‘He has a gun. He’s ready to shoot all the police.’ Fateful screams before 2 officers killed in Palm Springs

Her neighbor from across the street screamed in desperation.

“I need help!” he called out. “My son is in the house, and he’s crazy. He has a gun. He’s ready to shoot all the police.”

Moments later, Frances Serrano, 65, heard a loud pop. And then another. And another. Within seconds, it seemed, backup police officers with rifles swarmed her street, where they would stay for hours searching for the man accused of killing their colleagues.

Two Palm Springs police officers died, and another was injured after they had responded to a family disturbance call Saturday that set off hours of panic in the desert resort town. The shooting occurred shortly after noon, when officers rushed to the house near the Palm Springs Country Club after a woman reported a problem with her adult son.

Early Sunday, police arrested John Felix, 26, who was taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries that appeared to be not life-threatening.

The Palm Springs man has a criminal record. In 2009, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon after an initial charge of attempted murder. Prosecutors at the time accused Felix of being a member of a criminal gang. He was sentenced to two years in prison. In 2013, he was accused of resisting arrest with Palm Springs police on the same street where Saturday’s shooting occurred.

“The officers were near the front door,” Police Chief Bryan Reyes told reporters, through tears, during an afternoon news conference. “They were responding to a simple family disturbance, and [the gunman] elected to open fire on the guardians of this city.”

Reyes took a deep breath and gripped the lectern for support as he spoke of the two victims: Officers Jose “Gil” Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27.

Vega, a 35-year veteran of the department who helped train new officers, was a father of eight who recently submitted his paperwork for retirement. He wasn’t scheduled to work Saturday, Reyes said, but took the shift as overtime, as he often did so others could get time off.

Zerebny, who helped catch a murder suspect during her first year of training, had just returned to work from maternity leave after giving birth four months ago to a daughter. Her husband, Reyes said, works for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which took over the investigation.

“Today, Palm Springs lost two of its brave officers,” Reyes said, his voice quivering. “They go out every day with their boots on the ground. They gave their all for you.”

The third officer was injured, Reyes said, but he was alert and providing statements to investigators.

Tensions remained high for hours near the crime scene, as SWAT teams swarmed to the area and helicopters hovered overhead. Police announced a “code red alert” and evacuated some residences nearby but urged others to lock their doors.

At the afternoon news conference where Reyes announced the officers had died, a woman in the audience asked whether the community was still in danger.

“Absolutely,” Reyes said.

By 5:50 p.m., with police on every street corner continuing their search, Serrano, the neighbor, said she was “really scared” and had locked her windows and doors.

“Some are saying [the suspect] is still in the father’s house. Others say he’s on the run,” she said. “I knew there were problems before between the father and this young man. But I never imagined he would do something like this. I don’t want to believe it.

“I feel so sad for the officers,” she added. “It’s like a nightmare.”

Serrano said she remembered her neighbor’s son, who she believed was in his mid-30s, as “a very nice young man — very polite.”

Georgie Eden said she was outside doing yard work with her son and her husband when “all of a sudden I hear this pow, pow, pow pow.”

“At first I’m thinking, perhaps it was party poppers in the neighbor’s garden or something, and my husband’s like, ‘Uh, that’s gunfire — get in the house.’ ”

Eden then heard several more rounds of gunfire that seemed to continue for 10 to 20 seconds, she said.

“So we stayed indoors,” she said, “and it was kind of, pretty scary.”

Nothing like this has happened during the three years Eden has lived in Palm Springs, she said.

“It’s horrible to even think that officers are out there and very much at risk because of guns and people that have a lot of mental health issues,” she said. “Just being a human being, it [hits] close to home.”

Lee Weigel, the city’s former police chief and a onetime city councilman, learned of the shooting while out of town Saturday at his son’s baseball game.

Weigel’s friend, who coaches another baseball team, walked up solemnly. At first, Weigel said, he heard that one officer had been shot. Before long, he learned it was three.

“It makes you weak in the knees,” he said.

As a relatively small department — 98 sworn officers — everyone knows one another, said Weigel, who worked in the department for 32 years.

“It’s a family,” he said. “This is the worst incident in the history of Palm Springs in terms of officer shootings. ... This is shocking, a blow to the entire department and community.”

Mayor Robert Moon said the last time a Palm Springs officer was killed in the line of duty was in the 1960s.

“Totally senseless,” he said. "You don’t expect things like this to happen in Palm Springs. It’s inconceivable that something like this could happen.”

The shootings marked the latest in a string of attacks on officers this year.At a July protest in Dallas over recent police shootings of black men across the country, a veteran of Afghanistan shot and killed five officers, and in Lancaster on Wednesday, a man shot and killed a Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant, in what authorities called a “calculated execution.”

By sunset in Palm Springs, a memorial took shape near a statue of fallen officers outside the Police Department. At first, there were two small candles and a few bouquets of flowers. Then a man walked by, dropped more flowers and bowed his head in prayer.

Courtney Weber showed up with her young daughter and flowers.

She knew Vega, recalling him as a “funny, kind and super warm and caring person.”

Nearby, officers walked into and out of the police station. Many had tears in their eyes, while others walked quietly with their heads down.

Times staff writers Matt Stevens and Brittny Mejia and photographer Brian van der Brug contributed to this report.


UPDATES:

9:30 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the suspect.

7:15 a.m.: This article was updated with details about an arrest in the case.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.

An earlier version of this article indicated that neighbors heard gunfire for 10 to 20 minutes. The gunfire lasted for 10 to 20 seconds.
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