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Palm Springs shootout: Father told neighbour suspect was ‘acting crazy’

world Updated: Oct 10, 2016 12:18 IST
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Suspect John Felix, who is being held in connection with the killing of two Palm Springs police officers, is shown in this booking photo displayed during a news conference in Palm Springs, California. (Reuters Photo)

In the minutes before two Palm Springs officers were fatally shot and a third wounded, the suspected gunman’s father told a neighbor his son was armed, “acting crazy” and wanted to shoot police.

John Felix, 26, was apprehended early on Sunday after a lengthy standoff and will be charged this week with murder.

Police said Felix finally emerged wearing soft body armor and carrying ammunition but no weapon after police shot a chemical agent into the home where he had holed up. Investigators were trying to piece together what led up to a 911 call about a family disturbance that preceded the cold-blooded killings.

A neighbor, Frances Serrano, told The Associated Press that the suspect’s panicked father, Santos Felix, earlier said his son, an admitted gang member, had a gun.

“My son is inside and we’re scared, he’s acting crazy,” Serrano said the older Felix told her. When it was suggested they call the police he said, “Yeah, he already knows they are coming, and he is going to shoot them.”

Serrano said she went back inside her house and within minutes police cars arrived and gunfire erupted.

Police said John Felix suddenly pulled out a gun and opened fire on the officers who had responded to a disturbance call on Saturday afternoon at the home he shared with his parents in a quiet neighborhood of single-story ranch homes in this desert resort city.

Palm Springs police chief Bryan Reyes identified the slain officers as Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27.

Zerebny had been with the department for about 18 months and recently returned early from maternity leave after giving birth to a daughter. Vega, a married father of eight, was a 35-year veteran who planned to retire in December. He had been working overtime Saturday on his scheduled day off.

The photographs of slain Palm Springs Police Officers Lesley Zerebny (left) and Jose Vega are shown amidst flowers and remembrances atop a memorial statue at police headquarters in Palm Springs. (Reuters Photo)

A vigil was held outside police headquarters on Sunday night to honor the two slain officers. Mourners created a makeshift memorial that included flower bouquets, written messages and candles.

“When this is all over, don’t just turn around and walk away. Take the time to introduce yourself to each other, because this is the community we live in,” Palm Springs police chief Bryan Reyes told the mourners Sunday, according to the Desert Sun. “We will all get through this together, and I’m going to heavily count on all of you.”

The wounded officer’s name was not released, but Reyes said he was alert, speaking with investigators and was expected to be released from a hospital later Sunday.

Police arrested John Felix after shooting him with non-lethal rounds when he exited through the back door. SWAT officers, using bullhorns and other methods, had tried through the night to establish contact with him, but got no response. He was taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries that did not appear to be life-threatening.

District attorney Michael Hestrin said John Felix would be charged on Tuesday with first degree murder and several other felony counts. Prosecutors would decide within two weeks whether he could face the death penalty, Hestrin said. It wasn’t known Sunday if John Felix has an attorney.

Court records show John Felix is a gang member who was previously sentenced to four years in prison in a failed murder plot in 2009. Documents cited by the Desert Sun newspaper reveal he was charged with attempted murder but pleaded down to assault with a firearm and admitted his gang connection.

Documents also show John Felix was the subject of a forceful arrest three years ago at the same house where Saturday’s shootings occurred.

Reyes indicated police had previous dealings with the suspect, but he declined to answer questions about whether responding officers were prepared to deal with someone with a violent criminal past. The chief would not characterize the content of the 911 call or say who made it.

It had been 54 years since an on-duty uniformed police officer was killed in Palm Springs, a city of 45,000 residents about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, known for its desert views, boutique hotels and golf courses.

In front of police headquarters, scores of local residents gathered to leave flowers, balloons and cards.

Vega had submitted his paperwork to retire at the end of the year after a long and decorated career, Reyes said.

“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 scheduled to work,” the chief said.

Reyes said Zerebny “pressed forward every day to make it better for everybody else.” She and her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, were new parents to a four-month-old baby.

“To see her laying down with her eyes open and to witness her husband in full Riverside County sheriff’s uniform ... kiss her on the forehead for the last time... it’s tough,” Reyes said, fighting back tears.

At Vega’s house in nearby Cathedral City, family members prepared to attend a Sunday evening candlelight vigil at the police station.

His brother-in-law, Jose Barron, said Vega was a family man and a dedicated officer who always spent a little extra time with teenagers he met while on patrol.

“He would always tell them: ‘You always have to look for the future,’“ Barron said. “He was very responsible.”

Palm Springs resident Heidi Thompson called the killings “vicious and cruel”.

“These officers are responding to a domestic call for somebody in need that they don’t even know. They put their life on the line for us, the community,” Thompson said. “I don’t understand it.”

The slayings come amid a tense year for police, when officers have been shot to death in other cities including Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Riverside County sheriff's deputies wait in front of a house where a suspect was apprehended. (AP Photo)

The Palm Springs shooting occurred just three days after a popular Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant was shot and killed in the high desert town of Lancaster. Sgt. Steve Owen was answering a burglary when he was shot. A paroled robber has been charged with murder.

Hundreds of residents held a candlelight vigil Saturday night in his honor.