Murder, Attempted Murder Charges Filed in
Ambush Shootings of Palm Springs Officers
Palm Springs, CA – Murder and attempted murder charges were filed Wednesday morning against a man who was armed with an assault rifle when he allegedly opened fire on Palm Springs police officers as they responded to a domestic disturbance call.
Prosecutors announced the charges Wednesday against John Felix, 26. He was arrested following a standoff after the shooting deaths Saturday of longtime officer Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega, 63, and a rookie member of the force, 27-year-old Lesley Zerebny. Other felony charges also were filed, including three attempted murder charges stemming from allegations that the suspect tried to gun down other officers.
One of those three officers suffered a gunshot wound and was released from the hospital earlier this week.
Felix also faces charges of unlawfully possessing an assault weapon, being a felon in possession of an assault weapon, unlawfully possessing ammunition and possessing stolen property — the weapon used in the shooting.
Felix used an assault rifle with armor-piercing rounds to kill the two officers who were responding to a domestic disturbance call at the California home of the suspect’s family, authorities said Tuesday. The officers were wearing ballistic vests as required when they are in uniform and on duty.
“This individual wanted to kill police officers,” said Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin. “He armed himself with a weapon to kill police officers. He put on a vest, so that he would be protected so that he could kill police officers. That’s the motive, he wanted to gun down police officers because they wore the uniform.
Felix was prohibited from legally possessing firearms because of a prior felony conviction, the Sheriff’s Department said in a statement. Felix served 18 months of a four-year sentence for assault with a gun in connection with a 2009 gang shooting. He was paroled in 2011, according to state records.
“There’s an element in our society that’s bent on killing police officers because they represent law and order,” Hestrin said. “I think it’s time that everybody in law enforcement and the public spoke up against that. It’s time we acknowledge that our police officers are the only thing, only people keeping us safe on the streets. The kind of sacrifice and commitment they give day in and day out, we ought to be thanking those people patrolling our streets to keep us safe.”
Police officers arriving at the Palm Springs home on Saturday were told by a relative that Felix had a weapon, later determined to be the assault rifle. Officers spoke with Felix through a metal screen door before he opened fire without warning, the statement said.
Authorities declined to release a 911 recording alerting police about a problem or say who made the call.
The standoff lasted about 12 hours before Feliz was taken into custody outside the home.
The charges could land Felix on death row, but the district attorney said no decision has been reached on what penalty prosecutors plan to seek.
“We go about gathering evidence that’s used in that determination, and that includes everything. We want to know everything there is to know about this individual — his background, where he grew up, everything,” said Hestrin. “And so, it’s an exhaustive investigation. So we’re not ready to make that decision, however, I will be making that decision within three weeks.”
In an interview with NBC4 earlier this week, Zerebny’s parents said they would like to seek prosecutors pursue the death penalty.
Arraignment is scheduled for Thursday.
Vega was a 35-year veteran of the force who was preparing to retire soon. Zerebny had been with the department about 18 months and her husband is a sheriff’s deputy. The couple has a 4-month old daughter.
Zerebny’s father also was a law enforcement veteran who served for 30 years with the California Highway Patrol. He pinned his daughter’s badge on her uniform at a ceremony when she joined the Palm Springs Police Department.
A public memorial is scheduled for Oct. 18 in the desert resort town of 45,000 people about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.
Palm Springs had not lost an officer in the line of duty since 1962, when Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee died during a vehicle pursuit. Officer Gale Gene Eldridge was fatally shot Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.