PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Two police officers were shot and killed and another was wounded Saturday while responding to a domestic disturbance in a Palm Springs residential area, authorities say.
Dozens of police massed outside a house where a suspect appeared to be holed up. Officers took defensive positions behind a patrol car and a concrete wall.
"Today Palm Springs lost two brave officers," Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes said at a news conference, his voice shaking with emotion. "I am awake in a nightmare right now."
The slain officers were identified as Lesley Zerebny and Jose Gilbert “Gil” Vega. Reyes said Vega was a father of eight and a 35-year veteran who was due to retire in December and had chosen to work overtime on Saturday. Zerebny is the mother of a 4-month-old baby, he said.
They were the first Palm Springs police officers to die in the line of duty since 1962.
Reyes said the wounded officer was alert and doing well.
The officers were at the door of a house when the shooting began, Reyes said.
"It was a simple family disturbance and he elected to open fire," Reyes said.
Police were searching for the gunman in the area of Cypress and Del Lago roads and encouraged residents to stay indoors. Multiple officers in tactical gear were taking cover behind a 4-foot wall.
Several other officers stood close by an armored vehicle parked a block away.
Witnesses said they heard between 10 and 20 gunshots from what sounded like machine guns. Over a dozen patrol cars, three fire engines and a SWAT truck were at the scene of the incident at 2 p.m.
Palm Springs police and San Jacinto police were on scene.
Palm Springs Mayor Rob Moon, while walking out of the emergency room where the officers were taken, said, "It's probably the worst day of my life."
The suspect in the killing of two police officers Saturday afternoon allegedly told his father he wanted to kill cops moments before the gunfire began.
Frances Serrano, who lives directly across the street from where the shooting took place, spoke to the father of the suspected shooter moments before the incident. The father told Serrano that his son, who has mental issues, had a gun and wanted to shoot police officers.
“He came over and asked for help,” she said.
Serrano called the police and the father walked back toward his house. Soon after, Serrano heard gunshots.
At 2:45 p.m. PT, Serrano said two officers were on her front patio kneeling on the ground with rifles pointed at the shooter's house.
Gerardo Barrera was working nearby in the quiet residential zone when he heard gun shots.
"I saw a person on the ground,” he said. “Someone kept pumping her chest but she wasn't moving."
He said police arrived right away.
"It sounded like fireworks at first,” said Juan Garciano, who lives a block from the scene. “I came out of the house and saw police start to block the roads."
Neighbor Luis Velasquez said he had been outside with his family having a yard sale when gunfire erupted.
"It’s usually a really, really quiet neighborhood," Velasquez said. "You always hear of these things going on in Riverside and L.A., New York, things like that. But you never think that it would happen here, your own neighborhood."
Zerebny, 27, had been on the force for a year and a half. She had just returned to work after giving birth to a daughter four months ago, Reyes said.
In 2013, Vega had been named Patrol Operations Officer of the Year by the Palm Desert Area Chamber of Commerce Peace Officer and Public Safety Awards.
City Manager David Ready said he also knew Vega well.
"He was a guy who could have retired a long time ago but didn't," Ready said. "He loved being a police officer. Whenever a call went out for overtime shifts, he was always ready to volunteer."
Ready repeated the police chief's words.
"The chief summed it up: We're all awake in a nightmare. It's beyond tragic."
The shooting came four days after a Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant was shot and killed in Lancaster while responding to a burglary report, and three months after a gunman killed five officers in Dallas, followed days later by another shooting in Baton Rouge, where three officers were killed.
Nationwide, the number of police shot and killed so far this year is up more than 40 percent from the same time last year, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In addition to the deaths on Saturday, the organization says there have been 43 firearms-related deaths of law enforcement officers in 2016, up from 30 officers slain at this time last year.