I was sitting in my favorite, local Starbucks and trying to finish a wonderful book–Henry Bazely, the Oxford Evangelist: A Memoir. Being easily distracted, I occasionally scrolled through Twitter to see what was going on in the world. And then I saw the first reports. “Not again.” I said to myself. Three police officers with the Palm Springs Police Department had been shot while responding to a domestic dispute call. Soon thereafter, I would learn that two of the officers died. Tears.
Officers Vega and Zerebny: Two Special People
Officer Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega was a 35-year veteran of the Palm Springs Police Department. He could have retired years ago, but the father-of-eight’s commitment to the community was just too strong. After a long and distinguished career, and at age the age of 63, Officer Vega was finally going to”hang them up” in December. Officer Vega was not only loved by his department (98 sworn officers), he was loved by the people in his desert community.
Officer Lesley Zerebny was only 27-years-old (the age of my middle daughter). While relatively new to law enforcement, she was already making her mark in her department and in her community. Just a few weeks into her career she made contact with a suspicious person. It turned out the man was wanted for murder. She affected the arrest and took a very dangerous person off the streets. Officer Zerebny, the wife of a Riverside County deputy sheriff, recently returned from maternity leave, after the birth of her now-four-month-old daughter.
What Happened in Palm Springs
Here is a succinct, chronology of what took place on October 8, 2016, in Palm Springs, CA. The following appeared in a CNN article:
“A woman made [a 9-1-1] call around midday local time and said her adult son was causing a disturbance, Palm Springs Police Chief Reyes said.
“When officers arrived, Felix refused to open the front door and threatened to shoot the officers, police said.
Within 10 minutes of their arrival, as they tried to get him to comply with their orders, Felix opened fire through the closed front door, according to police.
“The Riverside Sheriff’s department SWAT team arrived at the scene after 5 p.m. Saturday, Chief Deputy Ray Wood said. For several hours they attempted to contact the suspect who was barricaded inside.
“When that failed, the SWAT team ‘deployed chemical agents into the residence,’ Wood said.
“‘Almost immediately after introducing chemical agents inside the residence, the suspect emerged out the back door,’ he said. ‘He was wearing soft border armor and he had a number of high capacity magazines.’
“The suspect did not have a weapon on him when he was taken into custody, Wood said. He was treated at a local hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.”
Reports indicate that the third officer who was shot was released from the hospital sometime yesterday. From his hospital bed he helped investigators by providing critical information about the incident.
Looking for a Partner
As soon as I heard the news of Officers Vega and Zerebny, I made the decision to drive down the following day to the Palm Springs Police Department. I had thought of putting out a request on social media for someone to come with me, but I would be going on Sunday morning and it would be a 290-mile round trip. Thinking it unreasonable to ask for someone to come with me, I made plans to make the trip by myself.
Later that evening, my friend Chris Yarzab contacted me via Twitter and asked if I wanted company to Palm Springs. I asked him if he could meet me at my home, at 3:00 AM. Without a moment’s hesitation, Chris said yes.
Together, we made the drive to Palm Springs. Once in town, we stopped for a quick bite to eat before making our way to the Palm Springs Police Department.
Gus the Cabbie and Pete the Reporter
Chris and I arrived at the police station at about 5:45 AM. The sun had not yet risen. It is said that it is darkest before the dawn. I believe that’s true.
Our eyes were immediately drawn to the Palm Springs Police Officer’s Association Memorial in front of the station. It was covered in flowers, cards, balloons, and other forms of condolences and expressions of respect. The memorial itself is one of the most dramatic I have ever seen (and I have seen many).
The memorial, made of metal–maybe bronze, depicted two officers between the open door of a patrol car and the vehicle itself. One officer was down, wounded, looking up at his brother officer. The other officer tried to comfort his partner with one hand while calling for help with the radio in his other hand. The facial expressions of the two officers are gripping. The artist truly captured both the intensity and heartbreak of the moment.
As Chris and I looked at the memorial, an older gentleman walked up. His name was Gus and he was a local cabbie.
“I knew Vega. Knew him for about 20 years. But I never knew his first name before today. I just always called him Vega.”
Gus’s eyes began to well with tears. I handed him a gospel tract, which he tucked into his pocket.
Chris and I listened as Gus described Officer Vega, as he knew him.
We were then approached by a familiar face–Pete Demetriou of KNX1070 AM Radio. I use the word “familiar” because I had met and chatted with Pete a few times when I served as a chaplain for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Pete was a frequent emcee of my department’s Medal of Valor Award Banquet, and I was often called upon to provide the event’s invocation. Pete Demetriou is well-respected by the Southern California law enforcement community for his support and fair treatment.
Chris, Gus, Pete, and I talked for a good while before Pete turned on his digital recorder and microphone. He asked me obvious questions, but they were good ones. And he let me say what I had to say, without interruption or commentary. He wasn’t looking to put forward an agenda at my expense, like one news anchor did as I stood outside Lancaster Sheriff’s station, earlier in the week. He simply wanted my thoughts and feelings and let them stand on their own. Pete’s a reporter, not a pundit.
