Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Prosecutor charges homeowner with manslaughter in car theft shooting

Posted By on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 10:30 AM

In a deadly shooting that has split Spokane over the rights of homeowners to protect their property, officials said today that 56-year-old Gail Gerlach will face a first-degree manslaughter charge for the death of a man killed while stealing his SUV. 

The Spokane County Prosecutor's Office confirmed its long-awaited decision today, charging Gerlach with recklessly causing the death of 25-year-old Brendon Kaluza-Graham on March 25.

County Prosecutor Steven Tucker says he made his charging decision after consulting with Major Crimes detectives at the Spokane Police Department for about an hour and a half Tuesday morning.

"We discussed the alternatives and the evidence and the facts," Tucker says. "We all felt, by the time that we left, that first-degree manslaughter was the right choice for the charge."

After reviewing the case, Tucker explains state law includes several limitations on an individual's justifications for self-defense and the rights to protect personal property.

"You can use necessary force to protect your property," he says, "but to use deadly force you have to have a fear of substantial bodily injury and it has to be imminent." 

Investigators reported in court records that Gerlach, a self-employed plumber, had left his SUV idling in the driveway of his Lee Street home in Northeast Spokane shortly before 8 am when he emerged to find a stranger, Kaluza-Graham, behind the wheel. 

Gerlach followed on foot as the vehicle pulled out of the driveway and started down Lee Street, records state. Gerlach told investigators he saw Kaluza-Graham turn around and raise his arm with what appeared to be a weapon.

"Gerlach reported to [investigators] that he thought the person was going to shoot," records state. "[Gerlach] took out his gun and shot one time into the vehicle."

Court records say the 9mm bullet went through the tinted back window, the driver's seat headrest and struck Kaluza-Graham in the back of the head. Gerlach argued he fired in self-defense.

(We reported last month on the complex nuances of Washington state self-defense law.)

Court records state Kaluza-Graham remained behind the wheel as the vehicle continued two blocks down the street and crashed into a garage. He later died from his injury.

Spokane Police Department detectives searched Kaluza-Graham and the vehicle. A search warrant states investigators found shaved keys and theft tools, but did not find any weapon.

Detectives reportedly completed their investigation earlier this month without recommending any specific charge, leaving it toTucker to determine any potential wrongdoing.

The Prosecutor's Office reports an arraignment in Gerlach's case has been set for June 12. Tucker says Gerlach would not be immediately arrested and a judge would later determine whether he is taken into custody.

"He's probably not going to be put in jail unless the judge decides that he's a flight risk or a danger to the community," Tucker says.  

The shooting has stirred emotions on both sides with Gerlach's supporters championing his right to defend himself while others have criticized the shooting as overzealous vigilantism. 

Kaluza-Graham's family members told the media he should not have been killed over stealing a car. Meanwhile, a "Support Gail Gerlach" page on Facebook now has more than 1,300 supporters.

Updated at 1:22 pm with comments from Prosecutor Steven Tucker. 

Updated at 2:42 pm with date of arraignment hearing.

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