The family of a 13-year-old boy fatally shot by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy last month filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in San Francisco today against the county and the deputy.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the family of 13-year-old Andy Lopez Cruz accuses sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus of a string of reckless incidents over the past 18 years that culminated in the shooting of the teen.
The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages against Gelhaus for actions that violated Andy's Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, as well as against Sonoma County for inadequately supervising and training deputies and investigating their misconduct.
At about 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 22, Andy was walking down Moorland Avenue in rural Sonoma County with a toy AK-47 rifle. Gelhaus was on patrol with another deputy and allegedly yelled at him to drop the rifle, then fired at the boy when he turned toward the deputies.
Attorney Arnoldo Casillas, who is representing Andy's parents Rodrigo Lopez and Sujay Cruz, joined the parents at a news conference in San Francisco today and said Gelhaus was "reckless" in the shooting.
The lawsuit states that Gelhaus had a string of reckless incidents dating back to 1995, when he shot himself in the leg during a stop and search involving a teenager. Then a year later, he allegedly pointed his firearm at a woman who was holding her young son.
The lawsuit also mentions an incident earlier last month in which Gelhaus made a routine stop of a man named Jeffrey Westbrook and then unnecessarily pointed his pistol at Westbrook's head while he sat in his car.
Gelhaus "has problems controlling his firearms," Casillas said.
The attorney said in the shooting of Andy, Gelhaus "was going to shoot first and ask questions later."
Casillas said a witness who saw Andy just before the shooting said the plastic gun was clearly a toy based on "the way he was holding it, the way he was swinging it," as well as the fact that the 13-year-old did not seem to pose a threat at only 5 feet 4 inches tall and 140 pounds.
Casillas said the family had a private autopsy done on Andy's body that called into question Gelhaus' version of events, in which he told investigators he fired after Andy raised the barrel of the rifle toward the deputies.
Casillas said the trajectory of the bullets that struck Andy show the boy did not point the gun at the deputies, and that Gelhaus continued firing even after the first bullet went through Andy's heart, causing him to fall to the ground.
Andy suffered seven gunshot wounds, while at least one other shot missed and struck a nearby home, Casillas said.
The deputy "basically unloaded in a super reckless way," he said.
Rodrigo Lopez spoke briefly about the case during today's news conference.
"We want justice and also we want an honest investigation," he said.
Casillas said an investigation by Santa Rosa police of the case was inadequate and had already exonerated the deputy, although the department has not officially released its findings.
"There is a whitewash going on," he said. "It's a done deal for us, they've already determined it's justified."
Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein last week criticized the plans to file a civil rights lawsuit before the criminal investigation finished, saying the suit could interfere with the investigation.
Casillas said that was the point.
"We hope that by us doing our civil action now, they're moved to be more objective," he said.
Goldstein was not immediately available today to comment on the lawsuit.
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas has declined to comment on the claims by Casillas and referred questions to the county counsel's office.