Alleged Palm Springs shooter had body armor, high-capacity magazines
SWAT made several attempts over the course of a 12-hour standoff to make contact with suspect John Felix, who was holed up in his family’s residence
By Ruben Vives, Brittny Mejia and Richard Winton and Matt Stevens
Los Angeles Times
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The suspect in the killing of two Palm Springs police officers and wounded another was wearing body armor and equipped with high capacity magazines when he was taken into custody, authorities said.
SWAT officers made several attempts over the course of a 12-hour standoff to make contact with suspect John Felix, 26, who was holed up in his family’s residence, authorities said at a Sunday morning news conference. But there was no response.
Remote-controlled robots were used unsuccessfully to pinpoint the suspect’s location in the house. Eventually, chemical agents were deployed into the residence, authorities said.
“Almost immediately ... the suspect emerged out the back door,” said Riverside County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Ray Wood. "When he emerged, he was wearing soft body armor and he had a number of high-capacity magazines on his person."
Felix was not armed and surrendered peacefully when he was taken into custody about 1 a.m., authorities said. He was rushed to a hospital for treatment of injuries that were not life-threatening.
He was expected to be booked into the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside on two counts of murder of a peace officer.
The officers killed were identified as Officer Jose “Gil" Vega, a 35-year veteran of the department who was due to retire in December, and Officer Lesley Zerebny, who had been with the department 1 ½ years and was the mother of a 4-month-old girl.
During Sunday’s news conference, an emotional Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes spoke about the loss of his officers and the impact on the community.
He spoke of how Vega, who was working overtime, on Saturday, was scheduled to retire in December, and about watching Zerebny’s husband, a Riverside sheriff's deputy, mourn his wife's loss.
“To see her laying there with her eyes open, and to witness her husband, in full Riverside Sheriff's uniform, kiss her on the forehead for the last time, it's tough," Reyes said, his voice quivering. “We're going to rely on you to help get us through this. Our community will get us through this.”
Reyes said the third officer who was wounded in Saturday night’s attack was doing well and assisting investigators. He said the officer could be released from the hospital sometime Sunday.
A candlelight vigil is schedule for 5 p.m. Sunday at the Palm Springs Police Department.
The suspect has a history of violence, records show.
Felix was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon after an initial charge of attempted murder in 2009. Prosecutors at the time accused him of being a member of a criminal gang. He was sentenced to two years in prison. In 2013, he was accused of resisting arrest with Palm Springs police on the same street where Saturday’s shooting occurred. He pleaded guilty to a count of malicious noise.
The officers went to the scene in the 2700 block of Cypress Road shortly after noon, police said. They tried to make contact with the suspect, who threatened to shoot the officers through the front door.
“They were responding to a simple family disturbance and [the gunman] elected to open fire,” an emotional Reyes told reporters during an afternoon news conference.
Outside the Palm Springs Police Department early Sunday, residents continued to add to the growing tribute of flowers, American flags and candles left for the fallen officers. Among them were Carrie Donovan and her husband, Mike, a retired police officer who had worked with Vega.
"Gil was an outstanding police officer,” Mike Donovan said, as his wife wiped away tears. “Highest level of integrity, cared deeply for all the citizens of the city of Palm Springs and beyond and just gave his heart to the job and to the community. I can't think of a better cop. It was an honor to work with him."
He described Vega as the kind of police officer who "always thought of others before himself," especially in emergency situations.
The couple heard about the deaths through social media and were in disbelief, especially after finding out who was involved. Mike Donovan noted that Vega was the father of eight children.
He said it has been years since the police department lost one of its officers to a shooting. Officer Gale Gene Eldridge was killed in the line of duty on January 1961, and Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee was killed in January 1962.
"It's just one of those things you think about being a guardian of the public. You don't let it occupy your mind as you're working, but you try and prepare yourself for it and your loved ones and when it does happen, we all come together."
Nearby, police chaplains waited outside the department, preparing to speak with officers about their fallen colleagues. Steve Ballinger, lead chaplain for Riverside police, said he was among those who were asked to help.
"Our hearts are broken," he said. "This is happening way too much. I've been doing this for years. And it never gets easier. I look at it as an honor and a privilege to be able to come alongside these men and women in times like this to just do whatever I can to ease their pain."
