A photograph of suspect John Felix is displayed at a news conference near photo of slain officer Zerebny in Palm Springs, California

By now, you’ve no doubt heard about the murder of two Palm Springs police officers who were responding to a domestic violence call this past Saturday.

A domestic violence call that ended the lives of two California police officers last weekend was the kind of report that many authorities say they hate and fear the most.

For no matter how much training and experience officers receive, they often have little idea what awaits them when they approach the scene of such a disturbance.

“You never know all the facts until you get there. And you never know what’s on the other side of that door,” said Erroll Southers, a former police officer and FBI special agent who is currently director of the Homegrown Violent Studies Program at the University of Southern California.

Police say Palm Springs Officers Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny had just asked John Felix to come out of his family’s home Saturday when he opened fire through the closed front door.

A neighborhood home surveillance system recorded the sound of dozens of gunshots echoing through the ordinarily quiet neighborhood. Its camera did not show the officers.

Vega and Zerebny were killed and a third officer was treated for a gunshot wound and later released from a hospital. A fourth officer was unharmed.

A neighbor, Frances Serrano, told The Associated Press that the suspect’s panicked father, Santos Felix, told her just before the shooting that his 26-year-old son was armed and “acting crazy.”

When she suggested he call police, Serrano said he told her, “‘Yeah, he already knows they are coming, and he is going to shoot them.'”


Officer Vega was nearing retirement. He was the father of eight children.

Officer Zerebny had just returned from maternity leave. Her husband, a sheriff’s deputy on the scene, kissed her on the forehead for the last time before the coroner took her away. Her little girl will never know her mother.

The murderer, John Felix, is a known gang member with a long criminal record and prior weapons offenses, and yet he had acquired firearms (illegally) standard-capacity magazines (illegally), and soft body armor (illegal for convicted felons to own).

It’s almost like criminals don’t obey California’s silly and overbearing gun laws that leave only law-abiding people defenseless…

I’m very curious to discover what information the responding Palm Springs officers had when they approached the Felix home.

If they were responding to a generic family disturbance call, but had no other information about who was there or what that person’s state of mind was, then I don’t know what officers might have done differently to put themselves in a more survivable position. They essentially walked unwittingly into an ambush.

If officers knew who they were dealing with, however, and the father (or other family members) had been able to relay information that the younger Felix was armed and waiting to shoot it out with cops, I have to think that the Palm Springs would have responded very differently. I suspect that they first would have established a perimeter to contain Felix and protect the surrounding neighbors, attempt to establish telephone communications for negotiation with Felix at a distance, then sending in a SWAT/ESU unit behind shields to make first contact and take him into custody.

As it was, Palm Springs police walked into an ambush, had three of four officers hit (two fatally), then had to gas Felix to get him out the home. Even when he left the home they had to pound him with beanbag rounds to drop him and bring him into custody.

It all seems so senseless and preventable.

Make the RIGHT 911 call

If you’re ever in a position where you need to dial 911 for help, please use the following information, in the following order.

  • the location of your emergency. “4th Avenue and Charles Street,” or “the parking lot at Walmart” or something similar. They need to know the location of the event immediately, in case your call gets cut off.
  • the nature of your emergency. “multi-car collision, with possible injuries” or “there has been a robbery and people have been shot.” The dispatcher needs to know which first responders to send out (police/fire/EMS).
  • a concise description with as many relevant details as you can provide. Is there an on-going threat? Are lives in danger? What do you know about the circumstances and people involved? Now is not the time to give a play-by-play description, just the information that first responders need.

It was pounded into our heads at Gunsite Academy’s Defense Against Street Crimes class that how you provide those details also greatly influences  how officers approach the scene based upon the information you relay to dispatchers.

SCENARIO: You are pumping gas at your local gas station when a pair of sketchy looking guys comes up asking for money. You warn them away, but they pull a knife and handgun and start screaming that they’re going to kill you, take your money, and your car. You pull your concealed weapon, and do what you’ve got to do to survive. One guy drops behind the opposite side of your car. The other runs off. Not being an idiot, you retreat across the parking lot and post up beside the brick facade at the corner of the station, giving yourself distance and cover and a better chance of survival if either of the robbers decides to become an issue for you again.

You call 911. Which of the following 911 call is going to result in a better outcome for you?

Response 1: “I’m at Phil’s Service Station at the intersection of Ninth and Jones Street. I think I just shot two guys. Send help.”

Response 2: “I’m at Phil’s Service Station at the intersection of Ninth and Jones Street. Two armed men just tried to carjack me. I am a concealed carrier, and I used my gun to defend myself. I’m not sure where they are. One may be down behind my car. I think the other may have run off. I’m hiding behind the west corner of building, wearing a blue jacket and tan pants. Tell officers that I will put my gun down and raise my hands when they arrive.”

Both of those phone calls provide the same basic facts, but one presents you as an unfortunate victim of a robbery, and the other presents you as an unknown possible threat to first responders.

Please make sure that if you are forced to call 911, that you concisely give them all the facts that you need.

I have to think that if Palm Springs officers knew who they were going up against, and what his mindset was, that Officer Gil Vega would be planning how to spend his retirement, and Officer Lesley Zerebny would be around to watch her child grow up.