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Criminal Justice

Jurors Reach Guilty Verdict In Trial Of Accused Palm Springs Cop Killer

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Riverside County Distict Attorney's Office
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   INDIO (CNS) - A 28-year-old man who sprayed bullets from an AR-15 rifle at Palm Springs police standing outside his family's home, killing a veteran officer and a rookie who had just returned to duty after giving birth to a daughter, was convicted today of first-degree murder.
   John Hernandez Felix faces a possible death sentence for the Oct. 8, 2016, killings of Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27. In addition to the murder charges, jurors found true special-circumstance allegations of murder of a peace officer and multiple murders.
   Felix was also convicted of six counts of attempted murder, stemming from the other officers who were in the line of fire outside the home in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue, where they had gone in response to a domestic disturbance call.
   Jurors rejected allegations that Felix was wearing body armor during the shooting, but they convicted Felix of unlawful possession of an assault weapon, unlawful weapon possession by a prohibited person and unlawful possession of ammunition.
   The trial will now move to a second phase, in which jurors will be asked to recommend whether Felix should be sentenced to death or life in prison
without the possibility of parole.
   Jurors deliberated over the course of two days before convicting Felix. The panel began deliberating Thursday afternoon and returned Monday, announcing by late morning that they had reached a verdict.
   The verdict was read in an Indio courtroom packed with relatives of
the victims, along with law enforcement officers from various agencies. Felix
showed no emotion as the verdicts were read.
   Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante argued during the trial that
Felix fired 21 shots from inside his family's home as police stood outside.
He said Felix carried out an intentional ``ambush'' on police, who had been
called to the home 37 times previously due to his erratic behavior.
   Felix also had a previous conviction for assault.
   During closuring arguments Thursday, defense attorney John Dolan
contended that at worst, Felix should be convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
While conceding that Felix's actions were ``horrible,'' Dolan argued his
client's auditory processing disorder and intense emotions -- combined with
methamphetamine use -- created a ``perfect storm'' of irrational decision-
making.
   ``It affects your brain, it eats your brain,'' Dolan said of the drug
for which Felix tested positive 15 hours after the shooting.
   Even before the shooting, Dolan said, all three family members in the
Felix home said the suspect was not ``recognizable'' that day.
   ``This is the difference between being rational and being
irrational,'' Dolan said. ``Between premeditation, deliberation and malice of
forethought, and unplanned irrational, disorganized. That's what this case is
about in a nutshell.''
   Bustamante argued that the defense -- in part through the testimony of
Felix's relatives -- was ``minimizing'' the defendant's actions.
   ``The defendant was a ticking time bomb leading up to that day,'' the
prosecutor said.
   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, 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 earlier.