Los Angeles

Thousands Remember Slain Palm Springs Officers at Memorial Service

Officers Vega and Zerebny were gunned down after responding to a family disturbance call at a Palm Springs home.

Palm Springs residents and members of law enforcement from throughout California packed a convention center in the Riverside County community of Palm Springs to honor slain police officers Jose Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny Tuesday at a public memorial service.

The service for Vega and Zerebny, gunned down after responding to a family disturbance call at a Palm Springs home, began with a salute from colleagues as bagpipers entered the Palm Springs Convention Center. Nearly 10,000 mourners and police converged on the Palm Springs Convention Center to honor them.

"He will always stay in our hearts," said 8-year-old Vanessa Vega, the youngest of her father's eight children. "Even though we can't see him doesn't mean he can't see us."

The officers were transported to the convention center via separate procession routes -- Vega from the Forest Lawn Mortuary in Cathedral City and Zerebny from the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater located in her hometown of Hemet. A large U.S. flag was draped outside the convention center.

The city's police chief talked about a growing threat to police. 

"The threat to law enforcement throughout our country is very real," said Chief Bryan Reyes. "No community is exempt from such a tragedy.

"Enough is enough. Our law enforcement brothers and sisters throughout the country are growing tired of this unacceptable behavior."

Vega, 63, was with the department for 35 years -- five years past his retirement eligibility -- and had planned to finish his career in December. Nephew Andrew Vega told mourners that his uncle was born into poverty and dedicated his life to bettering the world around him, giving a positive role model for him and other young Latinos. 

"He died doing what he loved to do," said Vega.

Zerebny, 27, was with the department for a year and a half and was married to a sheriff's deputy. She gave birth to a daughter four months ago and had just returned to duty from maternity leave. Her graveside service will be held at a private location and will only be open to family members.

A community vigil was held for Zerebny Sunday night at West Valley High School, her alma mater.

"She loved it. She was meant to be a police officer and you can't go back and wish something different because she was truly happy," Zerebny's sister Britta Boyer said at Sunday's vigil.

The deaths of Vega and Zerebny rocked the tight-knit community 100 miles east of Los Angeles. Residents have left bouquets, balloons and notes outside the police station and have been selling T-shirts to raise money for the officers' families.

Robin Costello, whose husband is a Palm Springs police officer, said she has sold thousands of T-shirts honoring the fallen officers since they were donated last week to help Vega's and Zerebny's families. She said the community has always been close but she was struck by the support at last week's fundraiser.

"Kids were bringing piggy banks," she said. "I felt so much love. There was a line of cars around City Hall all day."

The alleged shooter, John Hernandez Felix, 26, was arrested by Riverside County sheriff's deputies following a 12-hour standoff at his home. He faces felony charges, including murder and attempted murder, and special circumstances allegations that could make him eligible for the death penalty, although the District Attorney's Office has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty.

It has been tense year for police as officers have been shot to death in other cities including Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Palm Springs shooting occurred just three days after a respected long-time Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant was shot and killed in the high desert city of Lancaster while answering a burglary call.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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