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Welcome Back, Killer

William Norman Grigg

Welcome Back Killer

(With apologies to John Sebastian)

Welcome back — your badge was your ticket out….

Erick Gelhaus, the Sonoma County, California Sheriff’s Deputy who gunned down 13-year-old Andy Lopez on October 22, has returned to “duty.”

Gelhaus and an unidentified deputy spotted Lopez walking to a friend’s house carrying what was mistakenly believed to be an AK-47 rifle. The “weapon” was actually a plastic BB gun that fired plastic pellets. It is smaller than the actual rifle and has a transparent plastic middle section. The encounter took place at 3:15 PM on a brightly-lit day, which means that the “weapon” would have been recognized as a toy if Gelhaus would have taken a second or two to get a good look at it.

After calling in a report of an armed suspect, Gelhaus ordered the other deputy — a trainee — to pull up about twenty to thirty feet behind the Middle School-age boy. Gelhaus drew his gun, took cover behind a door, and ordered Lopez to “drop the gun.” The youngster, reacting instinctively to an unfamiliar — and unidentified — voice, turned to face the deputies. Gelhaus reacted by firing seven shots. All of this took place within the space of about ten seconds.

Lt. Paul Henry of the Santa Rosa Police Department, which is investigating the shooting, explained that Gelhaus’s “mindset was that he was fearful that he was going to be shot.” A 24-year veteran who was a firing range instructor, Gelhaus offered a glimpse into his fear-saturated mindset in an article published by SWAT magazine in 2008:

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“Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home. If you cannot turn on the `mean gene’ for yourself, who will?… Taking some kind of action — any kind of action — is critical.”

In other words: You must be prepared to kill at the first intimation of a threat to “officer safety.”

Because he lives at the intersection of panic and paranoia, Gelhaus is primed to kill with very little provocation. Two months before he gunned down Andy Lopez without bothering to find out if the boy actually posed a threat, Gelhaus drew a gun during a traffic stop involving Santa Rosa resident Jeffrey Westbrook. Gelhaus had pulled over Westbrook for failing to use his turn signal.

The traffic stop took place on a narrow shoulder near a steep hillside, and Westbrook asked if he could move the car in order to make more room for the officer. Gelhaus reacted by pulling his gun and pointing it at the terrified driver’s head.

When Westbrook learned that Gelhaus was the officer who had fatally shot Lopez, he found himself wondering if “maybe something could have been done” to rein in the bellicose deputy before he killed somebody.

Gelhaus has been restricted to desk duty until the familiar ritual of exoneration reaches its foreordained conclusion.

9:15 pm on December 10, 2013 Email William Norman Grigg

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