Prosecutors in Northern California will not bring criminal charges against a sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed a 13-year-old boy for carrying a plastic replica of an assault rifle which the officer mistook for an actual firearm.
The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office released a report on Monday concluding that Deputy Erick Gelhaus “honestly and reasonably” acted out of belief that he faced an imminent threat of death or serious injury to himself or others when he shot eighth-grader Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, California last October.
Lopez was walking to a friend’s house carrying what his father described as a “toy” Airsoft gun, which is designed to look like an AK-47 but is only used to shoot small pellets or BBs. Gelhaus and his partner encountered the boy and claimed they ordered him to drop the supposed weapon. As Lopez turned to face the officers, Gelhaus claimed he saw the barrel of the fake gun rise up toward him, leading the deputy to fire eight rounds, hitting Lopez seven times.
The entire incident reportedly unfolded in no more than 10 seconds. The boy was pronounced dead at the scene.
Lopez’s friends and family, as well as countless demonstrators who have consistently protested the shooting since its occurrence, believe Gelhaus overreacted and doubt that he gave Lopez time to put down the fake weapon.
Investigators said the orange tip of the replica assault rifle’s barrel – designed to signify the gun was not real – was broken off.
Gelhaus – a longtime officer, firearms instructor, and veteran of the US military who served in Iraq – believed he faced a “do or die” situation, and thus acted accordingly, the prosecutor’s report said.
"Here the implementation of lethal force was a reasonable response under the circumstances," the 52-page report states. "Therefore, the actions of Deputy Gelhaus were lawful and no criminal charges will be filed against him at this time."
Prior to releasing the results of her investigation, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said she consulted with California Attorney General Kamala Harris to ascertain whether the state’s top law enforcement official would conduct her own review of the case. Harris has so far declined to open an investigation.
The FBI opened its own probe of the shooting last October. Ravitch said her report would be available for the federal investigation.
Lopez’s parents have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gelhaus and Sonoma County.
After clearing a mental health exam, Gelhaus was allowed to return to work in December, taking up a desk job while awaiting the investigation results. Now that county prosecutors have cleared him of any wrongdoing, he is eligible to once again assume patrol duty.