In a lavish ceremony peppered with tears, laughter, music and memories, two slain Palm Springs police officers were honored by thousands as dedicated public servants — one near the end of his career and the other just beginning hers — and as loving parents and friends.
But amid the emotion of the memorial service for Officers Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27, came a call for end to violence against law enforcement officers across the nation.
“Enough is enough,” Palm Springs police Chief Bryan Reyes told the crowd gathered Tuesday at the Palm Springs Convention Center, including police from around the country.
“Our law enforcement brothers and sisters throughout the country are growing tired of this unacceptable behavior,” he said, drawing loud applause from the audience.
“The threat to law enforcement throughout our country is very real,” Reyes said, fighting back tears. “No community is exempt from such a tragedy.”
Just five days prior to the service in Palm Springs, which was streamed online for people unable to attend, many of the law enforcement representatives in the audience had attended the funeral of Los Angeles County sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen, who was fatally shot while responding to a burglary call on Oct. 5 in Lancaster.
On Oct. 8, Vega and Zerebny were gunned down after responding to a family disturbance call. The alleged shooter, John Hernandez Felix, has been arrested and charged with capital murder — but his name was not uttered during the memorial service.
“… I refuse to identify him by name and he does not meet the definition of a man in my book,” Reyes said.
For nearly three hours, friends and relatives of the two fallen officers shared stories and testaments to their work as police officers, and to their devotion to family.
Tears flowed in the audience when one of Vega’s eight children — 8-year- old Vanessa Vega — walked on stage and talked about her love for her father.
“Everything I learned was from him, like baseball, karate and running. And when I learned how to get faster he used to go on races with me, and he was always very slow,” she said with a smile and a slight laugh.
“… He will always stay with us. He will be watching us. He won’t ever leave us. Even though we can’t see him, doesn’t mean he can’t see us.”
Vega was praised for his love and dedication to his fellow officers and the job, foregoing retirement for five years after he was eligible.
Jose Vega told the mourners that his brother, who as a training officer had worked with many rookie colleagues, “loved being a cop.”
“Although I lost a brother, I feel some consolation knowing he died doing what he loved to do,” Vega said, noting that his sibling volunteered to work on the day he died, his day off.
Andrew Vega said his uncle tried to make the world a better place while fighting to overcome the obstacles of racism, proud of his heritage and of his duty as a police officer.
“He dedicated his life to service, knowing that a minute’s decision could determine whether or not he and those by his side would go home to their families that night,” the officer’s nephew said “What we ask (of) him and other officers is a burden unlike any other. And he took on that challenge.”
Family and friends of Zerebny said she was as passionate about her vocation as she was about her family, including her husband, Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Zach Zerebny, and her 4-month-old daughter, Cora.
“It’s a day we are remembering Lesley as a public servant and it’s right that we do so,” said Pastor Joe Anady, cousin of Zach Zerebny. “But I know that if she had to choose, she would much rather be remembered as Lesley the daughter, Lesley the friend, Lesley the wife, and Lesley the mother.”
PSPD Detective Chris Jaeger said Zerebny’s “future as an officer was limitless,” saying she was “smart, tough and could not be intimidated.”
Jaeger said he and other officers looked at her as “our little sister.”
“We felt a need to guide and protect her,” Jaeger said. “As we would quickly learn, Lesley did not need protecting.”
Despite that tough exterior, she had a softer side, particularly when it came to her newborn daughter, Anady said.
“She loved Cora so much you could see it in her eyes,” he said. “She was so committed to being a good mother to her. She was so tender and nurturing, so engaged. It was so precious to watch Lesley hold Cora and to just see the joy on her face and to also hear her sing to her little baby. She loved to sing to Cora.”
Bystanders lined city streets and freeway overpasses as the officers’ caskets were driven to the convention center along separate procession routes — Vega from Forest Lawn Mortuary in Cathedral City and Zerebny from the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater in her hometown of Hemet.
Officers from outside agencies volunteered to handle the city’s police services so members of the Palm Springs Police Department could attend the double funeral. They were joined by law enforcement representatives from as far away as New York City.
Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Kamala Harris were among the dignitaries in attendance.
Vega was interred at the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery just after 5 p.m. A long procession of police vehicles led Vega to his final resting place, where he was buried amid a rifle salute and law enforcement helicopter formation.
Zerebny’s graveside service will be held at a private location and will only be open to family members.
Vega was with the department for 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career in December.
Zerebny was with the department for a year and a half and was married to a sheriff’s deputy. She gave birth to her daughter four months ago and had just returned to duty from maternity leave.
The officers’ alleged killer was arrested by Riverside County sheriff’s deputies following a 12-hour standoff at his home. The 26-year-old ex-con and gang member faces felony charges, including murder and attempted murder, and special circumstances allegations that make him eligible for the death penalty, though the District Attorney’s Office has yet to decide whether to seek capital punishment.
Palm Springs Mayor Robert Moon said the effect of losing two police officers loomed large in a city the size of Palm Springs.
“Our police officers are known to us,” Moon said. “They are not just our protectors. They are our friends.”
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