The same police officer who shot and killed a young teen after mistaking a toy gun for a real one pulled his weapon on a motorist during a routine traffic stop on the highway two months ago, the California driver in question now says.
Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus is currently on paid administrative leave after fatally shooting 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was walking to a friend’s house with a replica AK-47. The tragedy has made international headlines and frustrated the local community, with vigils and protests against the police taking place over the past ten days.
Jeff Westbrook, a program manager at an information technology company, now says that Gelhaus was the deputy who pulled him over on his August 21 commute for failing to signal a lane change. Westbrook told the San Francisco Chronicle that there was not much room to pull over on the side of the highway so he rolled down his window and asked Gelhaus if he should move his car to a safer spot.
It was at that point, Westbook said, that Gelhaus pulled a gun on him and began screaming an order for him to turn the car off. Westbrook responded that the car was already off.
“I felt like I was watching somebody I needed to help,” Westbrook said this week. “This was not right. He did not manage this correctly.”
Gelhaus then ordered Westbrook out of his vehicle and pulled a gun on him a second time when asking the commuter whether he had any weapons in the car. Westbrook asked why he had been pulled over and then felt compelled to ask, “Sir, is there something wrong with you?” The police officer did not answer.
Gelhaus’ attorney declined to comment on Westbrook’s accusations. The deputy is an Iraq War veteran who serves as a police field training officer and weapons instructor. A 24-year veteran of the force, he was training a new officer at the time of the shooting.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said Gelahus had not fired his weapon at a suspect in over 20 years. He received the Medal of Valor in 2004 for rescuing passengers from a burning car and pulling them to safety.
Westbrook contacted a superior officer within the Sonoma police force and said he was considering filing an official complaint with the department. He said he informed Gelhaus’ sergeant that he felt the deputy had “emotional stability” problems and hoped to meet with Gelhaus to discuss the traffic stop.
Then, almost two months to the day after the roadside scare, Gelhaus shot Lopez seven times in under ten seconds. The deputy told investigators that he thought the gun the boy was carrying was real – but later found out it was an airsoft gun designed to shoot plastic pellets.
Whether Lopez knew the officer considered him a risk remains unclear. It took 16 seconds for Gelhaus and his partner to call for medical assistance after the shooting in Santa Rosa. Lopez, a popular student preparing to enter high school, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Westbrook received an email the next day indicating that Gelahus would be out of the office “due to unforeseen circumstances,” and thus unable to clear the air.
“Now I find out that a child is involved. I am such an irrelevant part of this thing,” Westbrook said. “I am devastated. I’m terribly shocked. I’m appalled.”
A police report filed after the shooting describes how Gelahus opened fire when Lopez had his back turned to the patrol car but appeared to be turning toward the two officers with his gun raised. Lopez’s friends and family, as well as countless demonstrators who have protested over the past week, believe Gelhaus overreacted and doubt that he gave Lopez time to put down the fake weapon.
Witnesses said they heard the deputy instruct Lopez to put the weapon down, but various media outlets quote an anonymous police source who said that Gelhaus’ partner was not even out of the patrol car when the shooting began. Santa Rosa police say Lopez was told twice to put the replica gun down.
Lopez was wearing a sweatshirt with his hood down at the time and did not have any headphones that would have prevented him from hearing a police order.
Meanwhile, Westbrook wonders if Lopez would still be alive if he had filed an official complaint sooner.
“I’m struggling with that now,” he told the Chronicle. “I’m wondering, if I had fought this a little more aggressively – actually waved around like a chimpanzee with my arms in the air to the district attorney’s office and come down there physically – that maybe something could have changed. I don’t know.”
Hundreds of mourners filled the Resurrection Parish Church in Santa Rosa Wednesday to honor Lopez. Many of the parishioners wore white, Lopez’s favorite color, and the boy’s mother laid face down on his casket throughout the service, not moving until the pallbearers escorted Lopez’s body to the waiting hearse.