SANTA ROSA, California (REUTERS) - A 13-year-old California boy carrying a replica of an assault rifle was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies who apparently believed the gun was real, family members and authorities said.
The incident took place in the northern California community of Santa Rosa on Tuesday, a day after a 12-year-old boy killed a teacher at a Nevada middle school with a gun he also used to take his own life.
Although authorities declined to identify the child killed in the California incident, the boy's father, Rodrigo Lopez, said he was 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was on his way to a friend's house with a pellet gun left at the family home over the weekend.
Pellet guns, which use compressed air or other gases to fire pellets or spherical balls, are sometimes made to resemble assault weapons.
"It's not right what they did to my son," said Rodrigo Lopez, who sat with friends and family on Wednesday outside Santa Rosa City Hall in a quiet protest of Andy's death.
Thirteen-year-old Luis Diaz, who was wearing a black-and-white photo of Andy taped to his t-shirt, said he waited in vain for his best friend to come over after school on Tuesday, not realizing until hours later that Andy had been shot.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department confirmed that the shooting took place but declined to field questions about it.
The department said in a statement that deputies had shot and killed "an unidentified male" carrying a replica of an assault weapon.
The statement did not identify that person as a juvenile.
Asked about the shooting incident, the county coroner's office said it could not release the name of the person who was shot because he was a juvenile.
In the weedy, overgrown lot where Andy died, Cathy Lavarca placed a bouquet of purple irises on a makeshift altar glowing with religious candles.
"The whole town is hurting," said Lavarca, who saw numerous shoppers picking out flowers at the Trader Joe's market on Wednesday morning. "My heart just bleeds for these people." As neighbours filed in to place flowers and other items on the ground, investigators combed the high grass. They did not say what they were looking for.
As the day wore on, details emerged about the incident and about the child who was killed.
Andy, according to friends and family, had a good sense of humour, and liked to tease his friend Luis' older sister, Ana. He played saxophone and enjoyed basketball and boxing.
But he also appeared to have had some difficulties.
According to his father, he was expelled from Lawrence Cook Middle School in Santa Rosa "for little things." On Tuesday, Andy had been sent home early from his new alternative school, for what his parents described as lingering too long at a local store during a break.
Later in the afternoon, his father said, Andy took the pellet gun, which had been left by another child, and made plans to see Luis. But when Andy did not return home later in the day, the family called the Diaz home and learned that he had not arrived there.
Rodrigo Lopez said he then stepped outside, noting the police cars and commotion, but not realizing for some time that the unmoving body on the ground was that of his son.
The sheriff's department said the deputies involved had been patrolling in Santa Rosa, about 90km north of San Francisco, on Tuesday afternoon when they saw someone who appeared to be holding an assault weapon.
"The two deputies repeatedly ordered the subject to drop the rifle and at some point immediately thereafter, the deputies fired several rounds from their handguns at the subject striking him several times," the department said. "The subject fell to the ground and landed on top of the rifle he was carrying." After securing the area, deputies realized that the weapon was a replica, the press release said. They also found a plastic handgun.
The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave, which is standard procedure, and the incident is being investigated by the Santa Rosa Police Department and other law enforcement agencies, officials said.