Suspect arrested in killing of two Southern California police officers

A suspected gunman who allegedly shot and killed two Palm Springs, Calif. police officers and injured a third was taken into custody early Sunday, authorities said.

Officials identified John Felix, 26, as the man accused of gunning down officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny while they were trying to resolve a domestic dispute Saturday afternoon.

"It was a simple family disturbance and he elected to open fire on a few of the guardians of the city," Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes, his voice breaking, told reporters. "Today Palm Springs lost two brave officers ... I am awake in a nightmare right now."

Officials said during a Sunday afternoon press conference that Felix was wearing body armor and had several magazines of ammunition on him when he was arrested. Though no determination has been made yet, prosecutors said Felix would be eligible for the death penalty. He's set to be arraigned either Wednesday or Thursday.

Police said Zerebny recently returned to the force from maternity leave after giving birth to a now-4-month-old daughter. Vega, the father of eight, was a 35-year veteran who planned to retire in December and had been working overtime on his day off Saturday. Reyes said the wounded officer is alert and talking with investigators. That man, who was not named, was likely to be released from the hospital on Sunday.

Reyes said the three officers were standing near the front door speaking with Felix, "trying to negotiate with the suspect to just comply," when he suddenly shot them.

Riverside County SWAT officers quickly sealed off the normally quiet residential neighborhood in this desert resort town as police evacuated some residents. They told others to stay inside their homes, keep their doors locked and not to open them for anyone until further notice.

Mugshot of John Felix, 26, the accused killer of two California cops.

Mugshot of John Felix, 26, the accused killer of two California cops. (Riverside County Sheriff's Department)

Reyes indicated police had had previous dealings with Felix.

Court records showed Felix was a gang member who was previously sentenced to four years in prison in a failed murder plot. Felix was charged with attempted murder in a 2009 shooting. Records show Felix pleaded down to assault with a firearm and admitted his gang connection. The Desert Sun newspaper cited documents showing Felix was also the subject of a forceful arrest three years ago at the same house where Saturday's shootings occurred.

A neighbor, Frances Serrano, told reporters she called authorities after the father of the shooting suspect came to her house across the street and told her his son was "acting crazy."

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," Serrano told the Los Angeles Times.

She'd gone back inside her home before officers arrived, Serrano said, and a few minutes after they got there she heard gunfire, "starting with a loud — I mean really loud — ‘bang!’” Moments later officers were knocking on her door, warning her to stay inside.

Serrano said Felix had been in jail at one time and had to wear a monitor on his ankle when he was first released. But she added that he had always been friendly and polite to her and her family.

"We never had any problems with him," she said. Serrano also told the Times that she believed Felix was in his mid-30s.

As the lockdown continued, scores of police officers gathered at Palm Springs Desert Regional Medical Center to offer a somber salute as the bodies of Zerebny and Vega were loaded into white hearses for transport to a coroner's office.

Meanwhile, in front of police headquarters, scores of local residents gathered to leave flowers, balloons and cards Saturday night.

"I don't even remember anything so vicious and cruel," said Palm Springs resident Heidi Thompson. "These officers are responding to a domestic call for somebody in need that they don't even know. They put their life on the line for us, the community. And they get gunned down? I don't understand it."

The shooting occurred just three days after a popular Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant was shot and killed in the high desert town of Lancaster.

Sgt. Steve Owen was answering a burglary call when sheriff's officials say he was shot and wounded by a man who then stood over him and shot him four more times.

A paroled robber has been charged with murder in that case.

Lancaster residents held a candlelight memorial for Owen Saturday night.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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