A man accused of killing two Palm Springs police officers pleaded not guilty Thursday to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges that could land him on death row.
John Hernandez Felix, 26, is accused of fatally shooting veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, Saturday afternoon. He also allegedly wounded a third officer, who was released from the hospital Sunday, and fired on two others.
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Felix appeared before a Indio courtroom packed with uniformed and plainclothes police officers, family members of the slain officers, and members of the media in a dress shirt and shackles.
Public defender Michael Rowlands sought to delay Felix's arraignment, arguing a competency assessment should be performed first. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Victoria E. Cameron disagreed, and also refused to bar cameras from the courtroom after Rowlands argued their presence would be prejudicial to Felix.
The two murder counts include special circumstance allegations of murder of a law enforcement officer, lying in wait and taking multiple lives in the same crime. Felix was also charged with three counts of attempted murder and single counts of unlawful possession of an assault rifle, being a convicted felon in possession of a gun and being in possession of stolen property, with sentence-enhancing gun and great bodily injury allegations.
The special circumstance allegations make Felix eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said a decision on whether to seek capital punishment will be made within the next three weeks.
Felix will undergo a competency assessment, which will include a general psychological exam, prior to his next court hearing, a Nov. 10 felony settlement conference.
Felix is being held without bail.
"This individual knew what he was doing,'' Hestrin said during a news briefing in downtown Riverside Wednesday, where prosecutors announced the charges. "His actions were deliberate. He attacked these officers for no other reason than they were there, answering a call for service.''
The district attorney was joined by Palm Springs police Chief Bryan Reyes, who declined to answer specific questions related to the investigation, which he characterized as "complicated and emotional.''
"There's no question, we're going to put all our efforts into a thorough investigation. This is one step in a long road ahead,'' Reyes said.
According to Hestrin, Felix's motive was simple: "This individual wanted to kill police officers. He armed himself to kill police officers. He wanted to gun them down because they wear the uniform.''
The county's top prosecutor acknowledged a "false narrative'' about the actions of law enforcement that could influence the behavior of some people, who draw their conclusions based on videos of officer-involved shootings.
"It's important to remember that police officers go into dangerous neighborhoods. They put themselves in harm's way to protect others, no matter where they're called,'' Hestrin said.
Palm Springs police went to the probationer's home around 1 p.m. Saturday in response to a woman's call reporting that her adult son was causing a disturbance, authorities said.
According to sheriff's Deputy Mike Vasquez, when the officers arrived, they were informed that the defendant was armed with a weapon. The three officers spoke to Felix through a metal screen door and told him to step outside, at which point he fired on them "without provocation or warning,'' Vasquez said.
The defendant was wearing body armor and fired armor piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, Hestrin said.
After the shootings, Felix holed up in his house in the 2700 block of Cypress Avenue, culminating in a 12-hour standoff and his eventual surrender.
He was treated for superficial injuries and booked into jail.
Vega had been with the department for 35 years -- five years past his retirement eligibility -- and had planned to leave in December. Zerebny had been with the department for 18 months and had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter four months ago. Her husband is a sheriff's deputy.
Saturday marked the first time a Palm Springs police officer was killed in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 1962, when Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee died during a vehicle pursuit. Officer Gale Gene Eldridge was fatally shot Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.
"I'm heartbroken over what happened,'' said Hestrin, whose father was a Palm Springs cop. "But we don't do this job based on emotions. Yes, it hurts, but we have to maintain the highest level of professionalism.''
Felix was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in prison for a 2009 crime that originally drew an attempted murder charge but was pled down. He was also convicted of street gang activity.
After his release from state prison, he was accused of resisting arrest by Palm Springs police on the same street where he allegedly shot the three officers Saturday.
Final respects will be paid to the two officers at a public memorial service Tuesday at the Palm Springs Convention Center. All Riverside County supervisors, as well as numerous other officials, are planning to attend.
Donations to Vega and Zerebny's families can be made at this site.