File photo.
File photo.

Riverside County lawmakers Monday were outraged and anguished over the deaths of two Palm Springs police officers gunned down responding to a family disturbance call, speculating as to the reasons behind the deadly encounter.

“When I’d heard that the officers had been shot, I was sick to my stomach,” Riverside County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Benoit told City News Service. “Having gone through the process of holding the hands of widows who lost their husbands in the line of duty, it made me physically ill to hear about this.”

Benoit, who spent more than 30 years with the California Highway Patrol, said he could well understand “how devastating these losses are to the morale” of the Palm Springs Police Department, where Sgt. Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, was less than three months from retirement and Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, was 18 months into her career and a new mother.

Their alleged killer, 26-year-old John Hernandez Felix, is being held without bail at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside.

“It’s horrific acts like the deaths of two police officers that make you wonder how the state of California could have Proposition 62 on the ballot, trying to repeal the death penalty,” Sen. Jeff Stone, R-La Quinta, told CNS. “Then we have Proposition 57, which would give parole boards more power to reduce sentences and let dangerous criminals onto our streets.”

“We’re in a crime epidemic,” the senator said. “Heinous criminals are not being held accountable because of the laws that have been passed.”

Benoit said he was “not surprised” at reports that Felix was illegally armed with a rifle and in possession of a large cache of ammunition, wearing protective gear — possibly laying for Vega, Zerebny and a third officer who came to his residence to investigate a domestic disturbance Saturday.

“We’ve seen this in so many instances across the country,” the supervisor said. “We try to learn from them. Was there anything that could’ve been done better? Was there something missed from a mental health perspective? Was this one of those cases where reducing time served in our criminal justice system precipitated a tragedy? Who knows.”

Stone said he felt that “media inflation” of officer-involved shootings was inflaming passions and “enraging people.”

“Hundreds of thousands of officers put their lives on the line for us every day,” he said. “We cannot tarnish their good work based on sporadic incidents. Some media seem to want to feed the hysteria. And it brings out the crazies who kill our law enforcement people. I stand tall with the men and women in blue. My office is ready to help the police department by any and all means possible.”

Since Saturday’s killings, other area lawmakers have expressed similar feelings. Assemblyman Chad Mayes, R-Palm Springs, said Sunday he was “saddened beyond belief” over the deaths of Vega and Zerebny.

“We are with you Palm Springs PD,” Mayes said, offering to “help in any way I can.”

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, said the fallen officers were “incredible examples of courage and service.”

“My thoughts and prayers are with their family, friends and the entire Palm Springs and law enforcement community,” according to a statement on the congressman’s Facebook page. “Let’s come together to support one another during this difficult time, show our appreciation, pray for those grieving, and do everything we can to recover and rebuild.”

 

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