John Hernandez Felix was sentenced to die Friday for taking the lives of two officers almost three years ago.
John Hernandez Felix in court as he waits for sentencing in the 2016 murders of Palm Springs Officers Jose Vega and Lesley Zerebny. A juror found Felix guilty of gunning the officers down. The same jury recommended the death penalty. pic.twitter.com/Rtrzy1c6yv
— Leticia Juarez (@ABC7Leticia) August 30, 2019
On top of that, Felix was sentenced by Riverside Superior Court Judge Anthony Villalobos to 368 years to life for the gun battle in October 2016 that injured several others at his parents’ home.
FELIX SENTENCING THREAD: Convicted on all counts in the PSPD murder trial, including the murders of officers 'Gil' Vega and Lesley Zerebny, John Felix is being sentenced today. He could face the death penalty.
— Jake Ingrassia (@JakeKESQ) August 30, 2019
Villalobos read his decision, first explaining the relevant state laws. While he did so, the packed courtroom sat in silence.
Prior to that, family members of the murdered officers shared their pain, anger and hope that the judge would uphold a jury’s recommendation in May.
That recommendation would send Felix to his death for the murders of Palm Springs police officers Jose “Gil” Vega and Lesley Zerebny.
The verdict for the murders of Officers Gil Vega and Lesley Zerebny was confirmed today…Death Penalty plus 368 Years. Thank you to all who supported us through this long process. @RivCoDA @RSO #police #LawEnforcement pic.twitter.com/dR5du7uV6k
— Palm Springs PD (@PalmSpringsPD) August 30, 2019
Villalobos presided over the murder trial earlier this year.
On Friday morning, he heard motions from Felix’s lawyers for a new trial and for a lighter sentence. He rejected both.
Felix looked dazed when the sentence was read.
Felix laughing to his attorney moments after being sentenced to death.
— Jake Ingrassia (@JakeKESQ) August 30, 2019
“Mr. Felix, there’s not much I can say that hasn’t already been said,” Villalobos said. “Your calloused actions ruined many lives. I hope that what little was done here today will bring some peace to these families.”
Among the family members who spoke was Zerebny’s sister, Britta Kling, who asked the judge to uphold the jury’s death recommendation.
“I hope he suffers,” she told the judge. “Karma is a bitch and she has the entire Felix family written on her to-do list.”
“You can’t sufficiently sentence him for what he has done.”
She then went on to call Felix a dog and asked the judge to put him down like one.
Here’s the back story.
It happened on Oct. 8, 2016.
Felix opened fire when officers were dispatched to his house for a domestic.
He let 21 shots fly at officers, killing two and injuring several others. Twelve hours later, he was arrested when SWAT team members fired teargas into his barricaded home.
Back in May, he was convicted of first-degree murder.
This for shooting the two officers to death in a premeditated plan to lure police to his parents’ home and shoot them.
Then he was convicted of attempted murder for shooting at six other officers. He was also convicted on three firearms violations.
It only took Jurors a few hours to deliberate before reaching their verdict, recommending Felix be put to death.
Matt Zerebny, Lesley Zerebny’s father-in-law said the family struggles every day without her.
He reminded the court that Felix threatened the officers who arrested him by saying he saw their faces and that they were next.
“God saw your face,” Zerebny said while looking at Felix. “Vengeance is his.”
Vega’s wife Susana also took the stand to give a statement. It ended up being read by Andrea Murray, one of Vega’s daughters, and spoke about how Susana and the girls miss him dearly.
“I hope this sentence brings us closure,” the statement read.
Nickole Rubio, Vega’s goddaughter, also spoke.
She said it’s now about the families who lost their two loved ones.
“You maybe ripped those two out of our hands but you made four families stronger,” Rubio said to Felix. “The Vegas, Zerebnys, Klings and the police department.”
Jose Hector Vega talked about how his fallen brother came from a family of 10. That family had a single mother and no father in the household.
“We weren’t allowed to use bathrooms at gas stations,” he said, noting how people felt about his family. “Mexicans hated us, white people hated us because we were brown, other people hated us because we were farm workers.”
But he said that didn’t change a thing.
“Gil didn’t turn out like you. Gil gave people second opportunities.”
After that, prosecutor Manny Bustamante read a statement from Dan and Marge Zerebny. They are the grandparents of officer Zerebny’s husband.
LuAnne Kling, Zerebny’s mother, spoke of her daughter.
