“He armed himself with a weapon to kill police officers… he wanted to gun down police officers because they wore the uniform,” DA says.
PALM SPRINGS, CA – On Saturday, as Palm Springs police officers responded to a call for help in a normally quite neighborhood, John Felix was ready for them, prosecutors say. He was “prepared to do what he did,” ultimately killing two and wounding another, according to Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin.
Felix was officially charged Wednesday with two counts of murder for the deaths of Officers Jose “Gil” Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27. He’s also facing three counts of attempted murder for shooting at other officers, one of whom was hit and temporarily hospitalized, the DA’s office said.
“This individual wanted to kill police officers,” Hestrin said at a press conference Wednesday while announcing the charges. “He armed himself with a weapon to kill police officers. He put on a vest so that he would be protected so he could kill police officers. That’s the motive. He wanted to gun down police officers because they wore the uniform.”
Hestrin said the murder charges have three special circumstance allegations attached to them: committing multiple murders, the murder of a law enforcement officer and lying in wait.
“He knew what he was doing, and he did it deliberately and on purpose, and he prepared to do what he did,” the county’s top prosecutor said in regards to the lying-in-wait allegation.
If convicted as charged, Felix would be eligible for the death penalty. However, Hestrin said he has yet to decide if the county will pursue that penalty, but he will decide within the next three weeks.
Hestrin noted that the suspect was armed with armor-piercing bullets.
“He armed himself with a dangerous weapon, an assault weapon,” he said. “And he used very lethal ammunition, and it had an effect on what happened.”
He also said Felix has two prior strikes: One for a felony assault with a firearm and another for active criminal street gang activity. Both convictions came in 2010.
Felix was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in prison for the 2009 crime that originally drew an attempted murder charge. After being released, he was accused of resisting arrest by Palm Springs police on the same street where he allegedly shot three officers Saturday. Court records also show that he was on probation at the time of the shooting for a misdemeanor DUI conviction.
Following his arrest Sunday, he was treated at a hospital for incidental injuries before being booked into the county jail at Riverside.
Palm Springs police went to the home around 1 p.m. Saturday in response to a woman’s call reporting that her adult son was causing a disturbance, police said. According to Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Vasquez, when the officers arrived, they were informed by one of Felix’s family members that he was armed with a weapon, which later turned out to be the AR-15 described by Hestrin Wednesday. The three Palm Springs officers spoke to Felix through a metal screen door and told him to step outside when he fired on them “without provocation or warning,” Vasquez said.
Vega had been with the department for 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career in December. Zerebny had been with the department for a year and a half, and she had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter four months ago. Her husband is a member of the sheriff’s department.
The two officers will be honored during a public memorial service on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
Saturday marked the first time a Palm Springs police officer was killed in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 1962, when Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee died during a vehicle pursuit. Officer Gale Gene Eldridge was fatally shot Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.