Palm Springs was in mourning Monday following the weekend slaying of two police officers — a 63-year-old veteran planning to finally retire in December after more than three decades of service and a 27- year-old rookie who had recently returned from maternity leave and who leaves a 4-month baby.
It was the first time a police officer was killed since 1962 in the desert resort that is a major vacation destination for residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The Palm Springs police chief called the two officers heroes, and said they are now “looking down” on the people of the desert city. An ex-con suspect was captured and, according to the Riverside County district attorney, may face the death penalty.
A third officer was wounded in Saturday’s shooting but released from the hospital Sunday and reported to be doing well.
The ex-con suspect was arrested Sunday and is scheduled for a court hearing later this week in Riverside. Manwhile, a large gathering turned out Sunday night at police headquarters for a vigil for the fallen officers.
The alleged shooter, suspected gang member John Hernandez Felix, 26, was flushed out of his house in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue at 1 a.m. Sunday by a Riverside County sheriff’s SWAT team after a 12-hour standoff. He was wearing soft body armor and carrying multiple magazines of bullets, but police did not immediately report what type of weapons he had.
Felix was scheduled to appear in court this coming Thursday in Riverside, where he’s in custody without bail.
The drama began around 1 p.m. Saturday as Palm Springs police responded to a call from a woman reporting that her adult son was causing a disturbance, according to police. Three officers were shot through a closed front door as they tried to get Felix to come outside, the sheriff’s department reported.
Veteran training Sgt. Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, had been with the department for 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career in December. Also killed was a rookie officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, who had been with the department for a year-and-a-half. She had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter four months ago. Her husband was a member of the sheriff’s department.
“I have two officers that are now looking down at us from above, and our police department today is walking in the footsteps of two additional heroes,” Police Chief Bryan Reyes, speaking through tears, said Sunday.
“She was a very excited officer, to learn her new profession, just gave birth to her baby daughter four months ago,” he said of Zerebny. “She elected to come back to the department early to help out.
“To see her laying down, with her eyes open, and to witness her husband in full Riverside County sheriff’s office uniform, kiss her on the forehead for the last time …
“It’s tough. We are going to rely on all of you to help us through this,” the police chief said, echoing the tenor of a statement Mayor Rob Moon tweeted on Saturday: “It’s probably the worst day of my life.”
Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil at the Palm Springs Police Department Sunday night to mourn the deaths of the officers.
“We are grateful to have so much support from so many people in our community and beyond,” the department wrote on Facebook after the vigil. “Words cannot describe our pain at this time.”
Felix, the accused shooter, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in prison for a 2009 incident that originally drew an attempted murder charge. Prosecutors also charged him with being a member of a criminal gang.
After being released from that sentence, he was later accused of resisting arrest by Palm Springs police on the same street where he allegedly shot three officers Saturday.
The suspect was arrested at 1 a.m. Sunday and treated at a hospital for incidental injuries before being booked into the county jail at Riverside.
The chief investigator for the Riverside County District Attorney’s office said there was sufficient evidence for a death penalty-eligible charge to be filed. But he said no decision on the death penalty would be possible until the investigation was further along.
Adding to the stress experienced by Riverside County’s law enforcement community, an Indio police sergeant was critically injured about 3:30 p.m. Sunday. The accident occurred as the sergeant was driving a 2007 Honda motorcycle on southbound Jackson Street approaching Odlum Drive when a 2013 Nissan SUV turned directly into his path, said Stephanie Hamilton of the California Highway Patrol.
The sergeant was thrown off his motorcycle and landed in the intersection, she said. He was taken by ambulance to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs with major injuries and listed in critical condition, the CHP reported.
The SUV driver, 53-year-old Margaret Kendric of Orange, was not injured, Hamilton said. Kendric was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs and booked into the Riverside County jail in Indio. She was being held in lieu of $50,000 bail and due to appear in court Thursday.