She said she “was so proud to be on the police force and we were proud of her.”
Her husband, David Kling, Lesley’s father, also spoke, saying he owed a debt of gratitude to the Palm Springs Police Department, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, prosecutors and even the judge.
But even more than that, he said he owed the jury his “eternal thanks.”
“Because we are talking about here is justice, that’s what’s been missing from our lives for two years,” Kling said. “Because what we are talking about here is justice.”
Then he turned his attention to Felix.
“I don’t know if you know where you are going, but San Quentin is a living hell.
Good luck he said.
“You’re gonna be sitting in that cage for a long time. My only message to you is: “I hope you burn in hell, Felix.”
Refresher: back in May, the jury recommended the death penalty, finding Felix guilty of these 11 counts.
The only thing they didn't find was that he wore body armor during the shooting. No one ever testified they actually saw Felix inside the house, but he came out wearing it. pic.twitter.com/xPGu7G9FqU
— Jake Ingrassia (@JakeKESQ) August 30, 2019
After the sentence was read, Chief Deputy District Attorney Michelle Paradise and Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes shared their thoughts with reporters and said justice had been served.
“Make no mistake, the only reason he killed Officer Zerebny and Officer Vega is because they were doing their job,” she said, adding that violence against law enforcement officers has been on the rise.
Reyes said there was one key point to remember from the day’s sentencing hearing.
That’s the importance of the sacrifice of first responders.
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Another guilty verdict was handed down today. This one was in Mount Vernon, Washington where a 47-year-old man was found guilty in the shooting of a Mount Vernon police officer that left him blind in 2016.
And it’s a gang member who got a pass after a previous crime that should have landed him behind bars for life.
After a three-week trial in Skagit County Superior Court, Ernesto Rivas was found guilty of attempted first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon.
It stems from a December 2016 incident that left Officer Michael “Mick” McClaughry shot in the head. It happened when he knocked on Rivas’ door to get information about a gang shooting that happened earlier in the day.
Police knew Rivas was a Nortenos gang member.
But Skagit County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Rosemary Kaholokula said in court he was also known to be a person who didn’t have a problem with law enforcement.
According to the prosecutor, McClaughry knocked on Rivas’ door and said, “Ernie we just want to talk with you” before McClaughry was shot through a glass doorway panel.
The jury determined he was guilty of two counts of attempted murder. One was for McClaughry’s shooting and the other was for the shooting that led McClaughry and other investigators to his home.
Thanks to Facebook messages and phone calls with police negotiators, prosecutors said Rivas all but confessing to the shooting.
His defense attorneys called it nothing more than “bravado”, and said it was another gang member who was in the house at that time pulled the trigger.
McClaughry, a 30-year veteran of the Mount Vernon Police Department, said he felt relieved after the verdict.
“I don’t have to think about it anymore,” he said. “I can now just begin to move on to other things.”
When he was released from the hospital, McClaughry said he couldn’t see. But he now says that his vision has been slowly improving.
One of the key questions facing jurors was whether Rivas pulled the trigger on the gun in what Skagit County prosecuting attorney Rich Weyrich called a “callous act” that Rivas admitted to that night.
Weyrick said it happened during a “night of terror” that “tested the will and the training of all these officers.”
That night during the investigation leading up to the shooting, a K-9 unit narrowed in on Rivas’ home.
According to Weyrich, Rivas listened to police traffic on the radio and turned on his surveillance system to monitor as officers approached his home… then at 7:12 p.m. sent a message on Facebook that read, “I’m going 2 shoot it out with the cops”.
Prosecutors say that at 7:27 p.m., Rivas did just that, shooting McClaughry in the head.
They say that as officers attempted to pull the wounded McClaughry to safety, Rivas kept firing.
“What is clear from the video and the sound is that there was gunfire coming from the house as they tried to rescue their fellow officer McClaughry and pull him to safety,” he said. “Ernesto Rivas fired those shots.”
They say that at 7:44 p.m., Rivas sent another Facebook message stating:
“I just shot a cop.”
Weyrich said that Rivas called 911 dispatchers moments after McClaughry was shot, and between that call and conversations with Skagit County crisis negotiators, jurors should have no doubt that Rivas was the man who pulled the trigger.
“At no time did he ever deny being the shooter,” Weyrich said.
