Sergeant Dominic Vaca, a 17-year veteran with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, is being honored one day after he was shot and killed by a fleeing suspect in the high desert.
Exclusive to News Channel 3, neighbors who saw the deadly encounter for themselves are sharing new details.
"It was just 3 loud pops, smoke came out from between the two of them and the officer just went limp," Brien Cruz told News Channel 3's Jake Ingrassia. "I was just shocked."
Cruz said it's difficult to relive the moment Sergeant Vaca was fatally injured Monday. Vaca, 43, was gunned down after chasing a motorcyclist who police said didn't have a license plate. They said the traffic stop led to a shoot-out, which also left the suspect dead.
Cruz said he came face-to-face with the gunman. "The police told me to get down, I looked behind me, and as I looked forward the suspect had his gun drawn at me," he said. "He was gonna shoot me."
Police said the suspect wouldn't pull over, launching a police chase. Deputies discovered his motorcycle dumped in the dirt. They said the suspect was hidden nearby when he opened fire.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene that played out fast. The suspect reportedly hid under a trailer shell next to Barbara Gaunt's home. She said the gunfire reverberated through the neighborhood. "Loud shots, really loud shots" Gaunt said. "They were big guns; it wasn't a pistol... I was told he was hiding underneath that shell and apparently his duffel bag or something was underneath there."
In the moments that transpired, Cruz said he saw Sergeant Vaca trying to persevere. "I made eye contact with both of them and the one that really bothers me is the deputy," Cruz said. "He was just fighting. He had no idea he was going to die."
With critical injuries, Vaca was airlifted to Desert Regional Medical Center. Late Monday, Sheriff John McMahon announced his deputy had lost his battle.
An overnight procession carried Vaca's body from the hospital out of Palm Springs toward Interstate 10. The route bringing dozens of police cars past the sign on Highway 111 commemorating the deaths of two Palm Springs police officers, Jose Gil Vega and Lesley Zerebny, who were also killed in the line of duty in 2016.
"Seeing that same procession here for Gil and Lesley brings back a lot of memories," said PSPD Lt. William Hutchinson. "Here is yet another fallen officer right in our backyard."
The death reverberated through the law enforcement community. Gaunt said she has a son who's a sergeant in the Riverside County Sheriff's Dept. "Doesnt matter if it's Riverside or San Bernardino – that's family and that hurts all of us," Gaunt said. "It really is very painful."
Police are still withholding the suspect's name as they wait for the coroner to confirm his family has been notified.