An admitted gang member with a violent criminal history is accused of gunning down two Palm Springs police officers, including a young mother and a veteran officer who was a father of eight.
John Hernandez Felix, 26, of Palm Springs, is accused in the slayings that also left another officer injured but expected to survive. There were reports that Felix allegedly might have specifically set out to kill police officers.
The mass shooting of law enforcement officers has brought together the Palm Springs community and led to heartbreaking scenes in which the officers’ flag-draped caskets were carried away by their colleagues.
Tributes and flowers festooned the outside of the police headquarters building.
The Desert Sun identified the slain officers as Lesley Zerebny and Jose Gilbert “Gil” Vega.
“I am awake in a nightmare right now,” said Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes, according to ABC 7.
Felix, 26, was captured at 1 a.m. Sunday morning after a massive manhunt, said The Los Angeles Times. The shooting occurred the afternoon of October 8.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Felix Has a Violent Criminal History & Was Accused of an Attempted ‘Gangland Assassination,’ Records Show
According to the Los Angeles Times, Felix has a criminal record.
He was charged in 2009 with attempted murder but convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in a case in which prosecutors accused him of “being a member of a criminal gang,” said the newspaper, adding that he was sentenced to prison (KTLA says for four years). Three years ago, he was accused of resisting arrest and pleaded guilty to malicious noise, said The Times.
The Desert Sun newspaper reported that the 2009 charge was an “attempted gangland assassination.” The victim was shot but lived, and Felix admitted his gang ties, said the newspaper, after a review of court records.
The Desert Sun newspaper reported that two of the officers had died. However, The Los Angeles Times said two of the officers were “gravely injured” and one might not survive. Tragically, they both then died, although the third officer shot survived.
One witness reported seeing a person, likely the female officer, lying motionless on the ground, said The New York Daily News.
The mass shooting comes after unrest in major American cities over police shootings of African-American men, including in El Cajon and Los Angeles, California, over the past month. The shooting of police officers also comes just months after police officers were ambushed and murdered in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen was murdered October 5, and an officer in St. Louis County, Blake Snyder, was slain the following day. Snyder’s last Facebook post was a memorial to a murdered Memphis officer who held a sign reading, “I matter.”
2. Zerebny Was Married to a Sheriff’s Deputy With Whom She Had an Infant & Vega Was Working Overtime, Reports Said
According to The Desert Sun, Officer Zerebny, 27, was the mother of a 4-month-old baby. The newspaper said that Vega was a 35-year veteran who was supposed to retire in December and was working overtime when he died.
A Go Fund Me site has been set up to help Zerebny’s husband, Zack, and their child. It says she had only worked for the Police Department for 18 months.
Zack Zerebny is a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy, said ABC 7. A baby registry for Zack and Lesley is still online.
ABC 7 said Zerebny had just returned to work after having her child.
In contrast, Vega was due to retire in December and had been on the force for decades, said The Desert Sun. According to CNN, Vega was the father of eight children. The police chief said in an emotional news conference: “Here he is, 35 years in, still pushing a patrol car for our community to make it better. On a day he wasn’t even designed to work.”
He had already submitted the paperwork for retirement, said CNN.
“Three officers shot. Condition unknown,” read the initial terse message posted on social media by the Palm Springs Police Department.
3. There Were Reports the Suspect ‘Wanted to Shoot Police’ & One Witness Heard 100 Shots
A neighbor reported that the suspect allegedly “wanted to shoot police,” according to a Twitter report from Jeff Nguyen, a KCAL9 and CBS2 reporter.
The suspect’s father said he had mental health issues and allegedly wanted to shoot police officers, other news reports also said.
The Desert Sun also reported the neighbor’s account, saying, “Felix’s goal may have been to kill the officers all along.”
Police had not commented on these reports or revealed a motive. ABC 7 reported that a witness “said he heard at least 100 shots erupt and saw three to four officers attempting to revive an officer.”
According to The Desert Sun, “Witnesses said they heard between 10 and 20 gunshots from what sounded like machine guns.”
4. The Police Officers Were Responding to a Family Disturbance Call
CBS News reported that officers were responding to a family disturbance call at the time of the shooting.
According to The New York Post, police alleged that “the officers were talking calmly to the man, trying to resolve things when he suddenly opened fire on them.”
The official law enforcement press release says, “Four Palm Springs officers arrived and attempted to have a male step out of the residence. During this initial contact, officers were met with gunfire through the closed front door and an officer involved shooting occurred. During the exchange of gunfire, three officers were injured.”
The argument was between a father and son, said The Los Angeles Times.
ABC 7 said the man allegedly wouldn’t open the door when officers responded, “threatening to shoot them.”
The suspect’s mother had called police to say her adult son was causing a disturbance, said KTLA.
5. Felix Was Captured After a 12-Hour Search & Manhunt
The Los Angeles Times said the scene remained active well into the evening, with the suspect at large and SWAT teams combing the area.
The New York Post said it was possible the suspect was still in the house where the domestic call originated from, but that was unclear.
Police had deployed a robot at the scene on Saturday evening, and flashbangs were heard. Around 1 a.m., Felix was captured alive. ABC 7 said the robot “breached” the door, and Felix was taken to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries.
Felix has been booked on two counts of murder, reports NBC.