Weyrich went on in court to refer to a statement Rivas made to Skagit County sheriff’s deputy Brad Holmes, which he says was also a testament to his guilt.
““Did I shoot him in the head or did I shoot him in the chest?’” Weyrich quoted Rivas as saying. “Does that sound like someone who didn’t pull the trigger?”
During court proceedings, jurors also heard a snippet from a recorded statement Rivas made to investigators after his arrest.
He said he “freaked out” and “strapped up, got ready to fight.”
“I had too much (expletive) in my house I wasn’t supposed to have,” Rivas said. “Guns, bulletproof vests, ammo …”
Jurors also had to determine whether Rivas gave 16-year-old Austin Gonzales a gun that was used to shoot a man earlier that evening.
“(Gonzales) certainly wasn’t the mastermind of this whole plan,” Weyrich said of the teenager. “He’s a perfect individual to be exploited.”
According to prosecutors, Gonzales and that first shooting victim had a fight. They say the victim had taken and shared photos of Rivas talking to a deputy and that Rivas’ desire for revenge coincided with Gonzales’ desire to prove himself.
“They sent photos of the ‘Original Gangster,’ at least in their mind, snitching to the cops,” Weyrich said.
“He had to pay.”
Defense lawyer Tammy Candler summed up her argument by making Rivas out to be a good guy. She hung a family photo of Rivas and his children as well as one of Rivas smiling with Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau on election night.
On the white board, she had written one phrase:
“The strongest human instinct is self-preservation.”
The nightmare, she said, was the police – not her client.
“Ernesto Rivas was not planning on spending his evening like this,” Candler said. “This was a normal night in the life of Ernesto Rivas when this nightmare came banging on his door.”
Here’s the thing – Ernesto Lee Rivas never should have been free to begin with.
In 1998, he pleaded guilty in a deal with Yakima County prosecutors that saved him from a life sentence.
He was then sentenced to 15 years in prison and avoided a three-strikes conviction, which would have sent him to prison for the rest of his life.
That deal was protested by a Yakima police detective, who called Rivas a “predator.”
Rivas criminal history goes all the way back to the early 90’s, according to court records. Then in ’97, he was convicted of unlawful imprisonment and second-degree theft in Yakima County Superior Court.
In 2011, he pleaded guilty to unlawful firearm possession.
After that, he was subject to a domestic-violence protection order after the mother of his child accused him of stalking her at work.
At that time, the 4-month-old child’s mother said Rivas had been stalking her at her job at a Dollar Tree store in Mount Vernon because he wanted a Chevrolet Suburban they owned.
“He sits outside my work for long periods of time, comes into my workplace and complains about me,” she wrote in a petition for the order. “He almost hit me with his vehicle while I was getting carts, yelling at me in front of customers.”
Back in the 1997 case, Rivas initially was charged with four counts of first-degree kidnapping, four counts of second-degree assault, four counts of intimidating a witness and one count of first-degree robbery.
By that point, he’d already had two previous convictions for second-degree assault.
That meant Rivas faced a mandatory life sentence under the state’s Three Strikes You’re Out law, if a jury had convicted him on any one of the more serious kidnapping or assault charges.
But days before Rivas’ second trial was scheduled to begin, prosecutors agreed to drop all of the most serious felony charges in exchange for guilty pleas by Rivas on three lesser charges: two counts of unlawful imprisonment and one count of second-degree theft.
None of those charges counted as a third strike, and under the deal the judge ordered Rivas to serve the maximum sentence under state law.
Yakima police Detective Eric Walls described Rivas in a statement to the judge as a dangerous criminal who never should be allowed to leave prison.
“He is a prime example of a predator, and I want the court to know this (plea agreement) angers me,” Walls said. “He deserves a lot more.”
But he didn’t get a lot more.
“I take this plea bargain to avoid a third strike,” Rivas said.
Turning to Walls, who was sitting a few feet away in the courtroom, Rivas then smiled, the newspaper reported, and said:
“Oh, by the way, does that mean I got four balls and a walk?”
That 1997 incident came after Rivas and another man were arrested for holding four people at gunpoint, with one claiming to be bound at the hands and feet. Rivas and the other man grilled them for three hours about a missing necklace belonging to another man’s girlfriend.
While in Yakima County jail, Rivas had several run-ins with other inmates and was investigated by corrections officers, who said they had evidence the tattooed inmate had smuggled a shank into his jail cell.
Rivas will again be sentenced next week.
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