Shooting Suspect’s Mother: Family Knew Slain Officer for Nearly 3 Decades

The mother of a man accused of gunning down two Palm Springs police officers testified through tears Thursday that she had known one of the slain officers for nearly three decades and he often helped the family deal with her son, who is now charged with killing the veteran lawman.

Margarita Felix said she and her husband had known Officer Gilbert Vega since the family moved into their home on Cypress Avenue 27 years ago, and her husband called the officer frequently to help cope with their son’s behavioral issues. While she did not specify the exact nature of their relationship, she said her son, 28-year-old John Hernandez Felix, “respected” Vega.

Felix is facing murder and other charges for allegedly firing a AR-15 rifle at police officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call at the Felix family home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue on Oct. 8, 2016. Vega, 63, was fatally shot, along with rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27.

Speaking through an interpreter, Margarita Felix broke down in tears at times when Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise questioned her memories of not only the shooting, but the 911 call that prompted officers to respond to the scene. The woman appeared particularly hesitant to say whether she knew her son had a gun when the 911 call was made.

After a several-minute exchange, Paradise finally asked Margarita Felix if she was worried about public backlash for knowing about the gun when summoning police, and the woman responded, “Could be. And, they would have their reasons.”

Margarita Felix said she did not say anything to officers about a gun, but did tell them “there’s some danger.”

Again speaking through tears, she described her discussions with responding officers outside the home while her son was holed up inside. She said Zerebny asked her for a key to the locked screen door of the home, but she grabbed the officer’s hand and begged her not to approach the house because of the danger, saying, “Please, no.”

John Hernandez Felix is facing a possible death sentence if convicted. He is charged with two counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder, with special circumstance allegations of killing police officers and committing multiple murders.

Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers to be 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, who was fatally shot on 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 retire in 2018. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Zerebny had been with the department for 18 months and had just returned to duty following maternity leave, having given birth to a daughter, Cora, four months before her death.

During opening statements Wednesday, defense attorney John Dolan told jurors Felix had no intent to kill anyone, with his history of family neglect, low educational achievements, drug abuse and an intellectual disability showing he did not act out of premeditation.

Rather, the surrounding circumstances show that “factually, this is immature, angry, emotional, impulsive behavior,” Dolan said.

But Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante said there is clear evidence of premeditation and intent. He pointed to the initial 911 call made by Felix’s mother, saying the call includes audio of the defendant helping his mother give the dispatcher the family’s address, “so she could tell 911 where the officers should go to.”

Bustamante said Felix fired 21 shots through the front door and drywall of the home. Ten of those shots hit either officers or their vehicles, Bustamante said. Felix, who was wearing body armor, was arrested after a 12- hour standoff, and while being taken into custody, he told arresting officers, “I’ve seen your faces. You’re next,” Bustamante said.

Felix has a prior conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, for which he served time in state prison.

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