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Sonoma County releases first records on Sheriff’s Office shootings, internal investigations

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Read the Lopez case files

To read the full administrative review of the incident, click here

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has released its first set of internal records under California’s new police transparency law, including documents from the agency’s investigation into the fatal 2013 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a veteran deputy.

The records provide a new window into how law enforcement agencies conduct inquiries into deadly shootings and misconduct. The files made public by the County Counsel’s Office Wednesday include internal reports on the Lopez shooting and four other cases: a correctional deputy’s sexual encounters with a jail inmate; the 2016 nonfatal shooting of a man holding a bicycle lock in Windsor; a two-day standoff in 2014 in Kenwood that ended with the suspect killing himself; and a case where a deputy was found to have lied to his supervisors.

Sheriff Mark Essick said his office released the records to The Press Democrat — a first-of-its-kind disclosure for the county — to comply with California’s new police transparency law. He believes the records will show how the department holds its employees accountable.

“The most important thing I want people to know is that we do quality work when it comes to investigating complaints and investigating our own,” Essick said.

The investigations made public Wednesday are administrative reviews conducted to determine whether employees followed department policies. They do not focus on questions of criminal law.

In the Lopez shooting, the Sheriff’s Office found that then-Deputy Erick Gelhaus had followed department protocols governing use of deadly force.

The 74-page case file on the shooting provides the most detailed description yet of the county’s investigation, launched almost immediately after Gelhaus, on Oct. 22, 2013, fired eight shots at the Santa Rosa boy, striking him seven times. Lopez, a middle school student, had been carrying an airsoft gun made to resemble a real assault rifle. He died on a Moorland Avenue sidewalk less than a mile from his home.

More than three dozen deputies responded to the scene after Gelhaus’ partner that day, Deputy Michael Schemmel, announced “shots fired” on the emergency radio. Investigators spoke with about 100 people in the aftermath, mostly neighbors and people connected to Lopez, including at least six people who said they saw Lopez walking down Moorland Avenue in the moments before he was killed. Many more reported hearing gunfire.

From the outset, Gelhaus, an Iraq War veteran and firearms instructor, told investigators he believed the boy’s airsoft gun was a real AK-47 rifle when he opened fire, fearing for his life, the documents show.

The orange tip indicating the gun was a replica had been removed.

The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office would later determine the shooting was justified.

In his first public statement about the shooting, Gelhaus, who is now a patrol sergeant, said Wednesday in an interview that he believes the internal records should be made public and that law enforcement in general “should have done a better job communicating the standards behind these things.”

“If folks saw how thorough these investigations are, combined with the legal standards, if all that were communicated (to the public) we might have different perspectives” on officer-involved shootings and other serious incidents, Gelhaus said.

California lawmakers last year approved the new transparency law, Senate Bill 1421, as a response to a string of controversial police shootings and amid frustration over stringent police personnel safeguards that until this year barred the public from learning about how agencies investigate officer misconduct and deadly incidents involving employees.

Read the Lopez case files

To read the full administrative review of the incident, click here

The Sheriff’s Office initially declined to release records prior to Jan. 1, balking amid legal challenges mounted by police unions claiming the law shouldn’t apply to investigations completed prior to 2019. But Sonoma County pivoted after a state appellate court decision published late last month dismissed the arguments put forward by police unions, a ruling that legal experts say is now binding on law enforcement agencies across Northern California.

Under the new law, The Press Democrat requested misconduct and use-of-force records from all law enforcement agencies in Sonoma County and many others across the region. The Santa Rosa Police Department is among those that continue to withhold documents, though a growing number of agencies have begun to release their records.

The Lopez investigation stands out among other deadly force cases because of the amount of detail already released about the shooting. It was a subject of intense public scrutiny, national media coverage and a civil rights lawsuit filed by Lopez’s parents. The county settled that suit late last year for a record $3 million.

Not included in the disclosed records Wednesday are documents from the homicide investigation conducted by the Santa Rosa Police Department, which included interviews with about 200 witnesses, 200 hours of recorded interviews — including those of Gelhaus and Schemmel — and 175 items of evidence. The Sheriff’s Office expects to release additional records from Santa Rosa police after it receives the redacted documents it has requested from the city, Essick said.

Lopez’s death set in motion a yearslong push in the county to improve police officers’ relationship with the communities they serve. The county created an independent agency that reviews Sheriff’s Office policies and internal investigations. It built a park in Lopez’s honor at the once-vacant lot where he died. And it helped lead the more widespread adoption of body-worn and dashboard cameras.

No such cameras were in use on Moorland Avenue that day in October 2013 when Lopez was walking from his house on a sidewalk near what was then a vacant lot. He was carrying a replica gun that belonged to one of his friends, who “told Lopez to be careful as the orange tip was broken,” according to the report. The friend told investigators that he “was so concerned about the rifle, his cousin had purchased some paint ... to paint the gun orange,” the document stated.

