'I can't think of a better cop.' Palm Springs officer killed three months before retirement

Outside the Palm Springs Police Department on Sunday, community members were adding to the growing tribute of flowers, American flags and candles left for the fallen officers.

A gunman killed two officers and wounded a third Saturday. The dead were identified as Officer Jose “Gil” Vega, a 35-year department veteran who was due to retire in December, and Officer Lesley Zerebny, the mother of a 4-month-old who recently returned to work from maternity leave. 

Carrie Donovan wiped away tears as she and her husband, Mike, walked back to their car after dropping off flowers. Mike worked with the Palm Springs police for 30 years and retired in 2014.

He worked with Vega during his time as an officer.

“Gil was an outstanding police officer. Highest level of integrity, cared deeply for all the citizens of the city of Palm Springs and beyond and just gave his heart to the job and to the community,” he said, as his wife wiped away tears. “I can’t think of a better cop. It was an honor to work with him.”

Donovan described Gil as an officer who “always thought of others before himself,” especially in emergency situations. “He was just an excellent police officer,” he said.

The couple heard about the deaths through social media and were in disbelief, especially after finding out who was involved. Mike Donovan said Gil was the father of eight “great” children. 

“He was a great family man and did a lot for the community. He was a very giving person,” Donovan said. “It’s the loss of a brother officer and a loved one. It’s like a family member.”

Donovan noted how long it had been since the last officer death.

“It’s just one of those things you think about being a guardian of the public. You don’t let it occupy your mind as you’re working, but you try and prepare yourself for it and your loved ones. And when it does happen, we all come together.”

After working from 10 p.m. Saturday until 6 Sunday morning, Tina Muela, an Indio resident, picked up her mother and headed to the police department to drop off flowers. 

Her nephew has been a Palm Springs police officer for about five years. On Saturday, she saw there was a shooting and that two officers had died. Right away, she called her sister, concerned for the nephew’s safety. Her sister reassured her that her son was fine.

She was relieved her nephew was OK, but she also felt sadness for the officers who were killed.  

“This is family," Muela said, looking at the Palm Springs police building. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just so horrible. ... Nobody has any respect for law enforcement. People have lost all respect for law enforcement.

“Worries me every day,” she said. 

Police chaplains waited outside the police department, preparing to speak with officers about the deaths of their colleagues.

Steve Ballinger, lead chaplain for the Riverside Police Department, was invited to meet with officers throughout the day.

“Our hearts are broken,” he said. “This is happening way too much.”

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UPDATES:

12:40 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from a police chaplain.

This article was originally published at 11:02 a.m.

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