A Palm Springs police officer who survived a 2016 shooting attack that left two of his colleagues dead testified Tuesday that “it felt like forever” as he sat in the backseat of a patrol car, holding the bleeding body of a dying fellow officer.
Mario Serrano — one of several officers who survived the onslaught of more than 20 rounds fired at officers — testified in the trial of 28-year- old John Hernandez Felix, who is facing murder and other charges for allegedly firing an AR-15 rifle at officers from the Felix family home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue on Oct. 8, 2016.
Veteran officer Gilbert Vega, 63, was fatally shot, along with rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27.
“When Sgt. (Shawn) Flinn yelled `cover fire,’ I got up and was looking for a position to return cover fire,” Serrano said. “That’s when I saw Sgt. Flinn trying to pull Officer Vega.”
Serrano, who had only been on the force for two months when the shooting occurred, said that due to the amount of blood pouring from Vega’s body, Flinn was struggling to carry Vega to safety.
“I holstered my weapon and then started helping him,” Serrano said. Vega “had a lot of blood on his shirt, so my hands were bloody.”
The rookie grabbed Vega by his belt and dragged him to a patrol car, he said. Serrano said the dying officer was “mumbling things,” but he couldn’t make out what was being said because of the thundering sound of gunfire in the background.
When they got to the patrol car, Serrano got inside and pulled Vega on top of him.
“He was on top of me, so his back was on my chest,” Serrano said. “I was letting him know that we were here and we were getting him help … It felt like hours. It felt like forever.”
Another officer drove the car away from the scene, and Vega stopped responding when firefighters pulled him from the vehicle, Serrano said. The officer was later pronounced dead at Desert Regional Hospital.
Officer Dave Etchason, who drove Vega and Serrano away from Felix’s home, testified Monday that he returned to the scene to retrieve Zerebny.
“I pulled my car up into the driveway in the front lawn,” Etchason said. “As I’m getting out, that’s when there was a rupture of gunfire that occurred.”
Etchason said he got out of the car and “yelled out her name,” but the officer was unresponsive with her face up to the sky.
“Her eyes were open. Her skin was pale,” Etchason said. “And, I knew, she was dead. But, I didn’t want to leave her there.”
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.
Felix has a prior conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, for which he served time in state prison.
Defense attorney John Dolan said during opening statements of the trial that 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.
Dolan said the surrounding circumstances show that “factually, this is immature, angry, emotional, impulsive behavior.”
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.