PALM SPRINGS, California — He was a 35-year veteran police officer, headed for retirement. She was relatively new to the police force, just back from maternity leave.
They were among the first to respond to a family disturbance call Saturday in Palm Springs, California, and it cost them their lives.
The officers tried to negotiate with a distraught man, asking him to step outside his residence, Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes said. Instead, the man shot at police from behind the closed front door, police said.
The officers were identified as Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, who was due to retire this year, and Lesley Zerebny, 27, a new mom with a 4-month-old daughter. Both were rushed to a nearby hospital, where they died from their injuries. An unidentified third officer was released from the hospital Sunday and was “doing well,” according to a statement from the Palm Springs Police Department.
“I have two officers that are now looking down on us from above, and our police department is now walking in the footsteps of two additional heroes,” Reyes said at a news conference Sunday.
Suspect John Felix, a 26-year-old resident of Palm Springs, was arrested early Sunday, more than 12 hours after the fatal shootings, police said.
“It was a simple family disturbance, and he elected to open fire on a few of the guardians of the city,” Reyes said.
The deaths brought residents in this desert resort town about 100 miles east of Los Angeles together in mourning. A steady stream of visitors paid homage to the officers at a memorial outside the police department. Hundreds attended a vigil Sunday night where tearful family members spoke.
“We would like to thank the community for coming together for us,” said a woman who identified herself as Vega’s daughter. “We appreciate the community support and for continuing to have us in your prayers.”
The incident started after officers responded to a 911 call at a house.
A woman made the call around midday local time and said her adult son was causing a disturbance, Palm Springs Police Chief Reyes said.
When officers arrived, Felix refused to open the front door and threatened to shoot the officers, police said.
Within 10 minutes of their arrival, as they tried to get him to comply with their orders, Felix opened fire through the closed front door, according to police.
The Riverside Sheriff’s department SWAT team arrived at the scene after 5 p.m. Saturday, Chief Deputy Ray Wood said. For several hours they attempted to contact the suspect who was barricaded inside.
When that failed, the SWAT team “deployed chemical agents into the residence,” Wood said.
“Almost immediately after introducing chemical agents inside the residence, the suspect emerged out the back door,” he said. “He was wearing soft border armor and he had a number of high capacity magazines.”
The suspect did not have a weapon on him when he was taken into custody, Wood said. He was treated at a local hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.
Palm Springs resident Arnold Morales described hearing a flurry of gunshots in rapid succession as he drove home from the gym.
“That’s not fireworks,” Morales told CNN affiliate KMIR. “(It was) bang-bang-bang. We must’ve heard at least 30 shots. It could be more.”
Felix was to be booked into the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside on two counts of murder of a peace officer, the statement said.
Riverside County District attorney Michael Hestrin said criminal charges would be filed Tuesday.
“We will be filing two counts of first-degree murder and at least two special circumstances — one being multiple murder and one being murder of a police officer in the line of duty,” Hestrin said at Sunday’s news conference.
He said he is considering whether to pursue the death penalty.
“I’m going to stick with the process. I will tell you that I consider a brutal murder of a police officer to be a very heinous crime, so I’ll leave it at that,” Hestrin said.
‘Awake in a nightmare’
“Today Palm Springs lost two brave officers that go out every day and put their boots on the ground for everybody in this community, ” Reyes said at an emotional news conference Saturday, fighting back tears.
“They gave it all for you.”
Vega, a father of eight, had served as a police officer for 35 years. He had filed paperwork to retire in December, but continued to pick up overtime shifts like the one he worked Saturday, the police chief said.
“Here he is, 35 years in, still pushing a patrol car for our community to make it better,” Reyes said. “On a day he wasn’t even designed to work.”
Zerebny, a “wonderful, young, dedicated” officer, joined the department last year, Reyes said.
After going away on maternity leave, she had just returned to duty. She leaves behind her husband, who is a deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, and a 4-month-old daughter.
“I am awake in a nightmare right now,” Reyes said. “My employees are broken.”
While officers mourn their fallen comrades, the community has been leaving flowers and messages and holding candlelight vigils at the police station.
James Allwhite said he left a card at the police memorial.
“Now the baby won’t have a mother (Zerebny), and he (Vega) was right at the verge of retirement. And so it’s very hard to see,” Allwhite said.
Erik Hoffmann said he is a huge fan of the Palms Springs Police Department and makes ornate flag memorial cases for fallen officers.
“I love these guys,” Hoffmann told CNN. “I’ve been crying and on the verge of tears, I’m just shocked… with all the stuff going on in the country right now and the bad rap the cops are getting, people need to take another look at what they do for us. They die for us.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown offered his condolences to the officers’ families and ordered the state capitol flags to be flown at half-staff.
“Officers Vega and Zerebny were killed today doing what they do every day — protecting their community,” he said in a statement Saturday night. “We grieve with the family members, friends and fellow officers coping with this senseless tragedy.”
“If I saw him at night I would be concerned”.
A neighbor who asked not to be identified or interviewed on camera talked to CNN’s Paul Vercammen Sunday about their experience with the suspect.
The neighbor said Felix used walk by his house on his way “to a rough neighborhood, a trailer park.”
“I actually caught him (eight years ago) jumping my wall as a short cut. I yelled at him. And he just started laughing about it. He didn’t care.”
“We would see him walking down the street,” the neighbor said. ” You could tell he was a hardened guy. Big baggy shirt. Big baggy pants. If I saw him at night I would be concerned.
“At one point we wondered, where did he go? And now they say he was in prison. Makes sense.”
Saturday’s shooting comes on the heels of a deadly summer for police officers in the United States. The officers become part of a grim statistic: two of 43 law enforcement officers shot to death so far this year in the US, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which keeps data on officers killed on the job.
On July 17, a gunman killed three officers and wounded another three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. About a week earlier, a gunman killed five officers and wounded seven in Dallas.
Palm Springs police officers led a procession for both officers from the Desert Regional Medical Center to the Riverside County Sheriff Coroner’s Office in Indio.
“Words cannot properly describe the heartbreak and the shock we are all feeling,” the Palm Springs Police Officers Association said in a statement.
Onlookers gathered at the Interstate 10 overpass as squad cars with flashing lights passed underneath them.
As police cars made their way down the interstate, motorists lit their lights in solidarity.