The sister of Palm Springs police Officer Lesley Zerebny, who was gunned down along with another officer while responding to a domestic disturbance call, testified Wednesday that “part of me died” with her sibling.
“I wanted to see her grow old and I wanted to grow old with her,” Britta Kling told jurors during the penalty phase of trial for John Hernandez Felix, who is facing a possible death penalty for the officers’ killings. “Part of me died with her that day — the best part of me.”
Zerebny, 27, and Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, were killed Oct. 8, 2016, when Felix fired an AR-15 rifle from inside his family’s home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue, where they had gone in response to a domestic disturbance call.
“It hurts, you guys,” Kling testified. “Every day it hurts so bad without her. And, it’s not just me. It’s broken us. It’s broken families and it’s caused extreme depression.”
Kling said she has been going to counseling since the shooting death of her sister, who was 15 months and 28 days younger than Kling.
“It brings me a little bit of comfort because part of me (is) with her,” Kling said, but she said the rest of her is “broken, cold, impatient.”
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 earlier.
Her daughter watched from the courtroom gallery as her father, Zachary Zerebny — a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy — testified about his late wife.
“Lesley had that drive to be a cop for far longer (than I), with her father in law enforcement and a law career, she held it very high and it’s something that she always wanted to do,” he said.
Asked by Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise if he was ever scared about her going out in the field, Zerebny smiled and said, “I would take her as a backup in a tough situation over 99% of the males that I work with.”
Zerebny described his wife as a fiery woman who could handle business and loved the outdoors.
“She was my wife, but more importantly my best friend,” he said.
Jurors on Monday convicted the 28-year-old Felix of two counts of first-degree murder, six counts of attempted murder, unlawful possession of an assault weapon, unlawful weapon possession by a prohibited person and unlawful possession of ammunition. They also found true special-circumstance allegations of murder of a peace officer and multiple murders, opening Felix to the possible death sentence.
Jurors are being asked in the penalty phase of trial to recommend either a death sentence or life in prison without parole for Felix.
Felix’s defense attorney Jacob Devane argued Tuesday that jurors should spare his client from the death penalty, saying the Palm Springs man has intellectual disabilities.
“Guilt does not equal punishment,” Devane told jurors. “Mr. Felix is not the worst of the worst even in light of the crimes you have convicted him for.”
Devane said factors such as Felix’s auditory processing disorder — which he described as a mental defect — along with a below-average IQ and drug use during the 2016 attack should all be considered mitigating evidence.
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.
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