PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - A packed memorial service for two Palm Springs police officers fatally shot while responding to a disturbance call earlier this month took place Tuesday at the city’s convention center.
The service for officers Lesley Zerebny and Jose “Gil” Vega began shortly before 11:30 a.m. at the Palm Springs Convention Center, located at 277 North Avenida Caballeros.
Since the officers’ deaths Oct. 8, each member of the Palms Springs Police Department has become a “world-class hugger,” Lt. Mike Kovaleff said in opening the memorial, KTLA reported.
“The hugs, they started off awkward at first, with the gun belts, the radio mics, the body armor, let alone the fact that cops were involved,” Kovaleff said. “But they’ve turned into a work of beauty.”
Then Kovaleff referred to an annual 120-mile relay foot race from Baker to Las Vegas that draws officers from across California and elsewhere in the U.S.
“I proudly challenge any department in attendance to the Baker to Vegas hugging cup of 2017,” Kovaleff said. “We’ll smoke all y’all.”
The memorial, which included comments from Palm Springs’ mayor and was attended by thousands of police officers, was preceded by two separate processions.
Vega’s young daughter got a standing ovation when she remembered her father, assuring the audience that he had had a happy, good life and was a “good cop.”
Vanessa Vega, 8, said her father had taught her everything, including “baseball, karate and running,” even though he proved “very slow” while she got faster.
“Even though we can’t see him doesn’t mean he can’t see us,” Vanessa said. “He’s at peace now.”
The procession for Officer Zerebny left the Ramona Bowl Amphitheater in Hemet about 7:30 a.m. The procession for Officer Vega departed from Forest Lawn Mortuary around 9:30 a.m.
Graveside honors for Vega will immediately follow the memorial at the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery, located at 82925 Avenue 52 in Coachella.
Graveside honors for Zerebny are scheduled to take place at a private location and will only be open to family members.
Vega and Zerebny were shot through a closed front door as they tried to get a man to step out of a home following a disturbance call.
Vega, 63, and Zerebny, 27, were rushed to a hospital, where they were pronounced dead.
A third officer was also struck by the gunfire, but survived the injuries.
Following a 12-hour standoff, authorities took 26-year-old John Felix into custody.
Prosecutors have filed first-degree murder charges against Felix in the shooting, which was described as an “ambush” by District Attorney Michael Helstrin.
Felix is eligible for the death penalty.
Zerebny had just returned to duty following maternity leave when she responded to the Oct. 8 call.
She leaves behind her husband, who is a deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, and a 4-month old daughter.
Vega, a father of eight, had served as a police officer for 35 years and was due to retire in December.