PALM SPRINGS (CBS/AP) — Thousands of mourners and law enforcement packed a memorial service Tuesday for two Southern California officers shot to death in what authorities have called an ambush by a gang member intent on killing police.
Palm Springs police officers Jose “Gil” Vega and Lesley Zerebny were being honored at the city’s convention center before being laid to rest.
Uniformed police from cities in California and across the country lined up to salute 27-year-old Zerebny, whose picture was surrounded by flowers, and 63-year-old Vega, whose coffin was draped with an American flag.
A large flag also hung outside the center where nearly 10,000 people attended, said James Canfield, the center’s executive director.
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Authorities say the two officers were responding to a domestic disturbance call Oct. 8 at the family home of a 26-year-old gang member when he opened fire on them with an assault rifle through a metal screen door.
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.
They have also collected donated baby items for the family of Zerebny, who had recently returned from maternity leave after giving birth to a now-4-month-old daughter. Vega, a father of eight, was a 35-year veteran who was preparing to retire.
Mona Lea, 81, said she lined up with many others at a drive-thru donation line set up last week outside City Hall. She had met Zerebny before, and was torn up by the loss.
“I have never been involved in anything like this,” Lea, who has lived in Palm Springs more than three decades, said of the outpouring of support. “It is a small community, and it is hurt.”
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.
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 popular Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant was shot and killed in the high desert city of Lancaster while answering a burglary call.
And it occurred in a resort town of 47,000 people known as warm and welcoming to tourists, retirees and the gay and lesbian communities.
Robin Costello, whose husband is a Palm Springs police officer, said she has sold thousands of T-shirts honoring the fallen officers since they were donated last week to help Vega’s and Zerebny’s families. She said the community has always been close but she was struck by the support at last week’s fundraiser.
“Kids were bringing piggy banks,” she said. “I felt so much love. There was a line of cars around City Hall all day.”
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