Sonoma County Sheriff reaches $3M settlement with family of teen killed while carrying airsoft rifle
SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. (KTVU) - The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department announced in a Facebook post on Monday that the agency and the family of Andy Lopez settled his federal civil rights suit for $3 million.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the settlement in a closed-door session. County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said the county did not admit liability or fault in Lopez's death as part of the settlement.
"In the end, the board of supervisors working with the sheriff’s office and the family agreed to a $3 million settlement," Sheriff Rob Giordano said. "The reason for a settlement is there’s a 13-year-old dead and the right thing to do for the community and to start moving forward was to settle the case."
Giordano also called Andy's death a "tragic event" and he gave his "heartfelt condolences" to the Lopez family. The board of supervisors had agreed to the amount earlier in the day.
Giordano said that Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who thought Andy was carrying a real rifle and killed him on Oct. 22, 2013, was cleared of all wrongdoing.%INLINE%
Andy had been walking through a vacant lot at the time, carrying an airsoft gun that was designed to resemble an AK-47 rifle.
Gelhaus opened fire on Lopez, presumably mistaking the airsoft gun for a real firearm, sparking protests in Santa Rosa and throughout California. Gelhaus is now a sergeant.
The Lopez family sued the sheriff in U.S. District Court a month after Andy died alleging the boy's death resulted from a violation of constitutional limits on police authority.
The family's attorney told KTVU the parents are satisfied with the settlement.
"The family and I realized, the court victories that we achieved here are so significant. it is time to put this behind them," Arnold Casillas said.
The case was headed to trial this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court that said Gelhaus did not have a presumption of immunity as a law enforcement officer, and that a jury should decide if his actions were justified.
The teenager's parents felt vindicated by that ruling.
"Andy Lopez lives through that opinion and that's something the family is very, very proud of," said Casillas. "But a Supreme Court opinion, a park, and $3 million doesn't come close to helping them deal with the pain of losing their son."
A specially formed task force met for more than a year after Andy died, and made a variety of recommendations.
"What's important now is that we keep moving forward, " task force member Eric Koenigshofer told KTVU, "because an event like this can't t happen without having a lasting impact and it should have a lasting impact."
The department has adopted body-worn cameras in the years since, and now trains in simulators for such situations. But the biggest reform: the first independent auditor with oversight into shootings, use of force, and citizen complaints.
"When you give someone a badge, a gun and the power of the state you better keep track of what they're doing," said Koenigshofer, "and to me, that's just practical common sense."
Giordano also took the opportunity to call on people not to buy or use fake guns. At the time Andy was killed, Giordano was not sheriff, but he admits the department could have been more responsive to public outrage.
"We needed to be out with the community right away, talking to them, and listening to them," said Giordano, who retires this month. "So I'm hoping this settlement is one more step in the right direction, to move forward, and healing."
Newly elected Sheriff Mark Essick takes the reins in January, a department veteran who served on the law enforcement task force.
The community will be watching for how well Essick cooperates with the independent auditor, going forward.