An Unexpected Death Notification
Throughout the morning, Chris and I distributed a number of tracts. The only response we received from motorists passing by was positive. We were not surprised.
We watched as people got out of their cars with bouquets of flowers and other items, and slowly made their way in the warm desert morning sun to the memorial. Often times, after presenting their offering, stepped back and silently stood. Others stayed close to the memorial and looked at the other gifts and mementos. Many walked away wiping tears from their eyes.
I watched as a man parked his car, exited, and walked toward the front of the Palm Springs Police Station. He had a confused look on his face as he approached me and Chris.
“What is this for? What’s happening here?” He asked.
I found myself immediately perturbed, though I made sure not to let it show. How could anyone in the small city of 45,000 people not know that two of the officers who protect and serve him were gunned down just the previous day? Nothing like this had happened in Palm Springs for more than 50 years.
While trying to be as emotionless as I often had to be when working the streets as a patrol deputy, I explained to the man what had happened.
“Who were the two officers?” He asked.
After naming Officer Vega, I said, “The other officer had only been on the department for about 18 months. Her name was Lesley…..”
“The young blonde?” He asked
“Yes. She recently came back from maternity leave. Her baby is only four month’s old.” I answered.
The man quickly put his hands over his mouth and began to cry.
“I knew her. I met her before. I can’t believe this!”
As the man’s demeanor changed, so did mine. I went from a deputy providing information to a chaplain making a death notification–something I had not anticipated doing that morning.
“Sir, I’m very sorry to bring you such bad news.” I offered.
“Why are these things happening? Why are these things happening?” He asked himself.
I remained quiet, waiting for the right time to speak, in order to give him some time to process the information he just received.
“My name is Tony.” I said as I held out my hand. “And this is my friend Chris.”
“My name is Johan. I’m Jewish, but I believe in the Messiah. I am a completed Jew.”
The name “Johan” (Hebrew: Yôḥānān) means: “God is gracious.”
I handed Johan a gospel tract. I always try to give a person a gospel tract before I talk to them. This way, no matter how long or short the conversation is, I know at least I put the gospel in the person’s hand.
“I am here to meet my ex-wife. We meet here to exchange our daughter.” Johan said. “I saw all the flowers and the people and I thought the mayor was coming for some kind of event or something.”
Chris and I helped Johan to process his grief with comforting truths from God’s Word while, at the same time, proclaiming the gospel to him. There are just too many false converts in the world, Jew and Gentile, to simply accept most stranger’s profession of faith. When someone I’ve never met professes faith in Jesus Christ, I do the best I can to proclaim the gospel to him or her in an effort to ascertain what he or she means when using the term “Christian.”
“Well, I see my wife and daughter are here.” Johan said. “I’m really glad I met the two of you today; not under these circumstances…”
“I understand what you mean, Johan. We’re glad to meet you, too, and we wish it was under different circumstances.”
Johan gave me and Chris a hug and walked away. But he returned in just a few moments, this time with his young daughter Miranda by his side.
“Miranda, I would like you to meet these two nice men.” He told her.
Chris and I introduced ourselves. Miranda was sweet and respectful, and probably a little embarrassed.
“We were talking to your daddy about Jesus, Miranda. I’m sure he will talk to you about Him, too.” I said.
Johan nodded his head in agreement.
“Miranda, the Bible says to honor your mother and father, so you make sure to do that. Okay?”
“Okay.” Miranda said quietly with a smile.
Johan thanked us again before walking away with his little girl.
I looked at Chris and said, “Maybe God had us come today to encourage Johan.” Chris agreed.
Sometimes a Chaplain Needs a Chaplain
As some of you may know from reading other articles or from talking to me, eight of my 20 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department included serving as a chaplain to the deputies. While my primary responsibility was to the sworn and civilian staff, I was often called upon to minister at other units of assignment, throughout the county.
As a deputy/chaplain, I never experienced more pain and I never experienced more ministerial satisfaction than I did when ministering in the aftermath of a line-of-duty death. As the Lord would have it, I found myself in such situations ten times, which was ten too many.
I remember minute details of all ten line-of-duty deaths: the deputies who died, their families, their patrol partners, the myriad ways my brothers and sisters behind the badge processed their grief, the significant conversations I had, the times I was asked to speak to the press, preside over a memorial service, or a memorial or park dedication, and my own feelings and emotions.
One day, like so many, is forever etched in my mind.
Deputy Jake Kuredjian, a deputy with whom I worked at Santa Clarita Station for several years, was killed in the line-of-duty, just days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was on my way home from a monthly chaplain meeting in West Los Angeles. As I exited the freeway, I received a call from the station.
“Tony. Jake is dead. We need you at the hospital.”
While at the hospital, I was given the task of explaining to Jake’s brother, himself a deputy with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, that his brother had been killed.
