Capital murder charges that could bring the death penalty are expected to be filed Tuesday against the man accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers over the weekend.
Meanwhile, as law enforcement and the entire desert community continued mourning, officials said they are accepting donations of funds for the families of the two slain officers, as well as formula for the baby daughter of one of them. She was a rookie cop who had recently returned to service after she gave birth.
As of Monday night, one of the funds had reached $70,000 of its $100,000 goal, officials said.
In the city of Riverside, John Hernandez Felix, 26, remained jailed without bail at the Robert Presley Detention Center for allegedly shooting and killing veteran training Sgt. Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, as well as wounding a third officer, who was released from the hospital Sunday.
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said Sunday there is sufficient evidence for at least two special-circumstance allegations — murder of a police officer and committing multiple murders — to be filed along with first-degree murder charges against Felix, making him eligible for the death penalty. Felix is expected to make his initial court appearance Thursday.
Hestrin said his office would make a decision on whether to seek the death penalty “very quickly,” within the next two or three weeks.
Felix 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 may have had in the home.
Palm Springs police went to the home around 1 p.m. Saturday in response to a woman’s call reporting that her adult son was causing a disturbance, police said. Three officers were shot through a closed front door as they tried to get Felix to come outside, sheriff’s department officials said.
Vega had been with the department for 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career in December. Zerebny had been with the department for a year-and-a-half and she had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter four months ago. Her husband is 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, as well as a second candlelight vigil organized by community members at Palm Springs’ Frances Stevens Park Monday night. Zerebny, a Hemet native, was also honored at a separate Sunday night memorial in Hemet organized by family and friends.
Saturday marked the first time a Palm Springs police officer was killed in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 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.
“We are grateful to have so much support from so many people in our community and beyond,” the department’s Facebook page proclaimed after the vigil. “Words cannot describe our pain at this time.”
Donations to Vega and Zerebny’s families can be made at https://give.cornerstone.cc/palmspringspoa . The donation fund was established by the Palm Springs Police Officers Association and donations will be split equally between the two families.
Checks can also be made out to the Palm Springs Police Officers Memorial Foundation.
The Palm Springs POA also announced that it will also be accepting donations of formula for Zerebny’s daughter. She is on Enfamil Reguline baby formula, according to the POA. Donations of formula or any other baby-related items can be made at PSPD headquarters at 200 S. Civic Drive or at the Palm Springs POA at 180 N. Luring Drive.
A separate GoFundMe page — at https://www.gofundme.com/2tejkxwk — has also been set up to aid Zerebny’s family with expenses. The fund, established by her husband’s sheriff’s academy classmates, had reached more than $70,000 of its $100,000 goal by Monday evening.
Felix was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in prison for a 2009 crime 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 accused of resisting arrest by Palm Springs police on the same street where he allegedly shot three officers Saturday. Court records also show that he was on probation at the time of the shooting for a misdemeanor DUI conviction.
Following his arrest Sunday, he was treated at a hospital for incidental injuries before being booked into the county jail at Riverside.
— Staff and wire reports