PHOTO: Dan Eslinger_Kaminsky Productions
The murders of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Steve Owen and Palm Springs Police Officers Jose "Gil" Vega and Leslie Zerebny by two crazed and armed career criminals underscore what all cops and their families already know—there is indeed a war on police. It is, in fact, the age-old battle of good versus evil.
Although the investigations of all three murders are currently ongoing, we already know some facts that have been released by the victim officers' individual departments. And it is important that we understand what happened in these tragedies.
The Best of Us
Career LASD Sgt. Steve Owen was, at 53, ready to retire. He was investigating a burglary on Oct. 5 when he reportedly encountered career criminal and parolee Trenton Trevon Lovell, 27, of Lancaster, CA, behind an apartment building. There was a brief gun battle between the two. Owen was wounded.
L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told the press that after wounding Owen, Lovell stood over the deputy and pumped four more bullets into his head "execution style."
Officials say Lovell attempted to flee in the sergeant's patrol car. However, he was soon confronted by a second deputy who opened fire on the suspect in the vehicle. Lovell then reportedly rammed this deputy's patrol car, injuring him as well. Lovell was wounded in the exchange of gunfire and was taken into custody.
Sgt. Owen spent most of his career in the Antelope Valley and was well known by the good and the bad of that community. He was a bear of a man who was described by colleagues and community members alike as sincere, polite, fair, and well-spoken even to those within the criminal element.
Owen spent his time off fully engaged with his community and its impressionable youth. He volunteered as a football coach and youth mentor and worked with members of the business community, providing tips on how to reduce crime. By all accounts, Sgt. Steve Owen was a renaissance law enforcement officer to be respected and emulated.
On Saturday Oct. 8, Palm Springs Officer Jose "Gil" Vega, 63, who was scheduled for retirement in December; and 26-year-old Officer Lesley Zerebny, who had only been on the street for a year and a half and had only recently returned from maternity leave, were reportedly killed by John Felix, 26.
Vega and Zerebny and another officer responded at 12:10 p.m. to a family disturbance at a residence. Police were told by a parent that Felix was armed and said he wanted to "kill cops."
When the officers arrived, they began negotiating with and attempted to de-escalate Felix, who was inside the home. When the officers asked Felix to step outside so they could talk further with him, the suspect reportedly fired upon the officers through the closed front door, striking all three. Officers Vega and Zerebny were mortally wounded and succumbed at a local hospital. The third officer suffered survivable wounds and is now recovering.
Vega, a 35-year veteran, was known throughout his department and the Palm Springs community as an outstanding officer. He was described by friends and colleagues as a man who always thought of others before himself.
Zerebny came from a law enforcement family and was married to a Riverside County (CA) Sheriff's deputy. Her husband arrived at the hospital in uniform to solemnly kiss his wife farewell. She left behind a four-month-old daughter who will never know her mother.
Owen, Vega, and Zerebny represented the best of law enforcement and America. They were the people and role models who we should all aspire to be when we take the oath and put on the badge.
The Worst of Us
The accused murderers of Sgt. Steve Owen and Officers Vega and Zerebny had similar criminal profiles as those of other suspects who have recently murdered law enforcement officers in the growing national virus known as the "War on Police."
Los Angeles Superior Court records document that the suspected killer of Sgt. Owen, Trenton Trevon Lovell, was an active parolee with an extensive criminal history that extends back to when he was first arrested as a juvenile for sale of marijuana. He then accumulated 11 more arrests including two which resulted in a state prison sentence.
Lovell was arrested for robbery in 2006. Two years later he was arrested for resisting arrest, pleaded guilty, and received a 90-day jail sentence. However, all of the diversion programs, probation conditions, and contacts with law enforcement and the criminal justice system apparently made no impression on Lovell. Several months after being released from jail, he robbed an off-duty University of Southern California security officer at gunpoint on campus and stole the victim's wallet, watch, and cellphone. For that offense, he was sentenced to six years in state prison. Lovell served five years of his six-year sentence in California, Arizona, and Oklahoma. On June 23, 2014, he was placed on parole according to the California State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Court records show that last year Lovell pleaded no contest to a felony DUI accident where a person was injured. Apparently, this new felony charge was insufficient for Lovell to have his parole revoked and be re-imprisoned. That's just not the way things work in California anymore. Instead, Lovell was ordered to spend 15 days in jail; allowed to complete a nine-month "first offender" program for drunk drivers and enroll in a drug/alcohol counseling program; and was given 36 months of "summary probation," whatever that means these days.
On the day that Lovell reportedly shot and executed Sgt. Owen, he was in possession of a stolen handgun. Lovell now faces felony criminal charges of first-degree murder and attempted murder of a peace officer, two counts of residential robbery, felon in possession of a firearm, and false imprisonment. These charges make him eligible for the death penalty.
John Felix, who police say killed Officers Vega and Zerebny, was also no stranger to a life of violent crime. He was a known gang member who was arrested in a conspiracy to murder plot in 2009. In that year, Felix and another gang member, identified as Antonio Madrigal, shot a man in an attempted gangland assassination; but the victim survived. Following a police investigation, Felix was arrested and charged with attempted murder, using a firearm in the commission of a felony, and a felony street gang crime enhancement. Unfortunately, prosecutors allowed him to plead down his charges to simple assault with a firearm and the gang enhancement charge. Felix was then given a four-year prison sentence.
