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Soccer tournament brings together deputies, southwest Santa Rosa youth

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One of the young soccer players on Troy Newton’s team for Saturday’s inaugural Roseland Cup tournament wants to learn about Newton’s work as a crime scene investigator for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

“That’s what we want,” said Jack Tibbetts, one of the organizers of the eight-team tournament. “To open minds, to really build friendships.”

The daylong soccer tournament included eight teams composed of young players from the Roseland area of southwest Santa Rosa and Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies and jail correctional officers.

The event at Elsie Allen High School — which organizers intend on making an annual occurrence, possibly with other sports — was borne out of community friction created by last year’s fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus.

Gelhaus shot Lopez as the teen turned toward him carrying a plastic rifle designed to look like real AK-47. The orange safety tip had been removed from the air gun.

The shooting, and subsequent clearing of Gelhaus of criminal wrongdoing, sparked protests and rubbed raw deep, underlying tensions between Latino residents of southwest Santa Rosa and law enforcement.

While the incident wasn’t mentioned or highlighted during the day, it served as a backdrop for the healing and bridge-building many say is still necessary.

Another organizer, Jibrahn Ortega, who grew up on nearby Sunset Avenue, said there is much work to be done. He and Tibbetts, who are best friends, were inspired in part by Nelson Mandela, who believed sport can unite people and break down racial barriers.

“There’s a big gap between the Sheriff’s Office and the community,” he said. “We figured, why not bring them together in a soccer game?”

Raul Mora, 19, his brother Enrique, 17, and their cousin Fernando, 17, played alongside Newton, a 43-year-old deputy, whom they likely would not have encountered in their everyday lives.

“It’s nice to have people come together to play against each other, and to play with police officers,” said Fernando Mora, who plays soccer at Santa Rosa High School.

Newton agreed: “It’s good camaraderie.”

Tibbetts said the idea came to him when he went to one of the “healing forums” held in the wake of Lopez’s death, which he said he went to “out of general curiosity.”

Tibbetts is the son of Nick Tibbetts, a local Democratic Party strategist, and has organized warm clothing drives for the homeless and drafted a ballot measure that would have created a state severance tax on oil companies to raise billions of dollars for California’s education system.

A woman at the forum wondered out loud “how police culture got to where it is now?” he said. She said where she was from in Southern California, police played soccer with kids from East Los Angeles.

“We need to do that here,” Tibbetts said. “Soccer is the universal sport. Everyone can play it. Police don’t wear their uniforms.

“You see that human element in everyone.”

An initial budget of $6,500 nearly doubled as interest ballooned, he said. He approached Sheriff Steve Freitas, who Tibbetts said was receptive.

Deputy Travis Koeppel recruited nearly two dozen of his colleagues to play and said more want to play next year. When the budget became stretched, many deputies pitched in $50 each out of their own pockets to help out, he said.

Tibbetts said he worried the event would be politicized by those who have staked out positions on the either side of the shooting and refuse to listen to other views.

“I hope the event is a way to uncircle the wagons and see each other’s differences,” he said.

Staff Writer Paul Payne contributed to this report. You can reach Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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