SANTA ROSA, Calif. - A northern California sheriff's deputy shot and killed a 13-year-old boy after repeatedly telling him to drop what turned out to be a replica assault rifle, sheriff's officials and family members said.
Two Sonoma County deputies on patrol saw the boy walking with what appeared to be a high-powered weapon Tuesday afternoon in Santa Rosa, sheriff's Lt. Dennis O'Leary said.
The replica gun resembled an AK-47 with a black magazine cartridge and brown butt, according to a photograph released by the sheriff's office. Deputies would only learn after the shooting that it was a replica, according to O'Leary. The replica weapon was a pellet gun, police said Wednesday..
Rodrigo Lopez identified the boy as his son, Andy, to a newspaper and said the young teen was carrying a toy gun that belonged to a friend.
After spotting the boy, the deputies called for backup and repeatedly ordered him to drop the gun, O'Leary said in a news release. The sheriff's office referred calls to the Santa Rosa Police Department, which held a Wednesday news conference to address the shooting.
Santa Rosa, police Lt. Paul Henry told reporters the boy had his back to deputies who took cover behind the doors of their patrol vehicles. They ordered him several times to drop the weapon, which they believed to be an authentic AK-47. When the boy turned to face them, it caused the barrel of the replica to rise and one deputy fired, believing he was about to receive semi-automatic weapons fire.
“(The deputy) has quite a bit of experience with this kind of weapon. He’s aware of the kind of damage these kinds of weapons can do,” Henry said. He also was aware such a weapon can fire ammunition that “can penetrate his body armor, can penetrate the metal of his vehicle, and also the sides of houses and buildings in the area.”
“His concern was that the subject was going to shoot at him or his partner, or someone else, and that’s why he responded the way he did,” Henry said. He said deputies didn't even know he was a boy until after one of them fired.
A neighbor in the area, Brian Zastrow, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ( http://ch7ne.ws/18MMyVc ) he heard seven shots.
"First, I heard a single siren and within seconds I heard seven shots go off, sounded like a nail gun, is what I thought it was," he said.
The boy fell to the ground on top of the rifle, according to O'Leary. He said the deputies ordered him to move away before approaching him and putting him in handcuffs.
They began administering first aid and called for paramedics, who pronounced him dead at the scene. Deputies also found a plastic handgun in the boy's waistband, O'Leary said. The deputies, who have not been identified, have been placed on administrative leave, which is standard after a shooting, O'Leary said.
Community members left candles, teddy bears and flowers at the edge of the field where the teen was shot and questioned deputies' decision to open fire.
"I'm sure you can tell he's a 13-year-old boy," Abrey Martin told KGO-TV. "He's not some maniac."
In a statement, Sheriff Steve Freitas said the shooting was a "tragedy" and he would do everything he could to ensure the investigation was thorough and transparent.
"As a father of two boys about this age, I can't begin to imagine the grief this family is going through," he said.
Rodrigo Lopez told the Press Democrat he last saw his son Tuesday morning.
"I told him what I tell him every day," he said in Spanish. "Behave yourself."
The family was back at their mobile home Tuesday night after identifying the boy's body, the Press Democrat reported.
The newspaper quoted the boy's mother, Sujey Annel Cruz Cazarez, as saying, ""Why did they kill him? Why?"
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, told the San Francisco Chronicle that officers often don't have time to determine whether a gun is real.
"As long as an armed person appears to be a threat, you don't have time to look to see if it's a toy," Alpert told the newspaper. "If it looks real, you've got to believe it's real. A perceived threat trumps age, it trumps mental abilities. If you're looking down the barrel of a gun, you're not going to know if it's an air gun or a BB gun
"It's tragic," he said, "but officers have to go on what they objectively and realistically perceive is a threat."
Andy Lopez had recently attended Lawrence Cook Middle School, where assistant principal Linsey Gannon said he played trumpet in the band.
"Andy was a very loved student, a very popular, very handsome young man, very smart and capable,'" she said Wednesday. "Our community has been rocked by his loss."