The sister of an ex-con accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers testified Wednesday that rage overtook her sibling on the day of the shooting, so much so that he “wasn’t my brother no more.”
“When he got close to me, he really got in my face and in his eyes was great anger,” Maria Felix said of her brother, John Hernandez Felix, who is accused of firing an AR-15 rifle at veteran Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, from inside the Felix family home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue on Oct. 8, 2016, killing both.
“He wasn’t my brother no more. He was like gone,” Maria Felix said.
Two weeks ago, Maria Felix was called to the witness stand by the prosecution in her brother’s murder trial. On Wednesday, she testified for the defense.
Defense attorney John Dolan noted that police had been called to the Felix residence 37 times prior to the day of the shooting. Maria Felix said the majority, if not all, of those calls were sparked by her brother’s erratic behavior, not by acts of physical violence — limiting what police could do when they responded.
“When they would see no bruises or marks, they said they couldn’t do anything,” she testified.
In opening statements of the trial, Dolan contended that his 28-year-old client’s history of family neglect, low educational achievements, drug abuse and an intellectual disability prove he did not have any pre-meditated intent to kill anyone. He told jurors the shooting was the result of “immature, angry, emotional, impulsive behavior.”
Maria Felix testified she had never seen her brother acting with the level of rage he displayed the day of the shooting. She said that “in a few months time, (John’s) behavior had changed to such a degree, we barely had spoken.”
She also said, “You could tell he was in need of help.”
Prosecutors contend there was clear evidence of premeditation and intent in the officers’ death. Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante has 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.”
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.
Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers 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.