Felix had his next violent confrontation with Palm Springs police just three years ago when he was re-arrested as an active parolee for refusing to open his front door and be searched by a police detective looking for his brother. Prosecutors dismissed those charges, and Felix was later convicted only for a disturbing the peace infraction. Since that time, Felix has also been convicted for a second disturbing the peace offense in 2009 and for DUI in 2014.
As a career police officer and a forensic criminologist, I could spend many pages eloquently providing you with a professorial dissertation on the socio-criminal causes of crime and violence. However, I'm not going to because in the cases of the overwhelming number of the vile and completely senseless murders of law enforcement officers, why is simple to understand.
There are sociopathic, out of control, predatory, and evil people in this world who we as a society refuse to control through the considered and reasonable application of the rule of law, and our failure to recognize this fact enables and empowers them to kill us. That's it, but the reasons for the environment they now thrive in is important to understand.
The American educational system no longer teaches civics in school. Students no longer learn about our justice system and its components. They know nothing about what their civil rights are and, more importantly, are not. They have no knowledge of the important role of police in our society and therefore have not been taught proper behavior and respect for police authority during police encounters. This allows subversive groups such as Black Lives Matter to spew the false narratives of hate and to perpetuate the lie that police are the "bad guys" and armed recidivist offenders are somehow the "good guys." This circumstance breeds resistance and exacerbates violent, armed and deadly encounters with police.
Police receive de-escalation training at the police academy and periodically during their police careers. Many citizens receive no such training from their parents or in the school system. The only "de-escalation" training they might receive is court-mandated in "anger management" classes after they have already been out of control and injured someone. Police are constantly using their de-escalation training to save emotionally captured people from themselves. But the murders of Palm Springs Officers Vega and Zerebny underscore how potentially deadly negotiating with out of control people can be.
Police are constantly dealing with people who are angry, enraged, and under the influence of serious mind-altering drugs. They have to try to isolate, contain, and negotiate with armed and often suicidal people. They must deal with people experiencing psycho-medical emergencies and those suffering from severe mental health disorders.
These days, the risks of police encounters with the public have worsened as stupid citizens looking for their 15 minutes of fame suddenly introduce themselves into high-risk police encounters with cellphone cameras trying to capture police actions and uses of force. On some occasions, citizens have assaulted officers to lynch suspects.
Ill-Considered Laws and Plea Bargains
Nationally, the trend is to reduce jail and prison over-crowding. However, ill-considered laws like California's Proposition 47 have not only released tens of thousands of felony recidivists for crimes like felony assault, burglary, and drug sales out of those secure facilities, but also eviscerated the state's parole and probation departments.
Prosecutors also now go out of their way to plea bargain violent felony and weapons cases down to misdemeanor offenses so the offenders won't force the expense of a court trial. Once felony charges are reduced by plea to misdemeanors, the defendants are no longer actively supervised by probation or parole officers. In fact, all of those felons who would have had their probation or parole violated for re-offending now get off scot-free even though they remain hard-core criminals because probation and parole officers can no longer enforce any court-ordered terms and conditions.
Prop. 47 has been rightfully blamed for allowing repeat offenders to continue breaking the law with little consequence. As a result, violent crime has risen significantly in California and even in surrounding states. Also, without threat of prison time, fewer drug offenders are participating in court-ordered drug treatment programs. Since drug addiction can spur crime, counties like Los Angeles have seen property crimes such as residential burglaries rise nearly 10% and auto thefts are up over 20%.
LASD Sgt. Steve Owen was murdered while investigating an in-progress burglary. Which is evidence of how the ill-considered decisions of state and national leaders have made our communities more dangerous for citizens and officers.
A Lack of Support
Americans deserve to be led by competent, well-informed elected politicians. For the past few years, we have seen little to no leadership from the president, the U.S. attorney general's office, and from state and municipal leaders.
When the president fails to demonstrate knowledge of the law and basic police practices and prematurely and incorrectly criticizes police for "acting stupidly" and/or tells the American minority community that law enforcement officers are racially biased, he opens the floodgates of non-compliance with and even violent resistance to police authority.
If you listen to some political leaders and nationally prominent minority activists, all cops are bad and African-American officers are merely "Uncle Toms" who should be disparaged by their own communities because they had the courage to serve the rule of law.
Minority officers are among the policing role models of our future generations. It is they who minority children should learn to emulate; rather than the elitist, hypocritical, anti-American, anti- law enforcement professional athletes and entertainers like Colin Kaepernick, Jay Z, and Beyoncé.
I firmly believe—as do others—that the lack of federal, state, and municipal leadership in actively supporting our law enforcement officers has directly led to a significant increase in citizen resistance to police authority, officer injuries, and an almost unprecedented increase in officers being intentionally murdered in the line of duty.
Law enforcement officials and our professional community must take an affirmative stand in forwarding the message of the importance of police in American society. No one else is willing to do this, so we need to do this ourselves. We need to be the ones educating our current and future generations to respect authority. We need to press not only for more funding for our officers, but for funding to re-educate the public in the role of police in society.
Ron Martinelli, Ph.D., CMI-V, is a nationally renowned forensic criminologist/police expert who directs the nation's only multidisciplinary forensic death investigations and independent review team (www.DrRonMartinelli.com). He is the author of "The Truth Behind the Black Lives Matter Movement and the War on Police" available from Amazon.com.