Published: 02/9/2024


Retired Sergeant Jim Rowe awarded the Purple Heart Medal and Retired Officer Mike Torres awarded the Lifesaving Medal.


The chain of events that started with a plan to kill a police officer and culminated in a running gun battle, began at about 11:00 a.m. on December 10, 1977.  That morning, a suspect walked into Bernie’s Pawnshop on 7th Street and told the owner he wanted to buy two .25 caliber pistols. During the transaction, Bernie Dupko, the shop owner, told the suspect there was a mandatory 15-day waiting period before he would be able take possession of the guns and the suspect left the shop without making the purchase.

He walked to the nearby United Thrift and Loan on Market Street where he looked at another .25 caliber pistol but was told again he couldn’t take the gun with him. The suspect instead purchased 300 .25 caliber rounds and returned to Bernie’s Pawnshop at about 11:20 a.m.. He asked Dupko to show him the two guns again, saying he wanted to “compare their weights.” The suspect grabbed the two firearms and ran from the store with both of the guns in his hands. Dupko called RPD to report the theft.

Special Agent Jim Rowe, working as a Motor Officer that day, was nearby and began to ride through the area looking for the suspect. After a few minutes, dispatch broadcasted an updated clothing description of the suspect and added the suspect had purchased two boxes of .25 caliber ammo from another pawn shop.

Officer Ralph Garcia was also in the area, and after briefly conversing with Special Agent Rowe, both officers drove to the Riverside Convention Center, where Officer Garcia contacted a subject matching the description in the lower parking area. 

Officer Garcia patted down the subject and determined he had no weapons and that he was not the suspect.  At about the same time, Special Agent Rowe whistled at Officer Garcia and pointed up the parking area ramp toward 5th Street. The officers observed a possible suspect, and he was moving quickly out of the area.

Special Agent Rowe, strongly believing this was the suspect, rode up the ramp onto Fifth Street directly behind him. Initially, the suspect didn’t acknowledge him so Rowe whistled, and the suspect turned and looked at Rowe over his shoulder.

Special Agent Rowe was straddling his motorcycle and had his gun out and pointed at the suspect. As he yelled, “hold it right there,” the suspect quickly turned without saying anything and began firing two handguns at Rowe.

One of the suspect’s rounds hit Special Agent Rowe in the neck, and the suspect turned and started running. It was later revealed that Rowe fired his weapon several times, but recalled thinking his shots didn't seem to have any effect. Special Agent Rowe last saw the suspect running toward Orange Street.

As other officers arrived in the area, the suspect fired at them as well as he continued running towards 5th and Orange streets.

Rowe recalled seeing Officer Garcia and assisting Officer Barrett running after the suspect.  As he lay on the sidewalk, Special Agent Rowe realized that no one, other than Officers Garcia and Barrett, knew he had been shot. He crawled over to his motor which was laying on it’s side, and advised dispatch he had been shot and requested an ambulance code-3.

The suspect stopped running near the southwest corner of 5th and Orange streets, and was attempting to hide in a parking lot when Officers Barrett and Garcia reached him.  The suspect refused to follow commands and yelled obscenities at the officers. 

When the suspect suddenly reached down into his pants, officers again fired and the suspect fell to the ground.

Meanwhile, Baker-1, RPD’s Air Support Helicopter which had been circling the incident, made an emergency landing at the request of the Observer, Officer Mike Torres.  The Pilot, Officer Leon Owens, landed the aircraft in an empty lot at the corner of 5th and Market streets.  Officer Torres, realizing that emergency medical aid was likely needed to save Specail Agent Rowe’s life, ran over to where he was laying in the street. He provided critical support to Rowe and applied pressure on his wound until Paramedics with Goodhew Ambulance arrived and transported him to the hospital.

Special Agent Rowe, who had been with department for ten years at the time, sustained one gunshot wound. The bullet caused a through-and-through wound to his carotid artery, punctured his esophagus, punctured his right lung, then came to rest in the muscle on the top of his right shoulder blade. He recovered from his injuries and came back to work another 21 years with RPD, having a distinguished career as both a detective and sergeant.

The suspect, Jeff Gaster, recovered from his injuries and was tried for the burglary of the pawn shop and the attempted murder of Special Agent Rowe. The jury found Gaster guilty of the burglary but legally insane at the time he shot Rowe.

Special Agent Rowe later quipped, “He was sane when he stole the guns but insane when he shot me less than 30-minutes later. I guess I’m lucky some attorney didn’t sue me for driving the poor man nuts.”

During the trial it was determined that Gaster’s plan was to steal the guns from the pawn shop then return home and call RPD, make a phony report, then shoot the responding officer. He was angry with RPD because he claimed “they protected people who ate meat and used animal hides for clothing.”

Several months after the incident occurred, Officer Ralph Garcia was awarded the Medal of Valor for his actions that day.

Chief Larry Gonzalez stated, "the Riverside Police Department prides itself on our rich history, and the respect we hold for the men and women who came before us and donned our patch. Although there were no such mechanisms in place at the time to recognize and distinguish the actions of other involved personnel, we’re thankful to be able to honor them today."

He went on to say, "for the injuries he sustained during the initial gun battle with the suspect, I see fit to award retired Sergeant Jim Rowe with the Purple Heart.  And for his willingness to take immediate action and perform the critical lifesaving measures for Jim that day, I award former Riverside Police Officer and retired CHP Sergeant Mike Torres, the Lifesaving Medal."

Congratulations to both Jim Rowe and Mike Torres for your the heroism you displayed that day!