"There's no words that I'm going to be able to share with them that's going to take away their pain and their hurt,” Ballinger said. “But it's that presence just to let them know they're not in it alone."
He gestured at the flowers and balloons that local residents had contributed to the makeshift memorial.
"The community dropping by the station here and dropping off flowers and candles ... it means the world to them," Ballinger said of the department’s officers.
Nearby, two men held up signs to passing motorists that read "Law Enforcement Lives Matter."
"We drove down to be here today for two reasons: one, to bring hope and encouragement through the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who are hurting and to show our respect for officer's Gil and Lesley who made the ultimate sacrifice yesterday," said Tony Miano, 52, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.
"This hit very close to home for me," Miano said. "To have this happen so close to that, hurts. They gave their lives in the line of duty trying to resolve someone else's problem and trying to protect the community."
Gov. Jerry Brown also issued a statement, saying that the officers were killed “doing what they do every day — protecting their community."
"We grieve with the family members, friends and fellow officers coping with this senseless tragedy," Brown said. "Anne and I join all Californians in offering our heartfelt condolences.”
The Palm Springs Police Department has turned the investigation of the shooting over to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.
Late Saturday, police used a remote-controlled robot to open the door to the suspect’s house. But it wasn’t until hours later that Felix was arrested.
Frances Serrano, who lives on Cypress Road, across the street from where the shooting took place, was coming out of her garage around noon Saturday when her neighbor came bursting out of his own garage.
The man sought Serrano’s attention.
“He said, “Help. I need help. My son is in the house, and he’s crazy. He has a gun. He’s ready to shoot all the police,’ ” Serrano recalled the father saying.
The father “was very nervous,” Serrano said. “He was afraid of his son.”
Serrano, 65, said she called authorities, and as soon as she began walking back into her house, she heard gunshots, “starting with a loud — I mean really loud — ‘bang!’ ”
Law enforcement and the suspect appeared to be exchanging gunfire, she said.
“There were police everywhere,” Serrano said. “I looked out the window and saw police with rifles.” Serrano said she remembered her neighbor’s son, who she believed was in his mid-30s, as “a very nice young man — very polite.”
Juan Graciano, 67, who lives a block away from the suspect’s residence, said he saw officers trying to revive Zerebny. He said he was out in the yard about 1 p.m. when he noticed a crowd gathering at the corner of Cypress and Delgado roads.
“I saw a woman officer who had been laid down in the trunk of a police cruiser,” he said. “There were about four officers around her. I watched as they picked her up and laid her down on the street and began administering CPR. A few minutes later paramedics arrived and took her away.”
By 5:50 p.m. with police on every street corner continuing their search, Serrano said she was “really scared,” and had locked her windows and doors.
“Some are saying [the suspect] is still in the father’s house. Others say he’s on the run,” she said. “I knew there were problems before between the father and this young man. But I never imagined he would do something like this. I don’t want to believe it.
“I feel so sad for the officers,” she added. “It’s like a nightmare.”
Georgie Eden said she was outside doing yard work with her son and her husband when “all of a sudden I hear this pow, pow, pow pow.”
“At first I’m thinking, perhaps it was party poppers in the neighbor’s garden or something, and my husband’s like, ‘Uh, that’s gunfire — get in the house.’ ”
Eden then heard several more rounds of gunfire that seemed to continue for 10 to 20 minutes, she said.
“So we stayed indoors,” she said, “and it was kind of, pretty scary.”
Nothing like this has happened during the three years Eden has lived in Palm Springs, she said.
“It’s horrible to even think that officers are out there and very much at risk because of guns and people that have a lot of mental health issues,” she said. “Just being a human being, it [hits] close to home.”
Lee Weigel, the city's former police chief and a onetime city councilman, learned of the shooting while out of town Saturday at his son’s baseball game.
Weigel’s friend, who coaches another baseball team, walked up solemnly. At first, Weigel said, he heard that one officer had been shot. Before long, he learned it was three.
“It makes you weak in the knees,” he said.
The police department is relatively small and everyone knows one another, said Weigel, who worked in the department for 32 years.
City officials said the department is made up of 98 sworn officers. The last time an officer was killed in the line of duty was about five decades ago.
“It’s a family,” Weigel said. “This is the worst incident in the history of Palm Springs in terms of officer shootings.... This is shocking, a blow to the entire department and community.”