By Fred Barbash and Amy B Wang, The Washington Post
A man who opened fire on police officers Saturday in Palm Springs, Calif. — killing two officers and injuring a third — was wearing body armor and had several gun magazines when he was captured, authorities said.
John Felix, 26, has been booked into a Riverside jail on two counts of murder of a peace officer.
Police said Felix fired through a closed door without provocation as Palm Springs officers attempted to resolve a domestic disturbance call Saturday.
Two officers — one a new mother, the other close to retirement — were killed. A third officer was injured but expected to recover.
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Felix is eligible for the death penalty, and prosecutors will make a decision in the next few weeks, District Attorney Mike Hestrin said at a news conference Sunday.
“I will tell you that I consider a brutal murder of a police officer to be a very heinous crime,” Hestrin said. “So I’ll leave it at that.”
Twelve hours after the shooting, Felix surrendered to a SWAT team from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
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The suspect reportedly had told his father moments before the shooting that he wanted to kill police officers.
Authorities said Sunday they would not address any of Felix’s criminal history and confirmed only a few details of the shooting, citing an active investigation.
In a statement released on Sunday, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch called the fatal shooting an “appalling act of violence that claimed two brave law enforcement officers.”
My thoughts and prayers – and the thoughts and prayers of the entire U.S. Department of Justice – go out to the family, loved ones and colleagues of these two fallen heroes. Let their sacrifice remind each of us of the dangers that brave men and women in law enforcement confront each and every day on our behalf.
Felix was wearing “soft, concealable body armor” and had several high-capacity gun magazines when he was captured early Sunday morning, Chief Deputy Ray Wood said at the press conference. He was not armed with a weapon when he was taken into custody, Wood said.
Wood said sheriff’s deputies “used a number of tools at our disposal” to try to draw Felix out during the standoff, including searching the house with a remote-controlled robot and then deploying tear gas.
“We attempted for several hours. There were many, many attempts to establish communication with him,” Wood said. “There was no mistaking that we were present.”
The officers killed were Lesley Zerebny, 27, and Jose Gilbert “Gil” Vega, 63.
Zerebny had recently returned from maternity leave and was the mother of a 4-month-old. She was married to a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy.
A SWAT team from her husband’s department participated in efforts to capture the suspect and ultimately did so after an exchange of gunfire early Sunday morning, according to a statement from the sheriff’s department.
Vega, a 35-year veteran, was scheduled to retire in December. He had chosen to work overtime Saturday.
They were the first Palm Springs police officers to die in the line of duty since 1962, according to the Palm Springs Desert News.
“Today Palm Springs lost two brave officers,” Reyes said. “They go out every day with their boots on the ground. They gave their all for you.
” . . . I am awake in a nightmare right now. … If ever there was a time to pray for the Palm Springs police department, it is now.”
The third officer who was injured was expected to be released from the hospital Sunday, police said.
Reyes choked back tears throughout a a news conference Saturday as he recounted the domestic disturbance call his officers had tried to resolve.
The officers were called to the home just after an occupant had rushed across the street in a panic, telling a neighbor that his son had a gun and wanted to shoot police. “He came over and asked for help,” neighbor Frances Serrano told reporters.
“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.’”
The man walked back to his house and shortly afterward, Serrano said, she heard repeated gunshots “starting with a loud, I mean really loud, bang.”
As officers were attempting to talk to the man behind the door, he “threatened to shoot the officers” through it, Reyes said. Then the man opened fire, gunning down the officers.
Dozens of officers from surrounding jurisdictions responded to an emergency call about 10 minutes after the first one, surrounding the house and sealing off a four-block perimeter, uncertain as to the whereabouts of the shooter and warning residents to stay inside.
“There were police everywhere,” Serrano told reporters. “I looked out the window and saw police with rifles.”
Juan Graciano, 67, who lives a block away, told the Los Angeles Times he saw police attempting to revive Zerebny. “I saw a woman officer who had been laid down in the trunk of a police cruiser. I watched as they picked her up and laid her down on the street and began administering CPR.”
Another neighbor told reporters of hearing more rounds of gunfire that continued for up to 20 minutes. “We stayed indoors,” Georgie Eden told the Times. “It was kind of, pretty scary.”
The Palm Springs Desert Sun described the suspect as a “known gang member,” who spent four years in prison for a 2009 attempted murder plot. He was also arrested in 2013, the paper said, after fighting with police at the same home where Saturday’s shooting took place.
Authorities on Sunday did not address the suspect’s criminal history or detail the type of weapon or weapons used.
“At this point of time it is very premature for us to be talking about the all the details of the investigation,” said Wood said. “Right now it is still way early. We are still in the front end of the investigation.”
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The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the shooting.
The Palm Springs incident also comes on the heels of other high-profile police officer deaths.
Last week, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s sergeant was shot and killed while responding to a burglary call in Lancaster, Calif. In July, five police officers in Dallas were killed and seven others were wounded by a lone gunman.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 67 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty this year as of July 20, an increase over the 62 officers killed in the same period last year.
The nonprofit group’s mid-year report noted a troubling increase in some of those deaths occurring in “ambush” attacks.