Medal of Valor Ralph Garcia Riverside Police Officers' Association

December 10, 1977 Riverside, CA

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 am Saturday morning when Jeff Gaster, 32, walked into Bernie’s Pawnshop on Seventh Street and told the owner he wanted to buy two .25 caliber pistols. During the transaction Bernie Dupko, the shop owner, told Gaster that there was a mandatory 15-day waiting period before he would be able take possession of the guns and Gaster left the shop without making the purchase.

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

Jim Rowe

Motor Officer Jim Rowe: “That Saturday I was working the mid-traffic shift from 1000-2000 hours. I was a Special Agent so I was normally assigned to a utility beat which meant I could work any area of the city I chose. Bill Castillo, the motor officer who normally worked the downtown beat, had called in sick so I was assigned to work his beat.”

Officer Ralph Garcia: “A call came out that two handguns had been stolen from Bernie’s Pawn Shop. I was downtown so I started in that direction. Jim English who was also in the area, bought the call and told me to start looking for the suspect. The initial description had Gaster wearing a long-sleeved red shirt and dark pants.”

Motor Officer Jim Rowe: “The call came out and I began to ride through the area looking for the suspect. After a few minutes they broadcasted an update that the suspect was wearing a blue shirt and dark pants not a red shirt and dark pants (in fact, Gaster wore a long-sleeved rust-colored sweater and brown pants) and also that the same suspect had purchased two boxes of .25 caliber ammo from another pawn shop.”

“I rode over to a third pawn shop at Sixth and Market to see if the suspect had also been there. Ralph had the same idea and when we met up he told me he had seen someone earlier in the lower parking structure at Raincross Square (Convention Center) that matched the updated (blue shirt) description.”

The officers quickly drove to the Convention Center where Officer Garcia made contact with a man wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt in the lower parking level. Officer Rowe parked where he could provide cover but also see up the parking lot ramp to Fifth Street.

Facing east on Fifth Street toward Orange Street

Officer Ralph Garcia: “I patted the guy down and determined that he had no weapons and that he wasn’t our suspect. At about the same time Jim whistled at me and pointed up the ramp toward Fifth Street. I saw a guy in a dirt-colored sweatshirt and he was moving out pretty good.”

Motor Officer Jim Rowe: “I felt in my gut that this was the guy we were looking for so I rode up the ramp onto Fifth right behind the guy. He acted like he didn’t know I was there so I whistled at him and he turned and looked at me over his shoulder.”

“I was straddling my motorcycle and I had my gun out and pointed at him. I yelled, “Hold it right there!”

“Without saying anything he turned quickly and, ‘Boom!’”

“His shot hit me in the neck and he turned and started running. I fired nine times but my shots didn't seem to have any effect. I was thinking, ‘Why can’t I hit this guy?’ We were no more than 10’ apart. He took off running toward Orange Street.”

Motor Officer Jim Rowe with Helicopter Observer Officer Mike Torres

Officer Ralph Garcia: “I was coming up next to Gaster in my unit when I saw him turn and fire at Jim. I couldn’t see clearly where Jim had been shot but I knew he was hit because his knees buckled and he went down.”

“I fired at Gaster several times from inside the unit but he kept running. I got out and began to chase him and I was shooting at him. He was turning while he was running and shooting back at me. Officer Dave Barrett arrived and joined the pursuit as Gaster rounded the corner at Orange Street and we lost sight of him.”

In the confusion of the running gun battle, Officer Richard Avila and Lieutenant Richard Dana arrived northbound on Orange Street and were attempting to determine what was happening. Avila and Dana both stopped and exited when they saw a 21 year-old man wearing a long-sleeved blue jacket crouched behind a palm tree.

At the same moment, Gaster fired several shots at Avila from behind a concrete barrier in the loading area of Raincross Square striking his motorcycle and flattening the tire. Avila, who was wearing his motorcycle helmet, couldn’t tell where the shots were coming from and believed they were being fired by the man crouching behind the palm tree.

When the man raised his arm toward Dana, Avila mistakenly thought he was about to fire at Dana. Avila fired five shots at the man hitting him twice.

Motor Officer Jim Rowe: I was relieved Gaster was running away so I could relax a little and determine how badly I had been wounded. I recall seeing Officer Garcia and Officer Barrett running after him so I decided to lie down on the sidewalk and wait for help. While lying there I realized that no one, other than Garcia and Barrett, knew I had been shot. I recall crawling over to my motor, which was laying on it’s side, and advised dispatch that I had been shot and to send an ambulance code-3.”

Looking north up Orange Street from Fifth Street

Officer Ralph Garcia: “Gaster stopped running and was trying to hide in the parking lot (S/W corner of Fifth and Orange) when Dave and I confronted him. When he saw me he put his hands up and I told him to get on the ground. He refused and started yelling obscenities at me.”

“He reached down into his pants and I thought, ‘Oh, here we go again!’ so, I fired and he fell to the ground.”

“It was kind of a scary thing. I always wondered what it would be like to shoot somebody. I had been on the job for nine years and I tried to prepare myself for it because in a situation like that you have to do something. He was shooting at me and I’d already seen him shoot Rowe and when I saw him reach into his pants, it was the same motion he made when he shot Rowe so I didn’t have much of a choice but to assume he was doing the same thing.”

Officer Jim Rowe: “I made some mistakes that day. Number one, I approached him while I was still on my motorcycle. I came too close. I didn’t have any cover, and I broke the golden rule of policemen: I didn’t see his hands.”

“I was over-confident. I had been on the department for 10 years and had been involved in situations that were very similar time and again. I became complacent and it turned bad on me.”

Officer Dave Barrett arrests shooting suspect Jeff Gaster

Motor Officer Jim Rowe: "An interesting thing about this incident, Baker-1 (Air-1) landed in an empty lot at the corner of Fifth and Market and the observer, Mike Torres ran over to where I was laying in the street. There was a picture of that in the Press.”

Officer Ralph Garcia was awarded the Medal of Valor on April 13, 1978 during a ceremony in his honor at Raincross Square. Ralph was also selected by his peers as Officer of the Year on February 1, 1978.

Motor Officer Jim Rowe sustained one gunshot wound. The bullet caused a through-and-through wound to his carotid artery, punctured his esophagus, punctured his right lung and came to rest in the muscle on the top of his right shoulder blade. He recovered from his injuries and came back to work an extended and distinguished career both as a detective and sergeant.

Gaster recovered from his injuries and was tried for the burglary of the pawn shop and the attempted murder of Rowe. The jury found Gaster guilty of the burglary but legally insane at the time he shot Motor Officer Rowe. 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.”

The man who was mistaken for the shooter was paralyzed from the waist down and lost the use of his left arm. He received a settlement from the city.

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 the RPD because they protected people who ate meat and used animal hides for clothing.

Created By
Mike Eveland

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