SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The parents of a Northern California teen fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy alleged that their son was gunned down too quickly and without legal justification in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court.
The lawsuit alleges Sonoma County deputy sheriff Erick Gelhaus shot Andy Lopez, 13, with almost no warning on Oct. 22 after observing the teen walking in Santa Rosa with a pellet gun that resembled an automatic weapon. The boy had been returning the "airsoft-type toy" to a friend when, according to the lawsuit, a patrol car carrying Gelhaus and an unidentified partner, who was driving, sped within about 35 feet of Lopez.
Investigators say 10 seconds elapsed between the time the deputies reported a "suspicious person" and then reported shots fired to dispatchers. Sheriff's officials have said Gelhaus says he feared for his life and that's why he began shooting.
"As the vehicle stopped, one of the deputies shouted one command to Andy Lopez from within the patrol car," the lawsuit states. After that, in a matter of seconds, Gelhaus fired eight shots from his service revolver, striking Lopez in the chest, arms and buttocks.
The Sonoma County coroner has not released any official findings. The Santa Rosa Police Department has been assigned the investigation to determine if any crime has been committed.
The FBI said it also is looking into the shooting to determine if any civil rights violations have occurred.
The lawsuit follows the filing Thursday of an official "claim" with Sonoma County that also seeks an unspecified amount of damages because of the shooting.
In the lawsuit, the parents say Gelhaus fired at Lopez while he lay on the pavement. A private autopsy of Lopez commissioned by the family's lawyer show two shots traveling horizontal from the buttocks into the teen's upper body.
Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said it was "unusual" for a lawsuit to be filed before county officials could consider the parents' claim. County officials have 45 days to accept the claim, negotiate a settlement or reject it, Goldstein said.
Goldstein also said the lawsuit has the potential to interfere with the criminal investigation of the shooting by the Santa Rosa Police Department, which will be reviewed by the Sonoma County District Attorney.
"There's a pretty extensive review process and there's real potential that this civil litigation will interfere with the criminal investigation," Goldstein said.
The parents' lawyer predicted during the press conference Monday that local officials would conclude Gelhaus acted reasonably and legally.
"We are anticipating it will be a whitewash," attorney Arnoldo Casillas said when asked why he didn't wait for authorities to finish their investigation before filing a lawsuit. "There is no reason to wait."
Casillas said the family has yet to bury Lopez in hopes the FBI will want to examine the body and take over the investigation. The FBI said immediately after the shooting that it would look into the case. Casillas said it appears the FBI is leaving the official investigation to local officials because FBI agents haven't contacted Lopez parents.
FBI spokesman Peter Lee said the agency is continuing its investigation.
"What the FBI is investigating is whether there were any civil rights violations," Lee said. "Did somebody commit a crime based on race, sexual orientation, age and things like that," Lee said the FBI doesn't discuss its open investigations in detail.
Casillas won a $24 million jury verdict in Los Angeles Superior Court in December 2012 against the Los Angeles Police Department after one of its officers shot and paralyzed a 13-year-old boy who was playing "cops and robbers" with a similar pellet gun that Lopez was carrying. Casillas declined to speculate what a jury might award Lopez' parents in the current case, but said he would expect a jury to issue a higher damages award than the $24 million verdict in Los Angeles.
The Mexican Consulate on Monday called on investigators to "officially" share the findings of their investigation with Mexican diplomats.
Furthermore, it was requested that the results of this investigation be released as soon as possible, that liability be properly established and that full compliance with the law be guaranteed," the consulate said in a statement Monday.
The shooting has prompted several large demonstrations in Santa Rosa and Lopez's father Rodrigo Lopez called on the community Monday to continue demonstrating peacefully.
"We want justice," the father said in a brief statement.
The teen's mother addressed the press conference at length in Spanish, but declined to discuss the case in English, saying that she was more fluent in Spanish.