PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Two Palm Springs officers killed Saturday afternoon were a father of eight and a mother of a four-month-old who had just returned from maternity leave.
Jose Gilbert Vega was a 35-year department veteran and Lesley Zerebny was a 27-year-old new mother. Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes said Vega was due to retire in December and was working on his day off when he was shot.
At a Sunday vigil outside the Palm Springs Police Department headquarters, the family of slain officer Jose "Gil" Vega lined the front row in matching T-shirts — navy blue with a portrait of Vega on the back, emblazoned with "End of Watch" and the date of his death, Oct. 8. Hundreds stood around them, facing a memorial to the officers Palm Springs has lost in the line of duty.
Prior to this weekend, only two Palm Springs police officers had been killed on duty, in 1961 and 1962. On Saturday, two more — Vega and Lesley Zerebny — were shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance call.
"He was a really dedicated police officer. He loved his job, he loved his fellow officers," said Jose Vega, Gil's elder brother who volunteers with police in La Quinta, Calif. "He had two families — our family over here and that family over there. He loved you guys more than anything."
Vega, a 35-year veteran of the department, was the first officer to walk up to the door in northern Palm Springs on Saturday afternoon. He and Zerebny were killed in the ensuing gunfire. The father of eight had volunteered to work overtime Saturday and was scheduled to retire in December.
Zerebny, a rookie on the force, gave birth to a daughter four months ago and chose to come back from maternity leave early "to help out," Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes said. Zerebny was "very excited to learn her new profession," he said.
"To see her laying down with her eyes open and to witness her husband in full Riverside County sheriff's uniform, because he's a deputy sheriff, kiss her on the forehead for the last time — it's tough. We’re going to rely on all of you to help us through this," Reyes said, choking back tears.
Ricardo Hinojosa, Vega's nephew, said at Sunday's vigil that he's had his share of run-ins with the law. In a Raiders T-shirt, voice shaking with emotion, he said, "He loved me no matter what. Ever since I've known my tio, he's been an officer, and I know he loved his job."
Hinojosa thanked the crowd for attending the event and added, "I knew it would be the way it is because there's so many people that loved my uncle. He always had a smile on his face. ... I will always remember him like that."
Another nephew of Vega's, Miguel Ozuna, said he admired Vega's work and is joining the Indio Police Department as a cadet.
"He wanted to talk to me (about the decision), but I never got the chance. I'm never going to be able to get the chance to talk to him because of one man," Ozuna said, voice quivering.
Those attending the vigil expressed shock and dismay that police shootings like Saturday's could happen in Palm Springs and urged the community to use the tragedy to seek cohesion.
“I hope these families unite, and I hope this community comes together for this baby,” said Cathleen Melton, referring to Zerebny’s 4-month-old daughter.
“This is our community,” said Melton, who is married to Leslie Tisdale, a member of the Palm Springs Police Department. Like hundreds, they'd come to show support for the police department. “These are our people. This is isn’t where I grew up. But it’s where I live now. And I’m very proud of this community.
“If we don’t come together now, when will we come together?” Melton added.
Michelle Everett was making her way toward the memorial that had been set up to place a blue candle, honoring the fallen officers, and recalled the dedication Vega showed toward children and serving as a leader for them. “I’ve seen him interact with children, and he was so great with them.”
“He was such a good guy,” Everett added. “There’s good cops and bad cops, just like there’s good people and bad people. These were two really good cops.”
In Hemet, where officer Lesley Zerebny lived, the monthly prayer vigil Rosie Evario Bubley had planned for Sunday took on new significance after she learned of the shooting.
More than 50 people, some with signs and balloons, lined up on a sidewalk in central Hemet for the short vigil, which had no program so people could pray, sing, talk however they wanted.
Zerebny's husband is a Riverside County sheriff's deputy and her father was a California Highway Patrol officer, said Edith Bickler, who attended. She said she was surprised when Zerebny became a police officer after working at a local coffee shop that had closed, but thought the career fit the woman's driven personality.
Zerebny, 27, was close friends with Edith Bickler's two daughters. "My daughters couldn't even be here because it's so hard," said Bickler.
Palm Springs Police Lt. Gustavo Araiza said law enforcement officers, well-acquainted with the dangers of their job, can't truly prepare to lose a colleague this way.
"I honestly thought I'd go through my whole career without having to do something like this," said Araiza. "These are the scars you carry for the rest of your life. I've been to other funerals, but I lost two of my friends. In most respects, it's like losing a brother or sister — your brother who was moving on, to retirement, and your sister who's just starting."