhaus and the county, clearing the way for the Lopez family’s civil case against the Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy to proceed toward a trial.

December 2018: The Lopez family lawsuit against the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Gelhaus is settled for $3 million.

Contrasting interviews

The documentary reports a stark contrast between the way Gelhaus and the Lopez family were interviewed after the shooting.

Immediately after the event, Gelhaus consulted with a union representative and an attorney for six hours at a Santa Rosa hotel, according to the film. Later, Gelhaus was questioned by a Santa Rosa police detective and an attorney provided by the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

Air Times

“3 Seconds in October: The Shooting of Andy Lopez”

10 p.m. Thursday, July 15: KRCB, PBS affiliate station for the North Bay. Channel 22 on Comcast, AT&T and Dish.

10 p.m. Saturday, July 17: KPJK, PBS affiliate station for the South Bay. Channel 17 on Comcast, and Channel 43 on DirecTV and ATT.

In an excerpt of that recorded session, included in the film, a voice identified as that of a Santa Rosa Police Department detective is heard assuring Gelhaus he was being interviewed as “a victim.”

Lopez’s family members were questioned the same day at Santa Rosa Police Department headquarters, where detectives asked if Lopez had gang affiliations. Only at the end of the interview, the film reports, were the Lopez family members told the boy was dead.

District Attorney Ravitch, previous sheriffs Steve Frietas and Rob Giordano, former Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder and Jerry Threet, former director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach agency, were among those interviewed for the film. Other interviewees included Moorland neighborhood residents, attorneys and social justice advocates.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick was invited to be interviewed for the film but declined, Rogers said.

In response to a request for comment on the documentary, Misti D. Wood, community engagement liaison for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, replied:

“We haven’t had a chance to see the film, so we unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to respond to specific concerns or criticism. As far as the case itself, the (Sheriff’s) Office has made numerous public statements over the years. It’s a tragic situation, and we continue to work with our community to heal.”

An independent filmmaker’s journey

Rogers, formerly a deputy district attorney for Sacramento County and a senior trial attorney for the State of California, has been making independent public affairs documentaries since 2005.

“My last film — ‘Bobby Jo: Journey of a Singer-Songwriter’ — followed young local artist Bobby Jo Valentine as he launched a career, reunited with his birth mother and dealt with his deeply religious adoptive parents who strongly disagreed with his sexuality,” he said.

Released in 2014, the “Bobby Jo” documentary was shown at film festivals around the country. Another Rogers film project followed, about a Mexican immigrant family whose oldest son learned English, worked hard and grew up to serve as an adviser to the President of Mexico.

When he learned about the Lopez story, Rogers wanted to know more.

“When I heard about a 13-year-old boy being shot seven times by a deputy sheriff, that moved me,” Rogers said. “I wanted to find out what happened.”

He spent seven years and $60,000 of his own money, supplemented by tens of thousands of dollars from hundreds of small, individual donations, to make “3 Seconds in October.”

Coyote, a Zen Buddhist priest and longtime outspoken supporter of human rights, said he donated his services to narrate the film.

“I get lots of offers from filmmakers to do narration, but I don’t do many for free,” Coyote said. “One of the reasons I step forward to do films like this is that nobody makes a documentary to get rich.”

Coyote said he was immediately sympathetic to the filmmaker’s quest for perspective on the issues raised by the Lopez shooting.

“There is a long lineage of assaults on people of color,” the actor said.

But as he has in past film projects, Coyote strove to keep his narration matter-of-fact.

“I don’t work for any particular effect,” he said. “If I show feelings, I deny viewers the chance to have their own feelings.”

Issues with law enforcement continue

The debate over local policing didn’t begin or end with the Lopez shooting, Rogers’ new documentary film suggests.

“Roseland had been consistently over-policed. There had been a strained relationship between the sheriff’s office and the community,” said John Mutz of Sebastopol. A former Los Angeles police captain and unsuccessful candidate for Sonoma County Sheriff in 2018, Mutz is interviewed in the film.

Roseland, previously policed by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, was annexed by Santa Rosa in 2017 and is now covered the city police department.

In June 2018, Sonoma County agreed to pay $1.7 million to settle a lawsuit filed by former Sonoma County Jail inmates who said they endured physical assaults and verbal abuse by correctional deputies.

Former Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount was arrested in November 2020 on suspicion of felony involuntary manslaughter and assault by a public officer in the 2019 death of David Ward, who died during a physical confrontation at the conclusion of a high-speed chase. Ward’s family filed a lawsuit against the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office in May 2020.

The “3 Seconds” documentary contains graphic footage of jail inmates being held down by officers and tasered, as well as body camera footage of Blount’s confrontation with Ward.

The film places the Lopez case and local controversies over the use of police force in the context of a broader national dialogue intensified by nationwide protests following the death May 25, 2020, of George Floyd in Minneapolis after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

With the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the public response to Floyd’s death and similar cases, Rogers believes the Lopez shooting case is increasingly relevant as time passes.

Hope for the future

But, he said, “This is not an anti-police documentary.

”When we see these kinds of incidents and how they are handled, it tarnishes the reputations of the majority of police officers who are doing a good job,” Rogers said.

“And when police, public officials and police unions consistently defend officers — whether they are right or wrong — the public is right to question the credibility of what they are being told,” he added.

Coyote agreed that the goal is better and safer policing for all.

“I hope public safety departments will become true peace officers,” Coyote said. “What you have to say is, ‘What kind of country do you want to live in?’”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Ron Rogers’ title with Sacramento County and the state.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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