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A new mom and a 35-year-veteran two months from retirement; Palm Springs mourns the loss of first officers killed on duty since 1962

Lesley Zerebny returned to work early to help out after giving birth to her daughter, now 4 months old. She'd been an officer with the city's Police Department for just 1½ years.

Officer Jose "Gil" Vega had submitted his paperwork to retire in December after a 35-year career with the department. Vega, the father of eight children, wasn't scheduled to work Saturday but had picked up an overtime shift.

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Zerebny, 27, and Vega, 63, were killed Saturday in a shooting that has drawn an outpouring of support from this desert community and shaken a small Police Department that hadn't lost an officer in the line of duty in more than five decades. The gunman was arrested early Sunday.

Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes' voice quavered at a news conference hours later as he described watching Zerebny's husband, a Riverside County sheriff's deputy, say goodbye to his wife.

"To see her lying there with her eyes open, and to witness her husband, in full Riverside sheriff's uniform, kiss her on the forehead for the last time, it's tough," Reyes said.

Many questions about the incident that led to the officers' deaths remain unanswered.

Police responded to a domestic disturbance call shortly after noon at the suspect's home in the 2700 block of Cypress Road, and called for backup just 10 minutes later, Reyes said. Zerebny and Vega were killed and another officer was wounded, but he is expected to recover, authorities said.

The shooting suspect, John Felix, remained in the home until early Sunday morning, when officers used chemical agents to coax him out, said Riverside County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Ray Wood.

"When he emerged, he was wearing soft body armor and he had a number of high-capacity magazines on his person," Wood said. Felix was not armed.

Felix, 26, was arrested and is expected to be charged with two counts of first degree murder with the special circumstances of multiple murder and murder of a police officer in the line of duty, authorities said. Riverside County Dist. Atty. Michael Hestrin said his office would decide whether to pursue the death penalty against Felix.

"I consider the brutal murder of a police officer to be a very heinous crime, so I will leave it at that," he said.

Reyes, who became police chief in February and oversees a department of 98 sworn officers, seemed to speak for the entire community when he talked about the loss of his officers.

"I'm awake in a nightmare right now," said a shaken Reyes just hours after the shooting. "If there's ever a time to pray for Palm Springs PD, it's now."

I’m awake in a nightmare right now.


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Asked Sunday how the families of the victims were holding up, the chief said, "that's a tough question. Everybody has their moment. Some are strong one second, some are broken the next."

Reyes described Zerebny as "a wonderful, young, dedicated female officer that pressed forward every day to make it better for everybody else."

"She gave her all," he said.

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Reyes said that Vega chose to continue working even when he'd done so for 30 years, the time when many cops retire. This year, the department needed a training officer and he stepped up, Reyes said.

"Here he is 35 years in, still pushing a patrol car for our community to make it better," Reyes said.

When officers responded to the incident that would turn fatal on Saturday, Vega was the first one at the door, Reyes said.

Felix, the man suspected of shooting the three officers, has a history of violence, records show.

Felix was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon after an initial charge of attempted murder in 2009. Prosecutors at the time accused him 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. He pleaded guilty to a count of malicious noise.

Officials said the Palm Springs Police Department has turned the shooting investigation over to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

Outside the Police Department onSunday, people stopped by to add to the growing tribute of flowers, American flags and candles left for the fallen officers. Among them was Mike Donovan, a retired officer who'd worked with Vega.

"I can't think of a better cop," Donovan said. He described Vega as the kind of officer who "always thought of others before himself," especially in emergency situations.

He said that officers try not to think about the risk that's a part of their jobs.

"You don't let it occupy your mind as you're working, but you try to prepare yourself for it and your loved ones and when it does happen, we all come together."

Palm Springs residents heard gunfire that resulted in three officers being shot, two of them fatally.

He remarked on how long it had been since the department had lost an officer. Officer Gale Gene Eldridge was killed in the line of duty in January 1961, and Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee was killed in January 1962.

Near the makeshift memorial, two men held up signs to passing motorists that read, "Law Enforcement Lives Matter."

Police chaplains waited outside the department, preparing to speak with officers about their fallen colleagues. Steve Ballinger, lead chaplain for Riverside police, said he was among those who were asked to help.

"Our hearts are broken," he said. "This is happening way too much. I've been doing this for years. And it never gets easier."

"There's no words that I'm going to be able to share with them that's going to take away their pain and their hurt," Ballinger said. "But it's that presence just to let them know they're not in it alone."

Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement, saying that the officers were killed "doing what they do every day — protecting their community."

"We grieve with the family members, friends and fellow officers coping with this senseless tragedy," Brown said. "Anne and I join all Californians in offering our heartfelt condolences."

On Sunday evening, hundreds of community members gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the Palm Springs Police Department.

Some wore T-shirts that read "In Honor of Gil Vega End of Watch October 8, 2016" and included a photo of the officer. One woman wore a shirt that said "Back the Blue."

On one side of the podium was a photo of Vega, on the other a photo of Zerebny — both of them smiling. Nearby balloons bore the words "RIP Gil" and "RIP Lesley."

At 5 p.m., attendees bowed their heads as they listened to the invocation of prayer to start the vigil. Chief Reyes spoke afterward.

"Very difficult times for us all. It goes without saying," he said. "I was broke this morning ... But I'm healing. I'm healing now because of what I see out here ... It's this community outreach that's going to get us through it."

Times staff writer Matt Stevens contributed to this report. 

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