Andy Lopez memorialized 5 years after Sonoma County deputy killed him
Five years and one day ago, Andy Lopez was a 13-year-old boy who cracked jokes, loved food and embodied all that comes with being a middle school boy in Santa Rosa, the second child of an immigrant family.
After his sudden death on Oct. 22, 2013, his name took on a new life beyond the Moorland Avenue sidewalk where he was shot and killed by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who fired at him after mistaking the boy’s airsoft BB gun for a real AK-47 assault rifle.
The once-empty lot where Lopez died has been transformed from a ragged, weed-infested plot into Andy’s Unity Park with landscaped gardens, a skate park and playground. It has a permanent memorial to Lopez with photos from his short life encased in glass that Monday night were lit with candles to memorialize the five years since his death.
“If it is five years or 10 years that has passed, this date will be important and so sad,” said Gloria Hernandez of Windsor, a friend of the Lopez family. “It was very cruel, what was done to him.”
His death generated a yearslong reckoning on police-community relations in Sonoma County that continues today, one that tested the leadership of then-Sheriff Steve Freitas and led the county to install a first-ever independent watchdog to review Sheriff’s Office policies and internal investigations.
The name Andy Lopez came to signify an imbalance between communities of color and law enforcement. To many in Sonoma County, his name signals a parent’s worst nightmare and an outcome no law enforcement officer wants when choosing to fire his or her gun.
Hernandez was among about 50 people gathered Monday night at Andy’s Unity Park at Moorland and West Robles avenues in unincorporated Santa Rosa for an informal remembrance with Aztec dancers, community drummers and prayers.
The Lopez parents, Sujay Cruz and Rodrigo Lopez, were not present although some said they were visiting Santa Rosa from Southern California, where they moved about six months after their son was killed, but chose to grieve privately.
Many of those who gathered Monday were activists spurred by the boy’s death to push for changes to police practices and have repeatedly called for the county to hold the deputy accountable for the shooting.
For others, the name Andy Lopez is not symbolic but belongs to a real boy, the kind of adolescent who would play a trick by drawing with marker on the face of a sleeping friend.
Melissa Diaz, 14, was just 9 years old at the time of the shooting.
Lopez was best friends with her brother Luis and he came to their house most days.
“He helped me with my homework when I was little,” said Diaz, who calls Lopez her godbrother. “He was at my house all the time, and he’d say, ‘I’ll make food, something good, you guys are going to love it.’?”
Lopez was on his way to the Diaz house the afternoon when he was killed. Melissa Diaz recalled the chaos of that afternoon, the tears and the disbelief.
“He shouldn’t have made that mistake,” she said of the deputy.
Lopez was walking north on Moorland Avenue, as he had done many times before.
He was carrying an airsoft gun designed to look like an ?AK-47.
The orange tip indicating it was fake was missing.
Deputy Erick Gelhaus, a passenger in a patrol car, jumped out, shouted a warning for Lopez to drop the gun and then shot Lopez, hitting him seven times. Gelhaus has said he resorted to deadly force when Lopez, whose back was facing the deputies, began turning and started to raise the barrel of the gun.
The shooting led to weeks of protests with children pouring out of schools to march from the Sheriff’s Office to downtown Santa Rosa.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch cleared Gelhaus of wrongdoing after a five-month investigation.
His parents have sued the county, the Sheriff’s Office and Gelhaus in a federal civil rights case that is slated to go to trial next year.
At Monday night’s memorial, community activist Ana Salgado of Santa Rosa recalled trying to drive down Moorland Avenue after going to the nearby DMV, and being told by a deputy that a Latino had been killed.
Salgado didn’t know Lopez or his family, but the shooting deeply affected her in a way that has led her to speak out at city and county meetings to ensure perspectives from the Latino community on police-community relations are being heard.
“Something in me said, ‘Enough is enough. Wake up and do something,’” Salgado said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.