Two separate drivers called out to Lopez after seeing him carrying the BB gun, including one man who rolled down his window and told Lopez, “Hey! Throw that thing away!” according to the report. Another driver told investigators that since he “had some of his windows shot out recently, he confronted Lopez about possibly doing it,” assuming the weapon was fake, the report states. Lopez denied being involved.

Other people on foot or in cars also would later tell investigators they saw Lopez walking down the street.

One man told investigators he “was startled and concerned based on the fact that he saw Lopez carrying a rifle and a sheriff’s patrol vehicle approaching (from) behind.”

In the patrol car, Schemmel, a deputy-in-training, was behind the wheel with his training officer, Gelhaus, in the passenger seat. Schemmel said Gelhaus’ instructions at the start of that day “were to be as proactive and busy as possible,” according to the report.

Driving west on West Robles Avenue, Gelhaus saw Lopez as the deputies approached the intersection of Moorland Avenue. Schemmel recalled Gelhaus said “Do you see that?”

Lopez was walking north on Moorland Avenue with his back toward the deputies holding the airsoft gun in one hand, its barrel pointed to the ground.

The documents showed their memories differed on which hand Lopez had used to hold the gun. Gelhaus recalled Lopez held it by the pistol grip in his left hand with the barrel pointed at the ground. Schemmel initially said Lopez held it in his right hand.

Schemmel steered the patrol car onto Moorland Avenue and parked about 60 feet behind the boy, briefly chirping his emergency siren, according to the files. Gelhaus got out and drew his weapon, kneeling in the “V” of the door and ordering Lopez to drop the weapon.

Lopez began to turn and the barrel of the BB gun rose, according to both deputies.

Gelhaus fired eight rounds within 10 seconds. Seven hit Lopez, who fell to the ground and was pronounced dead by paramedics. Investigators later found Lopez had a marijuana joint and a vial of Visine eye drops in his pockets and a coroner’s report indicated he had psychoactive THC in his blood.

The sound of gunfire startled many residents in the neighborhood on Santa Rosa’s southwestern outskirts.

A man coming home from Costco with his 3-year-old son, a neighbor in his backyard, another neighbor watching television, someone taking a nap — all reported hearing the distinct sound of gunfire, according to deputies who went door to door asking if people heard or saw anything.

Deputies early to the scene provided various first impressions of the BB gun. Some said it seemed real and others said it appeared fake.

Deputies cordoned off the area, restricting access by requiring deputies and officers to show identification, sign in and state their purpose before being allowed into the crime scene.

Gelhaus was sequestered and taken to the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Two Santa Rosa police detectives interviewed Gelhaus at 10:40 p.m. that night. In another room, two sheriff’s detectives watched the interview on a video monitor alongside personnel from the District Attorney’s Office, the Santa Rosa and Petaluma police departments. The interview with Schemmel, which occurred first, was conducted in the same fashion.

Gelhaus would remain there until a deputy drove him back to the Sheriff’s Office at about 1 a.m. the next day.

From the outset, there were no suspicions that Gelhaus or Schemmel had violated policy or been engaged in any type of misconduct, according to the files.

The internal affairs review concluded Gelhaus’ use of deadly force “was reasonable based on Andy Lopez’s actions of turning toward Deputies Gelhaus and Schemmel with an AK-47 assault rifle (based on what was believed by the two deputies at the time of the shooting).”

Gelahus “had every right to protect himself with reasonable force, which in this case was shooting Lopez, as he failed to follow commands and turned towards Deputies Gelhaus and Schemmel with the rifle.”

Attempts to reach the Lopez family and Arnoldo Casillas, their attorney in the civil suit, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Essick, a sergeant at the time, said Wednesday that the shooting was tragic particularly because Lopez was just 13 years old.

“Sometimes tragic situations happen that we get thrust into and we have to react. We have to react for public safety,” Essick said. “Did Erick mistake the gun? Yes, he mistook it, but probably a lot of people would have mistaken it for a real gun.”

Gelhaus limited his comments Wednesday to the newness of having previously confidential law enforcement files opened up to public scrutiny.

He said he hopes the new law and the records disclosed under it provide an opportunity to build trust in law enforcement and the work that goes into internal investigations of officers.

“We do a really good job investigating these things,” Gelhaus said. “I don’t know why we haven’t done a better job communicating the standards behind these things, how thorough and in-depth these investigations are.”

That trust “depends on how it gets portrayed” in public, he said.

Until this year, that picture has been clouded by California barring public access to police files. Going forward under the new law, that may change.

“The thoroughness of the investigation is what needs to be communicated,” Gelhaus said.

Staff Writers Andrew Beale and Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 30 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.

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