Officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny. Courtesy Palm Springs Police Department
Officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny. Courtesy Palm Springs Police Department

The mental competency of a 26-year-old ex-con charged with murdering two Palm Springs police officers will be the focus of a hearing later this week.

John Hernandez Felix is accused of opening fire on five Palm Springs police officers who responded to a family disturbance call last Oct. 8 at his home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue.

Veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, were fatally wounded and a third officer was also shot but survived.

A preliminary hearing had been scheduled for Friday to determine whether there’s enough evidence for Felix to proceed to trial on a litany of charges, including two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder.

But Felix’s attorneys recently declared doubt as to his competence to assist in his defense, which is now the subject of Friday morning’s hearing at the Larson Justice Center.

Felix, who’s being held without bail, is accused of shooting Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his home and later firing on two of their colleagues, who were not struck by gunfire.

The shooting triggered a 12-hour standoff and his eventual surrender. Prosecutors allege Felix was wearing body armor and fired armor piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The two first-degree murder counts include special circumstance allegations of murder of a law enforcement officer, lying in wait and taking multiple lives in the same crime, making Felix eligible for capital punishment if found guilty.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin has alleged that Felix specifically targeted police.

“This individual knew what he was doing. His actions were deliberate. He attacked these officers for no other reason than they were there, answering a call for service,” Hestrin said when the charges were announced last fall.

The deaths of Vega and Zerebny marked the first time Palm Springs police officers were killed in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 1962, when Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee died during a vehicle pursuit. The only other death in the department was that of Officer Gale Gene Eldridge, who was fatally shot on Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.

Vega had been with the department for 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career last December. Zerebny had been with the department for a year-and-a-half and had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter four months prior to her death.

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. He was also convicted of street gang activity.

After his release from state prison, he was accused of resisting arrest by Palm Springs police on the same street where he allegedly shot the three officers.

Court records show that he was on probation at the time of the shooting for a misdemeanor driving-under-the-influence conviction.

— City News Service 

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