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Palm Springs shooting: Search on for man who killed 2 officers

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(CNN) – Two police officers — one just back from maternity leave and another headed for retirement — were fatally shot as they responded to a family disturbance call in Palm Springs, California.

The Saturday afternoon shooting led authorities on a lengthy search for the gunman. A manhunt was still going on early Sunday, more than 10 hours later.

Police identified the fallen officers as Jose Gilbert Vega, a 35-year veteran of the department, and Lesley Zerebny, who joined the department last year and is the mother of an infant.

A third officer was wounded, but authorities declined to provide further details. The police chief said the officer was alert and providing information to investigators.

Mother’s call

The incident started after officers responded to a 911 call at a house in Palm Springs, a town 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

A woman made the call around midday local time and said her adult son had caused a disturbance, Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes said.

When officers arrived, the suspect refused to open the front door and threatened to shoot the officers, Reyes said.

Within 10 minutes of their arrival, as they tried to get him to comply with their orders, the suspect opened fire. A third officer was also injured.

Palm Springs resident Arnold Morales described hearing a flurry of gunshots, one after the other in rapid succession, as he drove home from the gym.

“That’s not fireworks,” Morales told CNN affiliate KMIR. “[It was] bang-bang-bang. We must’ve heard at least 30 shots. It could be more.”

‘Awake in a nightmare’

Fighting back tears at a news conference, Reyes described the two slain officers as “guardians” of Palm Springs.

Vega, a 63-year-old father of eight, had served as a police officer for 35 years. He had filed paperwork to retire in December, but continued to pick up overtime shifts like the one he worked Saturday, the police chief said.

“Here he is, 35 years in, still pushing a patrol car for our community to make it better,” Reyes said. “On a day he wasn’t even designed to work.”

Zerebny, a “wonderful, young, dedicated” 27-year-old officer, joined the department last year, Reyes said.

After going away on maternity leave, she had just returned to duty. She leaves behind her husband, who is a deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, and a four-month-old daughter.

“I am awake in a nightmare right now,” Reyes said.

Robots help search for suspect

Since the shooting, officers from Palm Springs and nearby law enforcement agencies converged on the neighborhood and surrounded a house where the shooter may be holed up.

“They’re going to treat the house as if he’s still in it,” Reyes said.

Reyes did not discuss the suspect’s potential motive. As a precaution, Reyes said police have established a four-block perimeter and urged neighborhood residents to stay inside.

Reyes asked the public not to use social media to show movements of officers who surrounded the house.

“Understand we are looking for a cop murderer,” he said. “Do not do that for (the officers’) own safety.”

Hours later, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office took over the investigation. Deputy Armando Munoz, a spokesman for the agency, said investigators are trying to contact the suspect but they’re not certain he’s inside the building.

More than eight hours after police first arrived, CNN affiliate KMIR reported that a robot on wheels rolled past a group of reporters toward the scene. A second, larger robot rolled out shortly thereafter, according to the station.

‘My employees are broken’

Saturday’s shooting comes on the heels of a deadly summer for police officers in the United States.

On July 17, a gunman killed three officers and wounded another three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. About a week earlier, a gunman killed five officers and wounded seven in Dallas.

Reyes said officers are grieving the two slain officers, and need prayers.

“My employees are broken,” he said.

Flowers, candles

As the officers mourned, the community left flowers at the police station and held a candlelight vigil.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, offering his condolences to the officers’ families, ordered the state capitol flags to be flown at half-staff.

“Officers Vega and Zerebny were killed today doing what they do every day — protecting their community,” he said in a statement Saturday night. “We grieve with the family members, friends and fellow officers coping with this senseless tragedy.”

Later Saturday night, Palm Springs police officers started a procession for both officers from the Desert Regional Medical Center to the Riverside County Sheriff Coroner’s Office in Indio, California.

“Words cannot properly describe the heartbreak and the shock we are all feeling,” the Palm Springs Police Officers Association said in a statement.

Onlookers gathered at the Interstate 10 overpass as squad cars with flashing lights passed underneath them.

Motorists lit their lights in solidarity.