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Protesters Urge Sonoma County Supervisors To 'Take a Hard Look'

"Sonoma County blew it at the first protest when it greeted the protestors with riot gear and snipers on the roof."

The death of Andy Lopez has brought protesters out in Santa Rosa. Credit: Patch archive
The death of Andy Lopez has brought protesters out in Santa Rosa. Credit: Patch archive
By Bay City News

More than 100 people packed the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday afternoon to continue their protest of the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff's deputy in October.

Many brought mirrors in a symbolic attempt to get the supervisors to take a hard look at themselves for failing to advocate punishment or an indictment for the deputy, Erick Gelhaus, or to follow the recommendations of a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report in 2000 aimed at improving police procedures after a spate of officer-involved shootings in the 1990s.

The recommendations included establishing a civilian review of officer-involved shootings.

The current Board of Supervisors has formed a 21-member Local Law Enforcement Task Force that will review options for an independent citizen review body. The task force's first meeting is Monday, and its final recommendations are due in December.

More than 50 people filled out cards to speak during the three-hour hearing. "Do something. Be useful please," community activist Nicole Guerra implored in tears. "Figure out a way to make this happen," she said. Lopez was her son's best friend, Guerra said.

There were times when it seemed the afternoon's public hearing on general matters would get out of control. Some people insisted on speaking out of turn, and profanity-laced comments were directed from the audience at Board Chairman David Rabbitt and Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the sole Latino on the board and supervisor of the 5th District where Lopez was shot.

The teen was carrying an airsoft BB gun that resembled an AK-47 assault weapon in a field just southwest of Santa Rosa on Oct. 22, and Gelhaus told Santa Rosa police he thought the gun was real and that his life and his co-deputy's life were in danger as the barrel of the gun rose as Lopez turned toward him. Gelhaus shot him seven times.

Many speakers decried what they said was the militarization of local law enforcement agencies in society.

There have been at least 10 protest marches or rallies in Santa Rosa since Lopez's death.

Thomas Morabito of Sebastopol was among those who criticized the presence of armed sheriff's deputies at the rallies at the sheriff's office and the county jail. "Sonoma County blew it at the first protest when it greeted the protestors with riot gear and snipers on the roof," Morabito said.

He and others said the sheriff's office employees should have regarded the protestors as citizens engaging in peaceful protest, and not as criminals and enemies.

A contingent of women wore white in solidarity with Lopez's grieving mother Sujay Cruz. Some of the "Mothers in White" called on Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin to be heroines and help them reveal the power structure in the county that they believe is preventing Gelhaus from being arrested and charged with murder.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch's office will review the investigation by Santa Rosa police of the Lopez shooting.

A large portion of the crowd left the hearing to accompany attorney Arnoldo Casillas when he filed an amendment to the civil rights violation lawsuit he previously filed on behalf of Sujay Cruz and Rodrigo Lopez, the teen's father.

Casillas filed the amended complaint in the reception area of the County Administration Building next to the supervisors' chambers. The 20-page amended complaint alleges Sonoma County was aware Gelhaus had racist and extremist tendencies and beliefs, and attended and was an instructor at a shooting academy whose founder held extremist and homophobic, racist and separatist views.

The complaint alleges Gelhaus was a regular contributor to online shooting and firearms tactics magazines and blogs, and he "instructed and advised others on questionable tactics," including "how an officer must respond to justify shooting a kid with a toy gun."

After Gelhaus shot Lopez, he immediately tried to erase, conceal and otherwise destroy evidence of his racist, separatist and extremist beliefs, and he wrongfully erased his own commentary, postings in chat rooms and other writings in an effort to conceal his beliefs, according to the amended complaint.

The Sonoma County Counsel's Office said it had not yet received the amended complaint.

Copyright © 2014 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

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