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Andy Lopez Memorial Altar Damaged by Fire

An investigator wouldn't say whether the fire was intentionally set.

FILE PHOTO. An investigator wouldn't say whether the fire was intentionally set.
FILE PHOTO. An investigator wouldn't say whether the fire was intentionally set.

By Bay City News Service

Investigators on Thursday collected bags of charred and burned items from a memorial altar to 13-year-old Andy Lopez that was damaged in a blaze at the field southwest of Santa Rosa where the teen was fatally shot by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy in October.

The roughly 10-foot-long altar made from pre-fabricated wood caught fire shortly after midnight Thursday morning on Moorland Avenue, Central Fire Authority of Sonoma County Chief Doug Williams said.

Firefighters from Rincon Valley quickly extinguished the blaze, Williams said. Firefighters from Cal Fire and the Sonoma County Fire Department also were on the scene Thursday afternoon.

"It took only a few gallons of water to extinguish it," Williams said.

An anonymous caller reported the fire, he said.

Nicole Guerra, one of the organizers of the marches and rallies that have followed Andy's death on Oct. 22, said supporters plan to rebuild the altar on Saturday.

There were no candles on any of the three shelves of the altar and electric power from a nearby residence to the site at Moorland and West Robles avenues was disconnected because the resident decided it was too expensive, Guerra said.

"We haven't had electricity for over a month," she said.

Pictures in metal frames of Andy and rosary beads are missing from the site, Guerra said.

The altar, which was painted white, was inside a canvas tent structure that was open to the elements. The fire also burned the top of the tent and scorched a nearby wood cross but did not completely burn the altar.

The altar was erected in early November, Guerra said. 

"The fire started at the bottom in the center of the altar," Guerra said.

Fire investigator Cyndi Foreman from the Central Fire Authority scanned the charred altar debris with a device that detects the presence of accelerants. She wouldn't immediately say whether the fire was deliberately set. 

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs, who represented the residents of the area southwest of Santa Rosa when she was on the city's Community Advisory Board, said she was impressed with the dozen-plus fire personnel who were on the scene Thursday afternoon.

"There wasn't a lot of costly fire damage, but they recognize this is a sensitive place and people view this as holy ground," Combs said.

"This community has trust issues and this lets them know they are being taken seriously," Combs said. "It's so sad. We didn't need another loss here. Even an accidental hit is tough," Combs said.

"We want people to understand a thorough arson investigation is taking place," she said.

Andy was shot seven times by Sonoma County sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus.

According to Santa Rosa police, Gelhaus believed the BB rifle that the teen was carrying was actually an AK-47 assault rifle.

Gelhaus said he told Andy to drop the rifle and shot him when the gun rose upward as Andy turned toward him, according to Santa Rosa police.

Gelhaus fired eight shots from behind the open door of his patrol car. A deputy who was with him and who has not been identified did not fire his weapon.

Gelhaus, 48, a 24-year veteran and firearms training instructor, was on paid administrative leave until early December, when he returned to work in an office in the sheriff's department.

Copyright © 2013 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

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