The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has promoted Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez just outside Santa Rosa, to sergeant with an accompanying pay increase, KQED has learned.
Gelhaus' promotion came in May, nearly three years after Lopez's death in 2013. That case shook residents and county government alike, sparked massive protests and student walkouts, and galvanized the local Latino community.
The shooting prompted investigations by local and federal authorities.
Sheriff Steve Freitas ultimately approved the promotion, which Gelhaus applied for, according to sheriff's office Sgt. Spencer Crum. In his new role, Gelhaus will typically oversee eight to 10 deputies per shift. His pay increased 10 percent, from $49.19 to $55 per hour.
Gelhaus was paid more than $134,000 in 2015, including overtime, according to state salary records on Transparent California.
"The Sheriff is committed to following the law, rules and policy by promoting Sergeant Gelhaus," Crum wrote in response to KQED. "He didn’t treat him any differently than the rest of the deputies who tested for the position. The sheriff knows there are some people who are upset by his promotion but he is convinced that the vast majority of the public wants a Sheriff who follows the rules. Providing opportunities for his members is not only a moral duty, it is also a legal and human right."
Toy Gun Mistaken for AK-47 Rifle
Lopez was walking to a friend's house near his home on Moorland Avenue on Oct 22, 2013. Gelhaus was on patrol with Deputy Michael Schemmel, who was his trainee, when Gelhaus mistakenly identified the replica gun Lopez was carrying under his arm for a real AK-47 rifle.
He yelled to Schemmel something to the effect of "do you see that" and called for backup, according to the county district attorney's report on the incident.
Gelhaus got out of the car, which was parked 30 to 60 feet from Lopez, and ordered him to drop the gun at least once, according to the report. As Lopez turned around toward the deputies while still holding the replica gun, Gelhaus began to fire. Lopez was shot seven times, including in the chest, hips, buttocks and arms. Lopez died at the scene.
An autopsy later revealed Lopez had traces of marijuana in his system.
Gelhaus told investigators with the Santa Rosa Police Department that he feared for his life.
Investigations Clear Gelhaus
At the time, Gelhaus had been a Sonoma County deputy for 23 years and had worked in the gang enforcement unit. He was an experienced firearms instructor and a U.S. Army veteran. A month before Lopez's death, Gelhaus had received firearms training on AK-47s. He knew that rounds fired by an AK-47 could penetrate the body armor he and Schemmel were wearing.
The Sonoma County district attorney determined criminal charges were not warranted because, given Gelhaus's training and experience, "he believed he was faced with a 'do-or-die' dilemma." The U.S. Department of Justice also cleared Gelhaus of civil rights violations after its investigation.
Lopez's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gelhaus and Sonoma County in November 2013. Sonoma County appealed a judge's preliminary ruling, and the case is now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nearly three years after Lopez's death, the case remains an open wound for many Latinos in the area, particularly young people.
"He was a good friend, and for him to just go like that, it’s not OK," said Christian Hernandez Reyes, 15, who was born and raised in Santa Rosa. "I mean, he was still a little kid. He was 13. There was no reason to shoot him out of nowhere."
Hernandez Reyes, who met Lopez through school, said Gelhaus should not be patrolling the streets.
"He could do that to another person, to another minor, where it's going to be the same all over again," he said.
Gelhaus has not been exonerated in the court of public opinion, and many local Latinos fear and distrust him, said Caroline Bañuelos, chair of a county task force that provided recommendations to improve community-police relations after Lopez's death.
Bañuelos and a majority of task force members asked Sheriff Freitas to place Gelhaus in a desk job instead of returning him to patrol, she said. Gelhaus's promotion, said Bañuelos, sends an unfortunate message for residents who feel Lopez was killed needlessly.
"That someone can kill a member of our community and there will be no repercussions or accountability, and on top of that they can be promoted, that's a really negative message," said Bañuelos, a Sonoma County resident for over 30 years.
Deputy Sheriff's Association Backs Promotion
Deputy Mike Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff's Association, characterized Gelhaus as a "rock-solid deputy" who deserves the promotion.
"We are proud of him," Vail said. "He has a great reputation within our office for doing a good job."
Vail added that Lopez's death was a tragedy for everyone involved, including Gelhaus.
"I can’t even imagine what Erick must have gone through over the last few years dealing with what has happened," Vail said. "The public scrutiny, the scrutiny by the office, his own personal conflicts with what has happened -- it's just terrible."
Vail said his association fully backs Gelhaus's actions the day he shot Lopez, and he acted within the scope of law.
"I don't think anybody would have responded any differently based on their training experience," he said.