In the trial of an ex-con accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers, the man’s 81-year-old father testified Thursday that reports of him telling a neighbor his son was waiting to kill officers minutes before the deadly attack were lies.
Partially deaf in both ears, Santos Felix needed headphones and a Spanish interpreter to hear questions from attorneys during his testimony in the trial of his son John Hernandez Felix.
The 28-year-old 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.
Following testimony Thursday morning from his wife, Margarita Felix, Santos Felix’s afternoon testimony on behalf of his son’s defense was rocky.
He had frequent outbursts during playback recordings from a 2016 interview he had with investigators.
In particular, Santos Felix struggled to get through a section where investigators questioned him regarding claims he told his neighbor about his son waiting to kill police officers minutes before the attack happened.
“Malo,” “This is all wrong” and “That’s a lie” were some of the comments Santos Felix while listening to the recorded segment.
Judge Anthony Villalobos admonished the witness several times, finally saying, “You cannot comment while the audio is playing,” to which Santos Felix eventually obliged.
Earlier in the audio transcript, translated from Spanish, Santos claimed his son was waiting for police to arrive, not kill them.
Santos Felix also said he was not aware of any weapons in his house, where his son lived since he was born, and that he did not believe his son was on drugs or drunk.
The transcript revealed that the father believed John Felix needed to go to a psychologist to be evaluated in the days and weeks prior to the shooting.
“I said he needed to be taken to a hospital to be seen,” the transcript of Santos Felix’s interview said. “You can’t recognize him, he’s unrecognizable.”
Santos argued during questioning that he never said he couldn’t recognize his son and that the recording’s transcription was a mistake.
In opening statements of the trial, defense attorney John Dolan pointed to drug abuse as a factor to the suspect’s “immature, angry, emotional, impulsive behavior” that led to the shooting.
Dolan said other factors were his client’s history of family neglect, low educational achievements and an intellectual disability.
The transcripts also include suggestions there was a history of police brutality against the Felix family at their home.
“They abused the whole family, even my grandson,” Santos said in the transcript of the 2016 recording. “And often they beat me up, a year went by and at court… all they would say postpone, postpone, postpone, postpone for a year.”
On Wednesday, the suspect’s sister also took the stand on behalf of the defense.
Maria Felix confirmed the family’s long history with law enforcement, which Dolan said included 37 calls from the Felix residence to police in the months leading up to the shooting.
Maria Felix suggested that 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.
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.
“You could tell he was in need of help,” she said.
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.
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: