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Andy Lopez activists charge harassment, law enforcement responds

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NOT THEIR PROBLEM? Talk of protestor harassment highlighted the first-ever law enforcement Task Force meeting.
  • NOT THEIR PROBLEM? Talk of protestor harassment highlighted the first-ever law enforcement Task Force meeting.

The bright lights and shouting voices didn't seem real at first, says Lisbet Mendoza, 15. "We thought it was a joke," she told members of the Sonoma County Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force at its Jan. 13 inaugural meeting.

Mendoza's voice trembling with fear, she continued: "They told us to put our hands on our head . . . they had guns pointed at us." She and her friends were handcuffed, leaving deep bruises, and though nine law enforcement vehicles arrived on the scene, the teens weren't given a reason for their detainment, she said. "They were searching for a gun," she told the task force, "but we didn't have a gun. All we had was a staple gun."

On the evening of Jan. 9, Jose Luis "Louie" Godoy, 24, drove four teenagers back from the store after buying markers, posterboard and other supplies for an upcoming Justice for Andy Lopez march. Upon his return to Moorland Avenue in Santa Rosa, he and the teenagers were surprised by several sheriff's vehicles waiting in the dark with their lights off. Two minutes after deputies announced their presence, a sheriff's helicopter was on the scene, shining a spotlight from overhead.

Backup from the Santa Rosa Police Department was called, and Godoy was arrested just half a mile from the site of Lopez's death, which has been turned into a makeshift memorial park by the community.

The task force is powerless to enforce any action on this issue, as it is only an advisory body constructed to make recommendations to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in the wake of the shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez at the hands of Deputy Erick Gelhaus. But the issue was discussed as an indication of a larger problem stemming from the death of Andy Lopez: the frustration of both law enforcement and the community. "That's the crux of this issue," said task force member Caroline Bañuelos, referring to the incident.

Though many have claimed that Godoy and others are a target of harassment by law enforcement due to their participation in recent protests, for which the city has estimated its costs to be upwards of $250,000, officials assert the incident had nothing to do with Andy Lopez, and that Godoy was arrested as a suspect in a previous incident that day.

"[Godoy] was identified as a person that pointed a handgun at a citizen in traffic," says Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Mike Lazzarini, one of the responding officers, reached by phone this week. After that initial incident, reported at 4:15pm near the intersection of Hearn and Corby avenues, an investigation and witness identification pointed to Godoy as a suspect. Sheriff's deputies "happened to find him," says Lazzarini, and called for "emergency backup" when the situation drew onlookers.

"A bunch of people from the neighborhood had come out and were being loud and causing a challenge for the deputies," says Lazzarini, one of the responding officers. No weapons were found, but "there had been quite a time frame" between the call and the identification of Godoy as a suspect, he added.

Sonoma County Sheriff's deputies were not available for comment at press time.

Despite law enforcement's explanation, the case has prompted charges of harassment. Jon Melrod, a leader of the Justice for Andy Lopez campaign, says the Lopez family's lawyer, Arnoldo Casillas, plans to file a lawsuit within the week alleging harassment of Andy's Youth and coalition activities, "on behalf of the youth that were harassed." From that point, the county has 45 days to settle or reject the claim, after which a federal suit can be filed. No official complaints have been submitted to the Santa Rosa Police Department.

"I think it's a positive thing, because it's going to show how the department works," says Nicole Guerre, an activist whose son was good friends with Lopez. "It's also positive for the kids, because it shows them there are consequences when things happen."

As for Lisbet Mendoza, after the Jan. 13 task force meeting, she and her friend Karina Alvarado, 13, recalled more details of the evening. That morning, they had been at the courthouse to support Godoy in his appearance following an arrest on charges of obstructing a police officer during a Dec. 10 protest in Santa Rosa. Mendoza recognized deputies from the courtroom at the Jan. 9 arrest. "All the deputies that were there at the court, they were there that night," she says. "They've been harassing us really bad."

At the core of it all, as Bañuelos points out, is the concern felt by the community.

"It's like a war zone in the Latino community," says Guerre. "My son even says, 'Am I next?'"

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