Suspect charged in deadly assault weapon ambush on officers

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- California prosecutors have charged a man with murder in the ambush shootings of two Palm Springs police officers, saying he deliberately attacked them for no reason.

Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin announced that John Hernandez Felix was charged Wednesday with multiple felonies, including two counts of first-degree murder.

Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny CBS Los Angeles

Attached to the murder charges are special-circumstance allegations of murder of a police officer in the line of duty, multiple murder and lying wait. He also will face three counts of attempted murder. In the minutes before the shooting, the suspected gunman’s father told a neighbor his son was armed, “acting crazy” and wanted to shoot police.

“This individual wanted to kill police officers,” Hestrin said, adding that the defendant prepared by wearing soft body armor and had armor-piercing ammunition. “That’s the motive.” 

The prosecutor said Felix would be assigned an attorney to speak on his behalf this week.

The special-circumstance allegations make him eligible for the death penalty, reports CBS LA.The district attorney’s office will reportedly make a decision on whether to seek the death penalty within the two to three weeks.

Investigators say Felix fired an AR-15 assault rifle through the screen door of his family’s home Saturday, gunning down officers Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny as they answered a domestic disturbance call.

Authorities said Felix opened fire “without provocation or warning” on Vega, Zerebny and a third officer, who was treated and released. Felix was arrested Sunday following a 12-hour standoff at the home. He also shot at two other officers, but missed, the prosecutor said.

Felix was prohibited from legally possessing firearms because of a prior felony conviction, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said. He served 18 months of a four-year sentence for assault with a gun in connection with a 2009 gang shooting and was paroled in 2011, according to state records.

A relative told police arriving at the home of Felix’s family that Felix had some sort of weapon.

Vega and Zerebny, like all California peace officers, were trained in handling domestic violence calls and wore ballistic vests as required when in uniform and on duty, sheriff’s Deputy Mike Vasquez said.

Experts say that no matter how much training and experience officers receive, they often have little idea what awaits them when they approach the scene of a domestic disturbance.

Vega, 63, was a 35-year veteran of the force and was preparing to retire soon. Zerenby, 27, had been with the department about 18 months and left behind a 4-month-old daughter with her husband, a sheriff’s deputy.

Palm Springs, desert resort town of 45,000 about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, had not lost an officer in the line of duty since 1962.

A memorial service for the slain officers will be held next Tuesday.