In the minutes before three Palm Springs, Calif., officers were shot, two fatally, the suspected gunman’s father told a neighbour his son was armed, “acting crazy” and wanted to shoot police.
John Felix, 26, was arrested early Sunday after a lengthy standoff and faces charges including two counts of murder on a peace officer.
Police said Felix suddenly pulled out a gun and opened fire on the officers who had responded to a family disturbance call Saturday afternoon at the home in a quiet neighbourhood of the desert resort city 175 kilometres east of Los Angeles.
A neighbour, Frances Serrano, told The Associated Press that the suspect’s panicked father, Santos Felix, 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.
Palm Springs police Chief Bryan Reyes identified the slain officers as Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny.
Zerebny, 27, had been with the department for about 18 months and only recently returned 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 on his day off Saturday.
The wounded officer’s name was not released.
Police arrested Felix, who was taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries that did not appear to be life-threatening.
Reyes indicated police had had previous dealings with the suspect, but declined to elaborate.
Court records show 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 Felix was charged with attempted murder but pleaded down to assault with a firearm and admitted his gang connection.
Documents also show Felix was the subject of a forceful arrest three years ago at the same house where Saturday’s shootings occurred.
Riverside County SWAT officers quickly sealed off the residential neighbourhood as police evacuated some residents. They told others to stay inside their homes, keep their doors locked and not to open them for anyone.
As the lockdown continued, scores of police officers gathered at Palm Springs Desert Regional Medical Center to offer a sombre salute as the bodies of Zerebny and Vega were loaded into white hearses for transport to a coroner’s office.
It had been 54 years since an on-duty uniformed police officer was killed in Palm Springs, a city of 45,000 residents, 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 called Zerebny a “wonderful, young, dedicated female officer that pressed forward every day to make it better for everybody else.” She and her husband, a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy, were new parents to a four-month-old baby.
“I don’t even remember anything so vicious and cruel,” said Palm Springs resident Heidi Thompson. “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. And they get gunned down? I don’t understand it.”