New documentary film challenges law enforcement in shooting death of Andy Lopez
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Armed with previously unpublished information, Rogers’ film asserts that the truth was not that simple, but rather part of a longstanding pattern of aggressive policing and friction with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.
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.