Two Palm Springs police officers trying to resolve a family dispute were shot to death Saturday when a man they had been speaking calmly with suddenly pulled out a gun and opened fire on them, the city’s police chief told reporters. A third officer was wounded. The shooter was not immediately apprehended.
“It was a simple family disturbance and he elected to open fire on a few of the guardians of the city,” police Chief Bryan Reyes, his voice breaking, told reporters. The chief, near tears, identified the slain officers as Jose ‘Gil’ Gilbert Vega and Lesley Zerebny. He did not disclose their ranks or other information and did not reveal the wounded officer’s name.
Reyes said the officers were standing near the front door speaking with the man, “trying to negotiate with the suspect to just comply,” when he suddenly shot them. He said the shooter was not apprehended and may still be in the house. He said SWAT officers had the residence surrounded.
Dozens of law enforcement officers converged on the normally quiet residential neighborhood in this high desert resort city after the shooting. They sealed off several blocks and evacuated some residents. Police Sgt. William Hutchinson said officers were warning people already inside their homes to stay there, lock their doors and not answer them until further notice.
Although Reyes didn’t identify the shooting suspect, he indicated police had had previous dealings with him. He added that he expected to be able to release more information later Saturday. A neighbor, Frances Serrano, told The Associated Press she called authorities after the father of the shooting suspect came to her house across the street and told her his son was “acting crazy.”
“He said his wife left because she was so scared of him,” she said, adding her father warned that his son threatened to shoot police if they arrived. She’d gone back inside her home before officers arrived, Serrano said, and a few minutes after they got there she heard gunfire. Moments later officers were knocking on her door, warning her to stay inside.
Serrano said the man police are looking for had been in jail at one time and had to wear a monitor on his ankle when he was first released. But she added that he had always been friendly and polite to her and her family.
“We never had any problems with him,” she said.
The shooting occurred just three days after a popular Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant was shot and killed in the high desert town of Lancaster. Sgt. Steve Owen was answering a burglary call when sheriff’s officials say he was shot and wounded by a man who then stood over him and shot him four more times.
A paroled robber has been charged with murder. Lancaster residents were organizing a candlelight memorial for Owen Saturday night.