The serial number on a semi-automatic rifle allegedly used by an ex-con to kill two Palm Springs police officers was “obliterated,” indicating that the weapon was probably stolen, an investigator testified Thursday.
Steven Paixao from the Riverside County Central Homicide Unit took the stand in the trial of John Hernandez Felix, who is accused of firing an AR-15 rifle at veteran officer Gilbert Vega, 63, along with rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, from inside the Felix family home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue on Oct. 8, 2016.
With the courtrooms lights turned off, Paixao showed jurors Felix’s AR-15 during his testimony, KESQ reported, demonstrating that the gun’s laser pointer and flashlight were still in working order.
Paixao also noted that Vega’s rifle remained in the officer’s patrol car during the shooting and that Zerebny’s handgun was “heavily stained with blood.”
Felix is facing a possible death sentence if convicted. He is charged with two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, with special circumstance allegations of killing police officers and committing multiple murders.
Prosecution testimony is expected to continue on Monday.
Mario Serrano — one of several officers who survived the onslaught of more than 20 rounds fired at officers — testified on Tuesday.
“When Sgt. (Shawn) Flinn yelled `cover fire,’ I got up and was looking for a position to return cover fire,” Serrano said. “That’s when I saw Sgt. Flinn trying to pull Officer Vega.”
When they got to the patrol car, Serrano got inside and pulled Vega on top of him.
“He was on top of me, so his back was on my chest,” Serrano said. “I was letting him know that we were here and we were getting him help … It felt like hours. It felt like forever.”
Another officer drove the car away from the scene, and Vega stopped responding when firefighters pulled him from the vehicle, Serrano said. The officer was later pronounced dead at Desert Regional Hospital.
Officer Dave Etchason, who drove Vega and Serrano away from Felix’s home, testified Monday that he returned to the scene to retrieve Zerebny.
“I pulled my car up into the driveway in the front lawn,” Etchason said. “As I’m getting out, that’s when there was a rupture of gunfire that occurred.”
Etchason said he got out of the car and “yelled out her name,” but the officer was unresponsive with her face up to the sky.
“Her eyes were open. Her skin was pale,” Etchason said. “And, I knew, she was dead. But, I didn’t want to leave her there.”
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, who was fatally shot on 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 retire in 2018. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Zerebny had been with the department for 18 months and had just returned to duty following maternity leave, having given birth to a daughter, Cora, four months before her death.
Felix has a prior conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, for which he served time in state prison.
Defense attorney John Dolan said during opening statements of the trial that Felix had no intent to kill anyone, with his history of family neglect, low educational achievements, drug abuse and an intellectual disability showing he did not act out of premeditation.
But Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante said there is clear evidence of premeditation and intent. He pointed to the initial 911 call made by Felix’s mother, saying the call includes audio of the defendant helping his mother give the dispatcher the family’s address, “so she could tell 911 where the officers should go to.”
Bustamante said Felix fired 21 shots through the front door and drywall of the home. Ten of those shots hit either officers or their vehicles, Bustamante said.
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