As I left the hospital to head to the station, I was told that the Sheriff wanted me with him as he notified the press of Jake’s death. After the press conference, I headed to the station.
The grief at the station was palpable. I had to work hard to keep my own emotions in check so that I could ministry to my station family. I gave lots of hugs. I listened to lots of stories. I gave counsel when asked–some of which dealt with extremely personal issues.
Then one of my lieutenants came to me and asked me to do something.
“Tony, we need you to do a couple television news interviews.”
“I know.” The Lieutenant empathized. “But everyone is still at the scene” (Jake’s murderer was held up in a house and refusing to surrender). No one here is in any condition to do it.”
“Yes, sir.” I said.
Once the interviews were complete, I made my way to the traffic office. It was the only one I could find at the time that had no one in it. I sat at one of the desks, put my face in my hands, prayed, and cried.
The traffic sergeant, a Christian brother, came into the office.
I looked at him and said, “Sometimes the chaplain needs a chaplain.”
I shared that story so that you might have an idea of what was going through my mind as I share this last testimony from my time outside the Palm Springs Police Department.
Toward the end of our time at the station, a group of four people walked toward us–three men and a woman. I could tell by what they wore that they were chaplains and/or counselors.
The leader of the group extended his hand to me and thanked me for being there. I recognized him before he recognized me. As soon as he realized who I was, he put his arms around me and gave me a long and warm embrace. The man was Chaplain Steve Ballinger.
For many years, Chaplain Steve Ballinger has served the men and women of his beloved Riverside Police Department. He has also served other law enforcement agencies in the region and is consider a leader among chaplains.
I have known Steve for many years. When I served as a chaplain, he was one of the chaplains I respected most. He taught me much about ministering to my brothers and sisters behind the badge. Knowing that he had been battling cancer and having not seen him in many years, it was really good to see him.
After Steve and I talked for a minute, the lady in the group put her arms around me and cried. I would learn when I saw the above picture in the paper that her name is Kendra Devor, counselor. She thanked us for being there.
I handed Steve a Police Lives Matter tract to show him what we were distributing. While I gave the tract to Steve for his edification, not knowing the other three people, I made sure they each received one just in case they weren’t Christians.
Chris and I were truly blessed during the 3+ hours we spent outside of the Palm Springs Police Department. And I was very blessed to have Chris by my side.
To My Law Enforcement Brethren
I love you all very much. I grieve when you grieve. I hurt when you hurt. As I watched the live video feeds in the time Officers Gil Vega and Lesley Zerebny were gunned down, until the time the suspect was taken into custody, I wanted to be out there with you.
I consider every member of the law enforcement family part of my family. Although I am now retired, my love for you has not changed. It has not wavered. Because I love you, I must tell you this.
Law enforcement lives matter. Your life matters. I appreciate your service to your community. I’m aware that a member of the law enforcement family, your family, my family, gives his or her life in the line of duty, making the ultimate sacrifice every 60 hours (in the United States). There is no greater and no more tragic testament to this truth than the recent sacrifices of heroes, Palm Springs officers Vega and Zerebny.
“Thank you” seems woefully inadequate for not only what can be rightly described as your heroic efforts, but also your daily commitment to protect and serve. There are many people like me who greatly appreciate your sacrificial service. It is with appreciation and respect for you–not only as a public servant, but as a human being (my neighbor)–that I share the following with you.
Every human being, people on both sides of the badge, will one-day stand before their Creator to give an account for their life. God, the perfect Judge, will judge you according to the law He has written on your heart. You know it is wrong to lie, steal, take God’s name in vain, engage in sexual immorality, or hate another human being because you were created in the image of God, and God is not a liar, thief, blasphemer, fornicator, adulterer, or murderer. Because God is good, He must punish sin. The punishment he has determined for sin is eternity in hell.
Yet God has also provided a way for you to be declared innocent and receive His forgiveness. Your only hope is for Jesus, the God-Man, to save you from the wrath of God. God the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth–fully God and fully man, yet without sin. He voluntarily shed his innocent blood and died on the cross, taking upon Himself the punishment you rightly deserve for your sins against God. Three days later, He forever defeated sin and death when He rose from the grave. And what God commands of you, my law enforcement brethren, is that you turn from your sin and turn to God and, by faith alone, believe the gospel and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Please do this while God has given you time. I am praying for your safety.
One last thing. I believe if Palm Springs officers Vega and Zerebny could speak to you right now, thye would tell you this: “Don’t miss heaven.”
The Bible says:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28-29).
My prayer for you, my law enforcement family, is that God would use our nightmare–the murders of officers Vega and Zerebny–to bring many lost souls, on both sides of the badge, to Himself. I pray that you will one-day be able to look back at our shared day of tragedy, grief, pain, and mourning and be able to testify that it was during the aftermath of the valiant sacrifices of these public servants that you recognized your need for the Savior. I pray the day will come (and may that day be today) when you receive the love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace of God through the perfect sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.
You are in my prayers.