By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A sheriff's deputy who shot and killed a 13-year-old California boy carrying what turned out to be a plastic replica assault rifle is a firearms expert who has trained officers for nearly two decades, authorities said on Monday.
Deputy Erick Gelhaus, 48, fired eight shots at Andy Lopez Cruz on Tuesday, as the popular eighth-grader was walking near his home in the wine-country suburb of Santa Rosa carrying an imitation AK-47 he planned to return to a friend, relatives and officials said.
Sonoma County Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas released Gelhaus' name on Monday and said the deputy, who had served 10 years in the military including a stint in Iraq, had never previously shot anyone while on the job.
Gelhaus has been on the force for 24 years, 19 of them as a range master and firearms instructor, Duenas said.
Gelhaus also works as a field-training officer and was training a new recruit with 11 years of law-enforcement experience when the pair spotted the boy wearing a "hoodie" sweatshirt walking with what turned out to be an air gun in a blue-collar neighborhood, authorities said.
The sheriff has placed both Gelhaus and the deputy in training on administrative leave. Authorities are withholding the trainee's name because he or she is considered a witness.
The incident has sparked almost daily protests for the past week and is the latest in a string of police shootings involving imitation or toy weapons.
In a 2006 post on the Firing Line Forum, an online network for firearms enthusiasts, Gelhaus discussed the use of force that might be appropriate when someone brandishes a BB gun.
"It's going to come down to YOUR ability to articulate to law enforcement and very likely the Court that you were in fear of death or serious bodily injury," he wrote. "I think we keep coming back to this, articulation - your ability to explain why - will be quite significant."
The FBI is investigating last week's shooting, as is the Santa Rosa Police Department in conjunction with other local law-enforcement agencies.
Andy had his back to Gelhaus and the trainee, who were both crouched behind the doors of their patrol car, when one of the officers commanded him to drop the gun, police said. When the boy turned toward the deputies with the gun still in his hand, he raised the weapon's tip, and Gelhaus began firing from 20 to 30 feet away, police said.
Seven of the bullets struck the teenager. A preliminary autopsy showed that two of the rounds killed him.
No more than 10 seconds elapsed from the time the deputies spotted the boy carrying what they believed to be an assault rifle and the moment Gelhaus opened fire, police said.
"It's a tragic situation for the family, for the deputy," Duenas said. "It could happen to anybody in this line of work."