Ron Martinelli, Ph.D.
Forensic Criminologist/Police Expert
Copyright © 10-10-16
The tragic and senseless murders this past week of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant 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. Up to date research from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund which keeps daily statistics on law enforcement officers killed and injured nationally documents that as of today, we have had forty-five law enforcement officers feloniously murdered by suspects armed with firearms. This is an amazing 50% increase in the number of all peace officers murdered by armed suspects from last year – and we still have three months to go. If the current officers murdered rate continues, I predict that we will see our first 100% increase in officer homicides in the past seventy years. An absolutely astonishing circumstance.
Although the investigations of all three officer-involved shootings are currently on-going, we already know some facts that have been released by the victim officers’ individual departments.
The Good and Best of Us
In the case of 53-year old Sgt. Owen, the 29-year career deputy who was ready to retire was investigating a burglary when he apparently encountered career criminal and parolee 27-year old Trenton Trevon Lovell of Lancaster behind an apartment building. There was a brief gun battle between the two where Sgt. Owen was wounded. L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell states that after wounding Owen, Lovell stood over the hapless deputy and pumped four more bullets into his head “execution style.”
After murdering Sgt. Owen in cold blood, suspect Lovell attempted to flee in the sergeant’s patrol car. However, Lovell was soon confronted by a second deputy who opened fire on the suspect in the vehicle. Lovell then rammed this deputy’s patrol car, injuring him as well. Fortunately, Lovell was wounded in the exchange of gunfire and was taken into custody.
Sergeant 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 of the valley. Steve 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, Palm Springs Police Department 35-year veteran Police 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 abruptly gunned down by John Felix, 26 years, who had a history of violent crime.
The involved officers had been called to the Cypress Road residence around 12:10 pm in regards to a family disturbance. Police were told by a parent that Felix was armed and said he wanted to “kill cops.”
Police report that 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, who was wearing body armor with high capacity magazines affixed to his tactical vest, suddenly fired upon the officer through the closed front door, striking all three. Officers Vega and Zerebny were mortally wounded and succumbed at a local hospital. The third unnamed officer has survivable wounds and will recover.
Officer Gil Vega 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. Officer Zerebny, came from a law enforcement family and was married to a Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy. Her husband managed to arrive at the hospital in uniform just in time to solemnly kiss his wife farewell before she passed. Officer Zerebny who was motivated and enthusiastic about community service as a police officer, had barely begun her law enforcement career when she was cut down in a hail of gunfire. She leaves behind a four-month old daughter who will never know her mother.
In short, Sergeant Owen and Officers Vega and Zerebny represented the best of us in law enforcement and in our communities. They were the people and role models who we all aspire to be when we take the oath and put on the badge. They are now gone. They leave their families, colleagues, friends and communities in a violent and untimely manner; creating an unnecessary and senseless, open wound that will not soon be healed.
The Evil and Worst of Us
The murderers of Deputy Sergeant Steve Owen and Officers Vega and Zerebny were much like the criminal profiles of suspects who have recently murdered law enforcement officers in the growing national virus I refer to as the “War on Police.”
Los Angeles Superior Court records document that suspect Trenton Trevon Lovell, although only 27-years old, was an active parolee with an extensive criminal history that extends back to when he was first arrested as a juvenile for sales of marijuana. He then accumulated eleven more arrests including two which resulted in a state prison sentence.
In 2006, Lovell was arrested for robbery. In 2008, he was arrested for and pled guilty to resisting arrest and received a 90-day jail sentence. However, all of the don’t re-offend 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 USC security officer at gun point on campus and stole the victim’s wallet, watch and cell phone. 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).
However, court records show that last year Trenton Lovell had pled 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 uber-liberal 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.”
On the day that Lovell shot and executed Sergeant 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.
Multiple murder suspect John Felix was also no stranger to a life of violent crime. Felix 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 plea down his charges to simple assault with a firearm and the gang enhancement charge. Felix was then given a four-year prison sentence.
