INDIO, Calif. - A 27-year-old ex-con charged with the ambush killings of two Palm Springs police officers has been ordered to stand trial.
John Hernandez Felix now faces three additional charges of attempted murder, bringing the total attempted murder counts to six. The additional charges were added during a detailed hearing on Friday.
"Attempted murder of a peace officer does carry a different, higher sentence than attempted murder on a non-peace officer," John Hall, Spokesperson for the Riverside County District Attorney's Office said. "They are 15 years instead of 7 years."
Testimony during the hearing revealed new details about the night that Felix is accused of fatally shooting veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27.
"I think it was one of the hardest hearings that we've been to this whole time," Vega's daughter, Gloria Vega, said. "If today's (Friday) any kind of example of what we have to expect, it's going to be a tough, emotional road."
It was the first hearing where David and Lulu Kling, Lesley Zerebny's parents, attended.
"After the year anniversary, it's kind of like we've a little bit turned the corner. and we could attend this," David Kling said. "Details that were just gone over lightly today (Friday), will be going into extreme details."
The shooting happened October 8, 2016, after the officers responded to a family disturbance call at his home.
KESQ I-Team reporter Zak Dahlheimer was in the courtroom. Follow his tweets here.
By about noon, the prosecution had already called four witnesses.
The first, RSO Homicide Investigator Alberto Loureiro, recalled the night of the shootings. He testified that when he arrived to the crime scene on North Cypress Road in Palm Springs, the suspect was still not in custody.
As part of Loureiro's investigation, he said he interviewed PSPD Officer Abraham Vargas. Loureiro said Vargas saw Officers Vega and Zerebny talking with Felix's parents in the front yard, and the officers were told Felix was armed.
Loureiro said Vargas witnessed the gunfire. He described seeing three officers, including Vega and Zerebny, running. He described seeing Vega fall, then get back up.
Loureiro said Vargas saw Vega go to his unit, then get shot in the street. Loureiro said Vargas did not see Officer Zerebny get shot, but saw her between to cars in the street.
Loureiro recalled Vargas saying he dove through bushes to get a rifle from a patrol car, then broadcasting an "11-99" call, signaling an officer needs help.
Gunfire was still coming from the home as officers dragged Vega away from the line of fire and into a patrol care, Loureiro said. Vega was alive and speaking when he was put into the backseat of a unit and then rushed to the hospital, according to testimony.
The RSO Homicide Investigator also recalled talking with PSPD Officer Burton. Burton came to the scene at the same time as Officer Vargas. He recalled hearing screaming from inside the Felix home as Vega tried to open the door. The voice said, "Don't do it." Felix was the only one in the home at the time.
Loureiro says Burton saw both officers fall to the ground in the shooting that ensued. Burton took out his patrol rifle and returned fire at the house, before realizing he was shot in leg and hip, Loureiro said.
Loureiro said Burton recalled Zerebny's rescue. Officers dragged her out of the line of fire and into a trunk of a car. Loureiro said officers say she had a new bulletproof vest on over her uniform, but at the time of her rescue. it appeared she had already died.
When SWAT arrived, Burton was taken to the hospital.
Loureiro identified Felix as the suspect who was taken into custody after midnight.
A second witness called by prosecutors is Investigator Lance Stoyer of the Riverside County Sheriff Office. Stoyer was at the command post when Felix was taken into custody. He also identified Felix as a suspect.
The third witness called is RSO Deputy Geoffrey Likins, who was assigned to the Special Enforcement Bureau SWAT team. The unit deals with high risk situations like barricaded suspects and hostage rescues.
Likins testified that when he arrived on scene, the suspect was barricaded inside the Cypress Street home.
When he emerged, the suspect was wearing a ballistic vest under a short sleeve shirt. There was a metallic object in his pants pocket.
Likins testified that Felix failed to follow commands and was dragged into a BEARCAT. Felix tried to open the door of the vehicle and refused to be handcuffed.
Likins remembered Felix repeating "You're all next."
When Felix was searched, Likins said officials found a loaded magazine for an AR-15 style rifle.
A judge scheduled the next hearing for January 19, 2018.
Tonight at 5:00 on KESQ, hear from Lesley Zerebny's father and Jose 'Gil' Vega's daughters. They were in court for the descriptive testimony and the decision.
Testimony earlier this year indicated the 911 call that led to the shootings was sparked by a fight between Felix and his sister over a remote control.
In addition to allegedly killing Vega and Zerebny, Felix is accused of shooting a third officer, who survived, through the metal screen door of his home as the officers approached, then firing on two of their colleagues, who were not hit.
Prior to Friday's hearing, Felix faced two counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder and special circumstance allegations of killing a peace officer and committing multiple murders.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin has alleged that Felix, who's accused of firing armor-piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi- automatic rifle while clad in body armor, specifically targeted police.
At the preliminary hearing starting Friday morning, prosecutors are expected to present evidence detailing the shooting and subsequent 12-hour standoff at the Cypress Avenue home, where Felix allegedly barricaded himself before being flushed out by police at around 1 a.m. Oct. 9.
The preliminary hearing, which is intended to enable a judge to determine if there are grounds for trial, was originally scheduled seven months ago but was delayed when defense attorney John Dolan declared doubts regarding Felix's competence to stand trial.
With criminal proceedings suspended, Felix underwent a two-day mental competency bench trial in September, featuring testimony from three psychologists, after Dolan alleged that ``traumatic amnesia'' prevented Felix from remembering much of the day of the shooting. His attorneys said Felix remembered the argument with his sister that triggered the 911 call and police response, then has no memory of the day until law enforcement launched tear gas into the home and shot him with non-lethal beanbag guns about 12 hours later.
Criminal proceedings were reinstated after Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos ruled that even if such amnesia was genuine, it would not prevent Felix from contributing to an adequate defense.
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, fatally shot 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 finish his career last December.
He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Zerebny had been with the department for a year and a half and had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter, Cora, four months earlier.
Noticias en español: Telemundo 15
News update in your inbox! Click here