The attorney for the family of 13-year-old Andy Lopez has filed three wrongful death claims seeking damages against Sonoma County in connection with the fatal shooting of the teen by Sonoma County sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus last month. Monte Francis reports.
Lawyers for the family of a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy carrying a replica rifle and killed by a deputy when he said the teen wouldn’t put it down, have filed three claims against Sonoma County and plan to file a federal lawsuit in the wake of the boy’s death.
In the claims, (PDF) the firm of Moreno, Becerra and Casillas, based in Montebello, Calif., allege that the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office failed to develop proper policies and training for pedestrian stops, and that it negligently hired and continued to employ the deputies involved in the shooting.
Sonoma County supervisor David Rabbit told NBC Bay Area that while he couldn't comment on the claims, Andy's death has been "really rough" on the community. "To lose a child, and in this way, is devastating," he said.
The claims, filed on behalf of Andy Lopez's parents, seek unspecified damages for loss of financial support, funeral and burial expenses, the value of household services the boy would have provided and for the loss of Lopez's “love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society and moral support.”
A claim must be filed before a lawsuit can be filed.
Erick Gelhaus, the deputy who fired eight rounds at Andy on Oct. 22, has told investigators with the Santa Rosa police department that the airsoft rifle Andy was carrying looked just like an AK-47 and that he ordered Andy to drop it. Police have reported that Andy turned toward the deputy with the barrel raised, according to the account provided by Gelhaus and his unnamed partner.
The deputies only learned the rifle was a fake when they approached Andy's body, which had been hit with seven of the eight bullets.
That sentiment was echoed by Gelhaus’ attorney, reported in the Press Democrat. Terry Leoni said Gelhaus believed Andy had a high-powered assault rifle, and that the teen wouldn't put it down.
“No law enforcement officer wants to have to do this,” said Leoni of the Pleasant Hill firm Rains Lucia Stern, where high-profile Michael Rains is a partner. “He feels emotional about the loss of this young man's life. He is emotional about the effect on the family.”
While some back Gelhaus and police in general, who are faced with tough, split-second decisions, there has been a vocal contingent of community members – far beyond Santa Rosa – who are outraged that a boy – a Latino one in a poor section of town – was killed. Some have been calling for Gelhaus to be fired, and on a "March for Andy " Facebook page, are calling for him to be put in jail for the boy’s death.
Longtime North Bay activist Mary Moore said she has been complaining about police force for years. She is part of a state advisory group that wrote up a report "Community Concerns About Law Enforcement in Sonoma County."
"I have never seen an outpouring that what's happened in the last week," Moore said.
In December 2012, the firm of Moreno Becerra & Casillas won a $24 million jury verdict against the Los Angeles Police Department after the shooting and paralyzing a 13-year-old boy who was playing cops and robbers with an airsoft gun. That award is believed to be the largest amount the LAPD has ever awarded involving a wrongful shooting.
The boy, Rohayent Gomez-Eriza, who goes by “Ryan,” was left paralyzed after Officer Victor Abarca fired a single shot to the boy's clavicle while he was in Glassell Park in December 2010. He is now 15.
The officer who fired the shot said the replica gun the child was carrying looked just look a real weapon.
Similar to the Sonoma County sheriff’s response, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement at the time: "When our officers are confronted with a realistic replica weapon in the field, they have to react in a split second to the perceived threat. If our officers delay or don't respond to armed suspects, it could cost them their lives.”
Still, the jury sided with the boy and his family. Of that money, $14 million will go to pay Gomez-Eriza's medical bills. The other $10 million was awarded for emotional suffering.