Unfortunately, the lessons of prison were apparently ignored by Felix, who 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. In that case, Felix refused to completely open the front door to his Cypress Road house and submit to a standard search for weapons according to Det. Alberto Cantu who was aware that Felix was a gang member who had been involved in prior shootings and was on parole. Felix physically struggled with the detention and was eventually handcuffed and arrested for resisting and parole violation. Ultimately, 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.
The Causes of Evil Among Us and How It is Enabled
As a career police officer and a forensic criminologist, I could spend pages eloquently providing you with a professorial dissertation with 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 assignations and murders of law enforcement officers, the answers to why such killings of our brave men and women in blue and khaki occur 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.
A diminished respect for police authority and the Rule of law
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 forward that police are the “bad guys” and armed, life threatening recidivist offenders are somehow the “good guys.” This circumstance breeds resistance and exacerbates violent, armed and deadly encounters with police.
It is citizens and not police who really need de-escalation training
Police receive de-escalation training at the police academy and periodically during their police careers. Citizens receive no such training by 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. The tragic deaths of Palm Springs Officers Vega and Zerebny underscores 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 like methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy and synthetic cannabinoids. They must 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 cell phone 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
In California and nationally, the trend is to reduce jail and prison over-crowding. However, ill-considered laws like California’s Proposition 47 has 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.
These days, prosecutors nationally go out of their way to plea bargain violent felony and weapons cases down to misdemeanor offenses so the offender defendants won’t force the expense of a court trial. Once a misdemeanor and felony offense is pled down to “no state prison,” violent offenders simply laugh and walk away from the system.
Today, once felony charges are reduced by plea to misdemeanors; those 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 Scott 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 our state’s ten largest cities. Further, for addict criminals, without a threat of a felony conviction and jail/prison time, fewer drug offenders are participating in court-ordered drug treatment programs. Since drug addiction is directly related to crime, counties like Los Angeles have seen property crimes such as residential burglaries rise nearly 10% and auto thefts are up over 20%.
We should all be reminded that LASD Sgt. Steve Owen was murdered while investigating an in-progress burglary. So you see how the ill-considered decisions of our liberal and low-informed state leaders; including some liberal District Attorneys who pushed for the passage of Prop. 47 have made our communities more dangerous for its citizens and law enforcement officers.
A lack of federal, state and municipal leadership, funding support, and support for law enforcement
Americans deserve to be led by competent, well-informed elected politicians. For the past few years, we have seen little to no leadership from our President, U.S. Attorney Generals and many from the state and municipal levels of our nation. When our President fails to demonstrate knowledge of the law and in 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 flood gates of non-compliance, physical and now armed resistance to police authority.
You reap what you sew and now it is law enforcement who are unfairly profiled as the “bad guys.” If you listen to some political leaders and nationally prominent minority activists; all cops are bad and minority officers are merely “Uncle Toms” who should be segregated from their own communities because they had the heroic courage to unbiasedly defend the Rule of Law within their own communities.
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 Beyonce Carter.
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 unpresented increase in officers being intentionally murdered in the line of duty.
While some of our political leaders chide law enforcement officers, suggesting that they are under-trained; they take almost no serious steps to fund the law enforcement community. Yet, they waste billions of dollars in nonsensical research, more entitlement programs that enslave, rather than build up people; and in futuristic “bullet-trains” that go nowhere. Our own President spends more taxpayer money taking his family and entourage on extravagant vacations than it would cost to fund many progressive and helpful police training programs nationally each year.
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 of Americans to respect authority. We need to press not only for more funding for our officers, but for funding to re-educate the public in civics, the role of police in society, the Rule of Law and in public de-escalation training. In short, we cannot depend upon the federal government for funding, or the mainstream media for support. We must control our own destiny as a community and enlighten our diverse communities with education, unbiased policing and mentorship support. The time to act is now!
About the Author
Ron Martinelli, Ph.D., CMI-V, is a nationally renowned forensic criminologist/police expert and a Certified Medical Investigator who directs the nation’s only multidisciplinary Forensic Death Investigations & Independent Review Team. Dr. Martinelli is a retired San Jose (CA) police detective who specializes in the investigation of police-involved death cases. He is the author of the new book, “The Truth Behind the Black Lives Matter Movement and the War on Police” (Amazon.com). His forensic site is found at www.DrRonMartinelli.com.