PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – To his family and friends, Palm Springs police officer Jose “Gil” Vega loved coffee and doughnuts, golf, and telling jokes – but above all, public service.
And the 63-year-old died doing what he loved when he and fellow officer Lesley Zerebny responded to a domestic disturbance call on Oct. 8 involving a known gang member.
Both were shot at through the house’s metal screen door – and were remembered Tuesday by nearly 10,000 mourners and police who converged on the Palm Springs Convention Center for a memorial to honour 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 crowd packing the convention hall included uniformed officers from across California and the country who gathered to salute Vega, a 35-year police department veteran preparing to retire, and 27-year-old Zerebny. She had recently returned to patrol duty from maternity leave after giving birth to a now-4-month-old daughter.
Authorities say the officers were killed in an ambush when a 26-year-old ex-convict intent on killing police opened fire on them with an AR-15 rifle.
The deaths have rocked the tight-knit community 100 miles east of Los Angeles where residents have left scores of bouquets, balloons and notes outside the police station and have sold T-shirts to raise money for the officers’ families.
Suspect John Felix has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. He is being held without bail and could face the death penalty, but prosecutors have not yet announced whether they will seek it.
At the convention centre memorial service, Vega’s fellow officers and relatives shared memories of the man with a calm demeanour, sense of humour, and pride in being a police officer.
His nephew, Andrew Vega, said his uncle was born poor, and served as role model for him and other young Latinos. The officer told his nephew to set a good example when he set out to become a teacher years ago.
“I can only hope that my students looked at me the way I looked at him: sturdy, strong and an image of what is possible in this country,” Vega said.
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 Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant was shot and killed in the high desert city of Lancaster while answering a burglary call.
The shooting in Palm Springs marked the first killings of police in the line of duty in more than 50 years for the resort town of 47,000 people known as warm and welcoming to tourists, retirees and the gay and lesbian communities.
Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes questioned how it could happen in a community he described as united and upbeat. He urged citizens everywhere to quickly report problems to officers to prevent more violence and save officers’ lives.
“The threat to law enforcement throughout our country is very real,” he said. “No community is exempt from such a tragedy.”
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