palm springs murdered police
Murdered officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny. Courtesy Palm Springs Police Department

A 27-year-old ex-con charged with the ambush killings of two Palm Springs police officers at his home last year was ordered Friday to stand trial on charges that could land him on death row.

John Hernandez Felix, 27, is accused of fatally shooting veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, on Oct. 8, 2016, after the officers responded to a family disturbance call. Testimony earlier this year indicated the 911 call that preceded the gunfire was sparked by a fight between Felix and his sister over a remote control.

The preliminary hearing was originally scheduled seven months ago but was delayed when defense attorney John Dolan declared doubts regarding Felix’s competence to stand trial.

With criminal proceedings suspended, Felix underwent a two-day mental competency bench trial in September, featuring testimony from three psychologists, after Dolan alleged that “traumatic amnesia” prevented his client from remembering much of the day of the shooting. The defense team said Felix remembered the argument with his sister that triggered the 911 call and police response, then has no memory of the day until law enforcement launched tear gas into the home and shot him with non-lethal beanbag guns about 12 hours later.

Criminal proceedings were reinstated after Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos ruled that even if such amnesia was genuine, it would not prevent Felix from contributing to an adequate defense.

So Villalobos, following Friday’s two-hour preliminary hearing, ordered Felix to proceed to trial on two counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder — three of which were newly added and pertain to officers who were fired on in front of the defendant’s Cypress Avenue home — and special circumstance allegations of killing a peace officer and committing multiple murders.

The hearing featured testimony from sheriff’s investigators who interviewed Palm Springs officers involved in the firefight, as well as a sheriff’s SWAT member who took Felix into custody following a 12-hour standoff, in which he barricaded himself inside the house.

Testimony detailed the shootings of Vega, Zerebny and Officer Jeffrey Burton, who was hit in the hip and leg. Sheriff’s Investigator Alberto Loureiro testified that Burton stated Felix screamed “Don’t do it!” several times before firing on them through the metal screen door of his home with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The investigator testified that Officer Abraham Vargas heard Felix’s mother pleading with Vega in Spanish not to approach the front door. Following the shooting, Vargas took cover near the house, saw Vega bleeding and told him to stay put. Instead, Vega moved back into the line of fire to get a rifle from his patrol vehicle and was shot again, Loureiro testified.

The court also heard of officers’ efforts to remove Vega and Zerebny from the scene, which included driving patrol cars into the line of fire while loading the officers into vehicles, all while providing cover fire on the home.

Sgt. Shawn Flinn and Officer Mario Serrano, a trainee who graduated from the police academy just months prior to the shooting, were credited with helping load Vega into a patrol car that was spirited away to nearby paramedics. Serrano heard Vega softly saying “I can’t breathe” while lying in the backseat of the patrol car, and was with Vega at a hospital when he was pronounced dead, according to testimony.

Officer David Etchason took charge of driving vehicles into the line of fire to retrieve both Vega and Zerebny, as other officers exchanged gunfire with Felix, investigators testified.

Zerebny was already dead when officers reached her, though Loureiro testified that Serrano and Officer Byron Farley opted not to leave her behind and loaded her into the open trunk of a patrol car, manned again by Etchason.

Felix barricaded himself inside the home until past midnight, when he emerged from the back of the home in a ballistic vest, T-shirt, shorts, according to Deputy Geoffrey Likins of the SWAT unit.

Likins said Felix was initially cooperative, but kept backing up until he reached an armored SWAT vehicle parked in the backyard and made a move to enter the “Bearcat.” He was shot with non-lethal bean bag rounds and taken into custody, at which point Likins said he told arresting officers “You’re all next,” several times.

In addition to his vest, he was found in possession of a magazine for an AR-15 and a glass pipe. Additional magazines totaling about 50 rounds were found in the backyard. The rifle used in the killings was found inside a bedroom closet, loaded with another 30-round magazine, according to Investigator Steven Paixao. The rifle’s serial number was “obliterated,” Paixao said, indicating it was likely stolen.

 

Felix will return to court Jan. 19 for a post-preliminary hearing arraignment.

Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers to be 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, fatally shot Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.

Vega had been with the department 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career last December. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 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, Cora, four months earlier.

–City News Service

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