Ambushed Palm Springs officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny. Courtesy Palm Springs Police Department
Ambushed Palm Springs officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny. Courtesy Palm Springs Police Department

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.”

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.

Several law enforcement officers who were at the shooting scene testified, including former Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Paul Cordeiro, who medically retired after nearly 18 years with the department following the attack.

Cordeiro was in charge of removing Zerebny’s body from the scene, riding in the ambulance with her to a hospital. He said he watched as surgeons treated her by opening her chest and massaging her heart.

“It’s one of those memories that I’ll never forget,” Cordeiro said. “I still remember to this day that there was so much blood. … I could taste the iron in my mouth.”

The emergency room became even more “excruciating” when Vega’s body was rolled into the room, and the deputy was left with the two deceased officers for an hour.

Cordeiro said the experience left him hyper-vigilant to the point it was unsafe for him to work any longer. He pointed to an ordinary on-duty call several months after the shooting, to he responded by speeding through city streets at 120 mph.

“It seems to be, after two years, every time that testimony or anything has arisen regarding this, it’s about eight weeks before I can return to my normal emotions and feelings and put things back into perspective, instead of reverting back to that incident,” Cordeiro said.

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. 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.

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