Accused Palm Springs Cop Killer Due in Court for Hearing on Mental Fitness

Ceci Partridge

An ex-con facing the death penalty for the alleged ambush killings of two Palm Springs police officers at his home is due in court Tuesday, when attorneys will discuss how to proceed toward a trial to determine whether he is intellectually fit to be executed.

John Hernandez Felix, 28, is accused of fatally shooting veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, on Oct. 8, 2016, after the officers responded to a family disturbance call at Felix’s home. Testimony at a hearing last year indicated the 911 call that preceded the gunfire was sparked by a fight between Felix and his sister over a remote control.

Felix is charged with two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as sentence-enhancing allegations of killing police officers and committing multiple murders. The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office is pursuing the death penalty for Felix, should he be convicted on those allegations.

Felix is slated to undergo an Atkins hearing, which determines whether a defendant is considered too intellectually incapacitated to be executed. The 2002 Atkins v. Virginia case led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a defendant who has intellectual disabilities.

The Atkins hearing could occur prior to his trial on the murder counts if heard solely by a judge, or after the guilt phase of the murder trial, should jurors convict him.

Felix previously underwent a mental health competency trial in late 2017 after his attorneys, John Dolan and Jacob Devane, sought to have him considered mentally incompetent to stand trial. They argued Felix suffers from “traumatic amnesia” and has no memory of the Oct. 8 shooting, preventing him from contributing to an adequate defense. Criminal proceedings were suspended for about six months before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos ruled that he was competent.

Felix is accused of opening fire on Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his home as they approached. He also allegedly fired on five of their colleagues, who were not struck by the gunfire.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin has alleged that Felix, who’s accused of donning body armor and firing armor-piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi- automatic rifle, specifically targeted police.

Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers killed in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 1962, when Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee died during a vehicle pursuit. The only other death in the department was that of Officer Gale Gene Eldridge, fatally shot Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.

Vega had been with the department 35 years — five years past his retirement eligibility — and had planned to finish his career last December. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Zerebny had been with the department for a year and a half and had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter, Cora, four months before her death.