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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Man who shot car thief could face prison time

Manslaughter charge filed against Gerlach

Even Gail Gerlach wasn’t sure if he had made the right decision.

Minutes after shooting fleeing car thief Brendon Kaluza-Graham, Gerlach told police officers he “was scared and that he did not know if he did the right thing,” according to court documents released Wednesday.

“He said several times that he hoped that the person was not hurt,” an officer wrote.

Gerlach, a 56-year-old plumber, now faces the possibility of eight to 10 years in prison after prosecutors charged him Wednesday with first-degree manslaughter. The charge includes a specification for the use of a deadly weapon, which upped the minimum and maximum punishments by about a year.

Gerlach has not been arrested and will be summoned to appear in court for an arraignment June 12.

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said a team of three prosecutors and three detectives met Tuesday to arrive at a charging decision.

Initially, he said, the room was split.

“One police officer and one deputy prosecutor thought that it was a murder,” Tucker said. The others ranged in opinion from manslaughter to no charges at all.

The ultimate decision, which was up to Tucker, hinged on whether the prosecutor believed Gerlach could reasonably state his life was in danger.

Tucker said he doesn’t believe there was a threat to Gerlach; at the end of the hour-and-a-half meeting, he said, all those in the room agreed the manslaughter charge was appropriate.

“When you use deadly force you have to be in imminent danger of substantial bodily injury to yourself or someone else,” Tucker said.

Spokane police Chief Frank Straub declined to comment.

Gerlach’s attorney, Richard Lee, said Gerlach maintains that he did not commit a crime.

“Mr. Gerlach is disappointed in the prosecutor’s decision to file the charge,” Lee said. “He is looking forward to having his day in court.”

The case ignited debates across the Inland Northwest, pitting those who support Gerlach’s use of deadly force to subdue an auto thief against those who fear the spread of uncontrollable and sometimes misguided vigilantism.

Tucker said intent played a big part in the charging decision. With only one shot fired, he said, a murder charge would be tough because it would be hard to prove Gerlach intended to kill Kaluza-Graham. But even one shot is enough to prove first-degree manslaughter, which implies recklessness, he said.

“If you don’t mean to kill somebody, you don’t shoot a gun directly at them,” Tucker said. “You’re meaning some definite harm to somebody when you’re firing a weapon.”

Gerlach told investigators he was about to take his wife to work on the morning of March 25 when he went outside to see the 1997 Chevy Suburban he had left running in his driveway being driven away.

According to court documents, he said he briefly chased the vehicle, and when he was at the bottom of his North Lee Street driveway, he believed he saw the driver turn around and make a motion like he had a gun and was going to use it.

Tucker said the evidence proves that isn’t possible.

An investigator wrote in the report that the window was too tinted and dirty and the back of the car was full of too many tools and other items for anyone to be able to see through the back.

“I was only able to see small portions of the front seat and believe it would not have been possible to see anybody’s actions as they turned around and shifted their arm over the top of the seat,” the detective wrote. “If anything would have been visible of the driver, it would simply have been the top of his head sticking up over the top of the head rest.”

The single shot Gerlach fired from his 9 mm handgun went through the back driver’s side window, through a child’s car seat, a headrest and into the back of 27-year-old Kaluza-Graham’s head, killing him instantly.

Detectives believe Gerlach, who has no criminal record, was 40 feet to 60 feet away from the SUV when he fired his weapon. Tucker called it a “one in 1,000” shot.

A 911 dispatcher asked Gerlach for a description of the car thief, the documents state, and he said the suspect was an “unknown male,” and that the windows were tinted and he “couldn’t get a look at him.”

No firearms were recovered in the vehicle.

Gerlach’s wife, Sharon Gerlach, was about four steps behind her husband when she ran out the door, according to her statement. She said she didn’t see her husband fire his gun because she was watching as the Suburban drove away. She did hear some sort of explosion and saw the rear window break. She also reported seeing the driver make some sort of motion with his arm, but thought he could possibly be “flipping them off.”

The vehicle continued another two blocks and rammed into a garage. Tucker said the vehicle is estimated to have been traveling 50 mph at the time of the crash and said it was “lucky” that neither the vehicle nor the bullet struck a bystander.

The reports state the Gerlachs went back into their house – where their children and grandchildren, including a 6-day-old infant, were sleeping – and Gail Gerlach called 911.

Sharon Gerlach shouted that the car thief had “wrecked (their) car,” the documents said. “Sharon said she was somewhat excitable about what had happened and her husband said, ‘Honey, I shot him, I think I hit him.’ ”

Tucker said Gerlach should not have chased the vehicle and should have called 911 instead.

“I hope the message gets out, if somebody’s taking your property, you can only use necessary force,” Tucker said.