Gail Gerlach stood before a judge Wednesday and pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting a man who was stealing his SUV.
Afterward, Gerlach, 56, appeared shell-shocked as he addressed gathered media. He then walked outside to a group of supporters who waited to cheer him on.
“It was surreal and strange,” Gerlach said of his arraignment Wednesday before Superior Court Judge James Triplet. “I never expected to be here.”
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker last month charged Gerlach with manslaughter after a weekslong investigation into the March 25 shooting of 25-year-old Brendon T. Kaluza-Graham.
Gerlach told investigators that he walked out of his garage and saw a man, later identified as Kaluza-Graham, backing down his North Lee Street driveway in Gerlach’s 1997 Chevy Suburban.
Gerlach chased after the vehicle and shot once with his 9 mm handgun. The bullet hit Kaluza-Graham’s head, killing him.
Gerlach claimed he saw the car thief turn around and make a motion like he was aiming a gun. But investigators determined that dirt, stacked tools and dark window tinting on Gerlach’s vehicle would have made it virtually impossible to see the actions he described to officers, according to court records.
State law allows crime victims to defend themselves with deadly force only if facing an imminent threat of harm, and prosecutors concluded no such threat existed.
But Gerlach’s defense attorney, Richard Lee, said the semiretired plumber is looking forward to challenging the prosecution’s conclusions in court. Gerlach faces between eight and 10 years in prison at the trial, which is currently set for Sept. 3.
“We maintain that he didn’t do anything wrong and that the homicide was justified,” Lee said.
Gerlach, who will not be allowed to possess firearms pending the outcome of the case, asked Lee after the hearing where to report to book himself into the Spokane County Jail. Those formal booking procedures will take place today; he’ll remain free pending trial.
“I don’t know what to say,” Gerlach said in response to questions. “We’ll take it forward and see how it goes. I’m getting by, that’s about all.”
A victim-witness coordinator said members of Kaluza-Graham’s family did not want to comment following the hearing.
Sharon Gerlach said the incident has been devastating to her family.
“Lately, I’ve been crying at the drop of a hat and hanging on day by day. It’s excruciatingly painful,” she said as tears flowed. “My husband is a good man and my best friend.”
The couple has been together 25 years and married for 22. They have three children and two grandchildren.
“He’s the heart of our family,” Sharon Gerlach said. “He’s the patient, understanding one. Everything just runs in the house because he is there.”
Gail Gerlach has been semiretired for years and home-schooled his children, she said.
“It’s untraditional, but it works,” she said.
Sharon Gerlach, whose job includes helping students find financial aid, said she is grateful for a small group of supporters who have created a Facebook page and are selling T-shirts to raise money for his defense.
“I can’t tell you how comforting that is to us right now,” she said.
The loosely organized group gathered outside the courthouse. One woman who did not want to be identified called Gerlach a hero and called for voters to recall Steve Tucker.
Another, Chrissy Buchmann, is making “Spokane Supports Gail Gerlach” T-shirts that she’s selling for $20. Of that, $15 goes to the defense fund.
“I believe it was self-defense,” Buchmann said. “I would have done exactly the same thing if it was my family. I wouldn’t have got him with one shot, but I would have got him.”
Mary Richards said she believes defending yourself is not a crime.
Even though the prosecutor determined that the threat had receded when Kaluza-Graham drove away, Richards said, “I think there was still a threat.”
Greg Melrose, a 34-year-old student at Whitworth University, said Gerlach only had a split-second to decide to defend himself and his family.
“Police have a shoot-first policy and they don’t get charged,” Melrose said. “That’s just wrong.”
In this case, the charging decision has made the perpetrator of a crime into the victim, he said.
“If someone was stealing my vehicle in my driveway … I will shoot first and ask questions later,” Melrose said. “People in this community are tired of the criminals being the victims.”