Man accused in Palm Springs cop killings found competent to stand trial

Jason Kurosu

Special to Valley News

A 27-year-old ex-convict charged with the ambush killings of two Palm Springs police officers who went to his home on a family disturbance call nearly a year ago is deemed mentally competent to stand trial, a judge ruled.

John Hernandez Felix, who is accused of fatally shooting veteran training Officer Jose Gilbert Vega, 63, and rookie Officer Lesley Zerebny, 27, faces murder and other charges that could lead to the death penalty if he is convicted.

Criminal proceedings against him had been suspended since May, when his attorneys declared doubts regarding his competence.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos set a Dec. 15 preliminary hearing for the defendant following a two-day bench trial that included testimony from three psychologists.

Defense attorney John Dolan contended that Felix is suffering from “traumatic amnesia” and has no memory of the Oct. 8, 2016, shooting, preventing him from contributing to an adequate defense. His attorneys said Felix remembers an argument with his sister, which triggered the 911 call and police response, but has no memory of the day until law enforcement launched tear gas into the home and shot him with nonlethal beanbag guns about 12 hours later.

Dolan argued that Felix should be found incompetent so that he could undergo treatment to try and retrieve his lost memories.

“We don’t have an answer regarding his state of mind (at the time),” Dolan said. “We ought to have the opportunity to have him seek treatment to try to restore his memory.”

But two psychologists, Drs. William H. Jones and Michael Kania, testified that Felix is competent to stand trial and that any supposed amnesia should not be relevant to a proper defense. The doctors also concluded that Felix was clear as to the consequences he faced at trial and that he would be able to assist his lawyers as much as any defendant lacking legal training.

Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante argued that there were other ways to assist counsel, even if the amnesia were genuine, such as helping identify and locate defense witnesses.

In testimony over two days, Dr. Hilda Chalgujian, a neuropsychologist, said she believes Felix’s amnesia is legitimate and that emotional trauma sustained during the shooting, along with Felix’s “subaverage intelligence” and documented substance abuse, could have contributed to poor memory.

The prosecution suggested a potential conflict of interest involving Chalgujian and Dolan during the brief trial, and noted that she had never previously conducted what is known as a PC 1368 test to measure competency, whereas Jones and Kania had conducted an estimated 6,000 such tests between the two doctors.

Bustamante also argued that though Chalgujian said she thought Felix’s amnesia was real, she never definitively concluded that Felix was incompetent, only that he was “at high risk” of being incompetent and “might not be able to assist” his counsel.

In addition to her career in psychology, Chalgujian is a fourth-year law student at Dolan’s California Desert Trial Academy, an Indio-based school where he serves as dean. She also works as a law clerk under Dolan, but said she is receiving no compensation for furnishing her report on Felix, nor was she promised anything with regard to her academic career.

Felix is accused of opening fire on Vega, Zerebny and a third officer through the metal screen door of his home as they approached. He also allegedly fired on two of their colleagues, who were not struck by the gunfire.

District Attorney Mike Hestrin has alleged that Felix, who is accused of donning body armor and firing armor-piercing rounds from an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, specifically targeted police.

Vega and Zerebny were the first Palm Springs police officers killed in the line of duty since Jan. 1, 1962, when Officer Lyle Wayne Larrabee died during a vehicle pursuit. The only other death in the department was that of Officer Gale Gene Eldridge, fatally shot Jan. 18, 1961, while investigating an armed robbery.

Vega had been with the department 35 years – five years past his retirement eligibility – and had planned to finish his career December 2016. He had eight children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Zerebny had been with the department for a year and a half and had just returned to duty from maternity leave after the birth of a daughter, Cora, four months before her death.

On the anniversary of their deaths, a four-mile stretch of Highway 111 will be officially renamed the Police Officer Jose ‘Gil’ Vega and Police Officer Lesley Zerebny Memorial Highway, and a plaque bearing their names will be unveiled on the police memorial in front of the Palm Springs police station.

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