The stepdaughter of a Palm Springs police veteran killed by a man who fired an AR-15 rifle from inside his family’s home testified Tuesday that the lawman brought joy into her mother’s life, and she was devastated when her husband died.
Andrea Murray, stepdaughter of Officer Jose Gilbert “Gil” Vega, recalled her mother’s reaction the day Vega was killed along with rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny outside the home of John Felix Hernandez, who was convicted May 20 of the shooting deaths.
“She says, `Mija, what am I gonna do now? What am I gonna do without my husband?”’ Murray said of her mother.
Murray said her mother’s “whole demeanor” changed when she began seeing Vega in the early 2000s.
“Her smile was even different a little,” Murray said. “Happiness just started trickling into her life.”
Murray testified in the penalty phase of Felix’s trial, during which jurors will recommend either the death sentence or life in prison without parole for the 28-year-old defendant.
Vega, 63, was killed just months before he was set to retire after three decades of service.
Vega was the second-to-youngest of 10 siblings. All six boys in the family had the first name Jose, the officer’s brother, Jose Hector Vega, testified.
Jose Hector Vega said his brother had always been shy as a child, but becoming a police officer helped him “tremendously” to become more outgoing. He also said he had been trying to convince his police officer brother to retire for years, worrying the job was too dangerous.
“I feel guilty … because I couldn’t convince him,” Jose Hector Vega told jurors. “He loved his job. He would always tell me that. He loved his job.”
Jose Gilbert Vega’s son, Gilbert, said he learned a lot from his father.
“He was fair to me in everything he did,” Gilbert Vega said.
Felix was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, along with six counts of attempted murder for opening fire at police on Oct. 8, 2016, as they amassed outside his family’s home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue. Officers initially responded to the home in response to a domestic disturbance call. Felix was also convicted of unlawful possession of an assault weapon, unlawful weapon possession by a prohibited person and unlawful possession of ammunition. Jurors found true special circumstance allegations of murder of a peace officer and multiple murders, opening Felix to the possible death sentence.
Zerebny, 27, 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.
Felix’s defense attorney Jacob Devane argued last week that jurors should spare his client from the death penalty, saying the Palm Springs man has intellectual disabilities.
Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise countered that the killings of two police officers warranted the death penalty.
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