Suspect in custody in killing of 2 Palm Springs cops
Palm Springs, Calif. — In the minutes before three Palm Springs officers were shot, two fatally, the suspected gunman’s father told a neighbor his son was armed, “acting crazy” and wanted to shoot police.
John Felix, 26, was apprehended early Sunday after a lengthy standoff and will be charged this week with murder.
Police said Felix emerged wearing soft body armor and carrying ammunition but no weapon after police shot a chemical agent into the home where he had holed up.
A neighbor, Frances Serrano, told The Associated Press that the suspect’s panicked father, Santos Felix, earlier said his son, an admitted gang member, had a gun.
“My son is inside and we’re scared, he’s acting crazy,” Serrano said the older Felix told her. When it was suggested they call the police he said, “Yeah, he already knows they are coming, and he is going to shoot them.”
Serrano said she went back inside her house and within minutes police cars arrived and gunfire erupted.
Police said John Felix suddenly pulled out a gun and opened fire on the officers who had responded to a family disturbance call Saturday afternoon at the home he shared with his parents in a quiet neighborhood of single-story ranch homes this desert resort city.
Palm Springs police Chief Bryan Reyes identified the slain officers as Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny.
Zerebny, 27, had been with the department for about 18 months and had recently returned early from maternity leave after giving birth to a daughter. Vega, a married father of eight, was a 35-year veteran who planned to retire in December. He had been working overtime Saturday on his scheduled day off.
The wounded officer’s name was not released but Reyes said he was alert, speaking with investigators and was expected to be released from a hospital later Sunday.
Police arrested John Felix after shooting him with non-lethal rounds when he finally exited through the back door, unarmed but wearing body armor and carrying ammo. SWAT officers using bullhorns had tried through the night to establish contact with him, but got no response. He was taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries that did not appear to be life-threatening.
District Attorney Michael Hestrin said John Felix would be charged Tuesday with first degree murder and several other felony counts. Prosecutors would decide within two weeks whether he could face the death penalty, he said. It wasn’t known Sunday if he has an attorney.
Reyes indicated police have had previous dealings with the suspect, but he declined to elaborate.
Court records show John Felix is a gang member who was previously sentenced to four years in prison in a failed murder plot in 2009. Documents cited by the Desert Sun newspaper (http://desert.sn/2dCyJV8) reveal he was charged with attempted murder but pleaded down to assault with a firearm and admitted his gang connection.
Documents also show John Felix was the subject of a forceful arrest three years ago at the same house where Saturday’s shootings occurred.
It had been 54 years since an on-duty uniformed police officer was killed in Palm Springs, a city of 45,000 residents about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, known for its desert views, boutique hotels and golf courses.
In front of police headquarters, scores of local residents gathered to leave flowers, balloons and cards.
Vega had submitted his paperwork to retire at the end of the year after a long and decorated career, Reyes said.
“Here he is, 35 years in, still pushing a patrol car for our community to make it better — on a day he wasn’t even scheduled to work,” the chief said.
Reyes said Zerebny “pressed forward every day to make it better for everybody else.” She and her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, were new parents to a four-month-old baby.
“To see her laying down with her eyes open and to witness her husband in full Riverside County sheriff’s uniform … kiss her on the forehead for the last time… it’s tough,” Reyes said.
Palm Springs resident Heidi Thompson called the killings “vicious and cruel.”
“These officers are responding to a domestic call for somebody in need that they don’t even know. They put their life on the line for us, the community,” Thompson said. “I don’t understand it.”
The shooting occurred just three days after a popular Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant was shot and killed in the high desert town of Lancaster. Sgt. Steve Owen was answering a burglary when he was shot. A paroled robber has been charged with murder.
Hundreds of residents held a candlelight vigil Saturday night in his honor.