A shooting at the scene of a Palm Springs home Saturday left two police officers dead: one a veteran of the force two months away from retirement, the other a new mother who had just returned from maternity leave.
Police say the Saturday confrontation began as a domestic dispute. Twenty-six-year-old John Felix’s parents called on police, then neighbors for help after their son allegedly began acting “crazy” shortly after noon. But the family dispute turned into a deadly, night-long standoff after Felix allegedly opened fire on officers, killing two and wounding another as they approached the home.
“I am awake in a nightmare right now,” Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes said in a Saturday evening press conference. Until that day, the southern California city had only seen two police officers killed on duty: one shot during a 1961 armed robbery, and another killed in a 1962 car crash, the city’s Desert Sun newspaper reported.
But by Saturday, that figure had doubled, with the deaths of one the force’s longest-serving veterans, and of one their newest members.
Officer Jose “Gil” Vega had served on the Palm Springs force for 35 years, before he was shot and killed Saturday, Reyes said. A decorated officer and a father of eight, the 63-year-old Vega had already submitted his paperwork for a December retirement. But until then, Vega was dedicated to his work. He hadn’t been scheduled for duty on Saturday, but had chosen to work overtime when he responded to the call at the Felix home.
Officer Lesley Zerebny had served on the Palm Springs force for 18 months when she answered the Saturday call. Reyes remembered the 27-year-old as a dedicated officer who worked to improve her community, relating an incident several weeks prior, in which Zerebny had tried to calm a woman acting erratic in a local supermarket. Zerebny had recently returned from maternity leave, after giving birth to her daughter, now four months old. In the wake of her death, Zerebny’s friends and family have started a donation campaign for her husband, a sheriff’s deputy who will now raise their daughter alone.
Details of Felix’s arrest early Sunday morning are still emerging. Responding to the domestic dispute call shortly after noon on Saturday, officers approached the front door, attempting to coax Felix outside. Instead of complying, Felix allegedly shot three officers through the door, killing Vega and Zerebny, and injuring a third, unnamed officer. What followed was a 12-hour standoff, during which police deployed armored vehicles, “chemical agents,” and a robot-mounted camera to sweep the house where Felix was hiding.
When a SWAT team captured Felix as he exited the home early Sunday morning, he was wearing “soft body armor” and carrying “a number of high capacity [gun] magazines,” police announced in a Sunday press conference. It is unclear whether he had planned for the standoff.
The 12-hour standoff was a night of terror on the quiet Palm Springs street, neighbors said.
Neighbor Frances Serrano arrived on the scene before police. She had been pulling into her driveway when Felix’s father called her for help, she told The Daily Beast.
“I saw his dad outside the garage. He was waving at me, calling me. He was shaking,” Serrano said. “He said ‘I need help. My son’s in the house. He’s not supposed to be in the house. He has a restraining order. He’s acting crazy. My wife and I are scared.’”
Felix, a confessed gang member, had a formidable rap sheet. In 2009, he was charged with attempted murder, which was later downgraded to assault with a deadly weapon. He served two years in prison for the crime, and an additional two years for gang-related charges, which kept him in prison until 2013, the Desert Sun reported. In 2013 he was charged with malicious noise after an incident at the same Palm Springs address where he allegedly shot police on Saturday. He also has a 2009 conviction for disturbing the peace, and a 2014 DUI conviction.
So when a dispute broke out Saturday, Felix’s parents were quick to call for help. Serrano offered to call police, but Felix’s father said police were already on their way. “The father said [Felix] had a gun,” she said. “He said [police] were going to save him.”
Police say Felix’s mother placed the first 911 call. “A female caller reported that her adult son was causing a disturbance at the residence,” Reyes said. “The officers, from what I understand, were at the front trying to negotiate with the suspect to just comply… It was a simple family disturbance and he elected to open fire.”
Serrano, who watched Felix grow up in the neighborhood, said she knew he’d gone to prison, but that his alleged actions still came as a shock. “He was a young nice guy. Very polite, very nice. I can’t believe he could do such a thing,” she said. “Even though he’s 26, he’s still acting like a kid. You see him outside playing ball. You think there’s no way he can do a thing like this.”
When she heard the first gunshots, Serrano didn’t recognize the sound. “I thought he was banging the garage door,” she said of Felix.
But what followed was a terrifying night of watching and waiting. As Felix barricaded himself in the home, police stationed floodlights and megaphones outside his house, demanding in English and in Spanish that he come out with his hands up. Then they began ramming down doors and walls with an armored car and firing some kind of spray—likely teargas—through cracks before Felix tried escaping out the back door.
“The attic was falling apart,” Serrano said, speculating as to Felix’s hiding place. “They were spraying for a good 45 minutes to an hour with the armored car” before he emerged.
Felix was arrested on two charges of murdering a police officer, and one charge of attempting to murder a police officer. He is expected to appear in court on Thursday.
“My employees are broken. If there’s ever a time to pray for Palm Springs PD, it’s now,” Reyes said. “We will get through this.”
When recalling the standoff, Serrano kept returning to the moments after the officers’ deaths.
“It’s very scary when you hear those gunshots,” she said. “Just nonstop. It was 50, 60, 70 [shots]. It was nonstop. It just kept going and going and going.
“And then it became very quiet.”