After nearly a month of testimony, both the defense and prosecution rested Thursday in the trial of an ex-con accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call at his family’s home.
Family members and surviving police officers all testified in the trial of 28-year-old 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.
Jury instructions are scheduled for Wednesday, with closing statements expected to begin next Thursday.
Last week, the suspect’s father, mother and sister took the stand.
“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. “He wasn’t my brother no more. He was like gone.”
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.
Earlier in the trial, Felix’s mother also testified.
Margarita Felix, who called the police to her home, said she and her husband had known Officer Gilbert Vega since the family moved into their home on Cypress Avenue 27 years ago. She also said that her husband called the officer frequently to help cope with their son’s behavioral issues.
While she did not specify the exact nature of their relationship, she said her son “respected” Vega.
Maria Felix also 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.”
The prosecution also called several officers who survived the onslaught of more than 20 rounds fired by Felix.
Mario Serrano was one of those officers.
“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 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.
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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