Jose Gilbert “Gil” Vega had already submitted his paperwork to retire from the Palm Springs, California, Police Department and was only two months away from doing so. A 35-year veteran of the force, Vega had chosen to work overtime on Saturday. He was supposed to have the day off.
By contrast, Lesley Zerebny was only at the beginning of her law enforcement career. The 27-year-old had become a Palm Springs police officer less than two years ago – and had just returned to the department after giving birth to a baby girl four months earlier.
Both Vega and Zerebny were among the officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call around noon on Saturday, Palm Springs Police Chief Jose Bryan Reyes said at a news conference, fighting back tears the entire time as he described the two.
A woman had called police at 12:18 p.m. local time saying her neighbor’s son was “causing a disturbance,” Reyes said.
“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.'”
As officers attempted to peacefully negotiate with the man behind the door, the man “threatened to shoot the officers” through it, Reyes said.
“It was a simple family disturbance,” Reyes said, his voice shaking with emotion. “And he elected to open fire.”
Another neighbor would later report hearing rapid-fire gunshots.
Vega and Zerebny were struck and taken to a hospital, where they were later pronounced dead.
“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.”
A third officer also was struck and taken to the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening. Police did not release the third officer’s name but said the officer was alert, is expected to recover and is giving statements to investigators.
The deaths of Vega and Zerebny have deeply shaken a police department that prides itself on a community-policing program that Reyes said had succeeded in minimizing violence for years.
Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers to die in the line of duty since 1962, according to the Palm Springs Desert Sun.
Dozens of officers, some from other law-enforcement agencies in Southern California, gathered outside Palm Springs Desert Regional Medical Center and saluted as the bodies of Vega and Zerebny were transferred to a coroner’s office, the Associated Press reported.
Many officers fought back tears as the two flag-draped coffins were wheeled out from the hospital, according to the Associated Press.
Reyes told the Desert Sun that Zerebny was a dedicated officer who had done much in her short tenure with the department. In her first few weeks at the job, she helped find a wanted murder suspect from outside the area; only a few weeks ago, just after returning from maternity leave, Zerebny had calmed a woman “acting very bizarre” in a local supermarket, the paper reported.
“Here you have a wonderful, young, dedicated female officer that pressed forward every day to make it better for everybody else, and she gave her all,” Reyes told the paper.
Zerebny, who was married to a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy, is survived by her husband and their 4-month-old daughter, according to a GoFundMe account set up by one of her husband’s former police academy classmates.
“Zack, I think I speak for all of class 192 when I say we are here for you,” the former classmate wrote. “Whatever you need you can call upon us. You are not alone. Our hearts ache along with yours and our prayers are with you and your family.
Vega, the senior officer, was married and had eight children, Reyes told the Desert Sun. The 63-year-old had technically qualified for retirement five years ago, the police chief 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,” Reyes told the paper.
Vega had received several community awards throughout his 35-year service – for everything from saving a 2-month-old girl with CPR to being named Patrol Operations Officer of the Year by the local chamber of commerce, the paper reported.
The department identified the suspect as John Felix, 26, who surrendered after a lengthy standoff with SWAT team deputies, according to a statement from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Felix was treated for injuries that were not life-threatening and will be booked on two counts of murder on a peace officer, the sheriff’s office said.
The Desert Sun described Felix 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 occurred.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the shooting.
Fred Barbash contributed to this report.