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Andy Lopez shooter Erick Gelhaus testifies about whether or not a gun is real

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A Santa Rosa preliminary hearing Wednesday in the case of Biniam Gebrezgi, 30, charged with pointing a military-style rifle at his Dutton Avenue neighbors in May, included testimony about whether the gun was real or not.

One of the witnesses was Sgt. Erick Gelhaus, who gained notoriety for the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013.

Prosecutors allege the SKS rifle had been illegally modified to accept a high-capacity magazine, among other crimes. The allegation would add to Gebrezgi’s more than 20-year prison sentence if convicted.

Gelhaus, one of several Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies called to the scene, testified that he pulled the gun from a pile of brush in the yard. It had become separated from the loaded magazine, he said, but he didn’t check it to see if it fired or if the magazine actually fit.

Defense attorney Evan Zelig then asked Gelhaus if there had ever been a time in his career when he was unable to tell if a gun was real.

Gelhaus at first refused to answer.

“I’m not going down that road,” he said, citing an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit filed by Lopez’s parents.

After being ordered to respond by Judge Julie Conger, Gelhaus briefly recounted what happened on a southwest Santa Rosa street in October 2013 that touched off waves of protest and raised community concern about police use of force.

Gelhaus began with an acknowledgment that “most people in Sonoma County know, I was the officer” who killed Andy Lopez.

The 27-year veteran deputy said he fired on the teen after mistaking an airsoft rifle he was carrying for an AK-47.

He briefly described the circumstances, then concluded with the fact that the gun turned out to be a replica.

“I didn’t know that until the shooting was over,” Gelhaus testified.

Conger said photographs of the rifle and other testimony supported charges in the Gebrezgi case that the gun was real and that the magazine fit. She ordered Gebrezgi, a convicted felon, to remain in jail until a trial could be held.

His next court date is Feb. 27.

Gelhaus stepped off the stand after follow-up questions from prosecutor Dustin Hughson.

Gelhaus was previously cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the Lopez case and was promoted to sergeant in August. He is a patrol supervisor.

Trial in the federal wrongful death lawsuit has been delayed by an appeal.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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