Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch released a long-awaited decision Monday that the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, on Oct. 22, 2013, was not cause for criminal charges against Erik Gelhaus, the Sheriff’s deputy who killed the boy as he carried a toy replica of an AK-47 assault rifle on a Santa Rosa sidewalk.
Ravitch announced in a prematurely distributed press release that no criminal charges will be filed against Deputy Gelhaus, a weapons expert who fired seven shots into the boy as he carried an airsoft BB gun looking almost identical to the real thing. The distinctive orange tip required by law to be on the end of the barrel of a replica toy gun was reportedly missing when Lopez was shot.
Ravitch held a 2 p.m. press conference in Santa Rosa to make the announcement, but news media received an email about the event hours earlier with an incomplete press release revealing the decision inadvertently attached to the email. Minutes later, news outlets received a second email asking to “recall” the press release.
At the press conference, Ravitch said a 52-page synopsis of the District Attorney’s Report to the Sonoma County Grand Jury, outlining the lengthy investigation, along with the reasons for the decision not to file charges, was released. Ravitch said the report concludes that Gelhaus “fired his weapon in response to what he honestly and reasonably believed was an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to himself or others. As such, he was lawfully acting in defense of himself or others, and no basis for seeking criminal charges exists.”
Ravitch acknowledged that the finding will not alleviate the pain felt by the Lopez family, those involved in the tragedy, or the community. “It is incumbent upon us to move forward to address the many layers of concern uncovered by this tragedy, and work together to rebuild trust and support for all members of this community,” she said in the press release.
She added, “We conducted an exhaustive and thorough investigation and review, retained numerous expert witnesses, and considered every interpretation of the facts and evidence in our analysis. Consistent with the transparency I promised, I am releasing to the public today a synopsis of our Grand Jury report with redactions to ensure individual privacy. This is the first time a report as detailed as this has been made public in Sonoma County. Ultimately, the role of my office in this tragedy is quite limited – to a determination regarding criminal liability. Police tactics, training, and civil liability are not matters to be addressed by our office or this report.”
Under standard protocol for an officer-involved shooting, a separate law enforcement agency, in this case the Santa Rosa Police Department, conducted the investigation, with assistance from the Petaluma Police Department and additional support from the District Attorney’s office.
Ravitch also announced that, before releasing the findings, she contacted California Attorney General Kamala Harris to determine whether her office would undertake a review of the investigation and the District Attorney’s report. Ravitch said Harris’ office declined to do so, on the basis that no conflict or other cause existed to require an independent review. Ravitch added, “If any aggrieved party wishes to seek the Attorney General’s review, this office will cooperate fully in any examination they may undertake.”
She also said that the complete District Attorney report, along with all exhibits, is being forwarded to the Sonoma County Grand Jury, that the Santa Rosa Police Department will forward all its investigative reports to the Grand Jury as well, and that the report itself will be posted on the District Attorney website.
In aggregate, Ravitch said, the Lopez shooting reports total more than 1,000 pages.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office had been preparing for the announcement for weeks and the possibility it would trigger civil unrest. The Sheriff was on the verge of deploying officers a few weeks ago when rumors indicated Ravitch was about to make the announcement.
Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett, who is a member of the Sheriff’s Office under its contract with the city, said Monday that a plan was in place to “have some people on standby” in the event of demonstrations or civil violence in response to the decision. “Here in the Valley,” he said, “things are quiet and it’s pretty much business as usual.”
Sheriff Steve Freitas also released a prepared statement Monday, saying, “I would again like to express my sadness about this tragedy and my deepest sympathy goes out to the Lopez family. As a father, I can’t imagine the heartache the Lopez family must be going through. In addition to the Lopez family, my heart goes out to the friends of Andy Lopez, the involved deputies, and the entire Sonoma County community during this difficult time.”
Freitas said “no simple, single answer” could explain the tragedy and urged the community to join together “to find every possible way to minimize the potential of a tragic incident like this from happening again. One possible way is California SB 199. This law, if passed, would prohibit the sale of BB devices in California unless the entire exterior surface of the device is brightly colored or the device is transparent or translucent, which permits unmistakable observation of the device’s complete contents. This law extends the already existing Federal regulation that requires any look-alike, or imitation firearm (device) to have a bright orange marking affixed at the muzzle.”
Freitas added that his own department’s review of the case, including the Santa Rosa Police Department investigation, determined that “the actions of the involved deputies were within policy.”
Freitas also said that in March of 2013, he ordered a review of all critical incident use of firearms over the past 10 years, in order to determine if there is “an additional need for training and/or equipment to better help us serve the public. This review will be evaluated by civilian use of force experts.” The final results of that review will be made public, Freitas said.
Freitas said that Gelhaus has been cleared for full duty and that he is in the process of deciding what his duties will now be and where he will be assigned to work.