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RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A gang member targeted and then ambushed Palm Springs police officers last weekend, killing two and wounding a third, a prosecutor said Wednesday in announcing first-degree murder charges and a litany of other counts against the man.
John Hernandez Felix, 26, was prepared to attack the officers when they responded to a 911 call from his family's home Saturday, Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin said. He wore body armor and used armor-piercing ammunition when he opened fire with an AR-15 rifle on officers who came to the door, prosecutors said.
"This individual wanted to kill police officers," Hestrin said. "That's the motive. He wanted to gun down police officers because they wore the uniform."
He termed the attack an ambush and said the officers "walked into a trap." The killings are the latest in a string of fatal attacks on officers that includes ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Felix faces special-circumstance allegations of murder of a police officer in the line of duty, multiple murders and lying in wait, which qualify him for the death penalty, Hestrin said. Prosecutors will decide within three weeks whether to seek capital punishment.
Felix would be assigned an attorney to speak on his behalf this week, prosecutors said. He was scheduled to be arraigned Thursday.
He's accused of killing Officers Jose "Gil" Gilbert Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27, and wounding a third officer. The unidentified officer was released from a hospital Sunday.
Vega was a 35-year veteran of the force and was preparing to retire. Zerebny had been with the department about 18 months and left behind a 4-month-old daughter with her husband, a Riverside County sheriff's deputy.
They were the first officers from the desert resort city about 100 miles east of Los Angeles to die in the line of duty since 1962.
Vega and Zerebny were responding to a domestic disturbance call. A relative told police arriving at the home that Felix had a weapon.
Officers spoke with him through a metal screen door before he opened fire without warning, the Sheriff's Department said. Felix was arrested after a lengthy standoff with police.
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.
Felix was a known gang member and served 18 months of a four-year sentence for assault with a gun in connection with a 2009 gang shooting. He was paroled in 2011, according to state records.
He was prohibited from possessing firearms because of the felony conviction, the Sheriff's Department said.
Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes invited the public to a memorial service for the officers at the city's convention center next Tuesday "to pay your respects and show your love for the ultimate sacrifice of these two guardians of the city of Palm Springs."
This story has been corrected to show Lesley Zerebny's name was misspelled Zerenby in some instances.