Robert L. Wells, 85, of Fern Rock, a decorated police officer whose actions inadvertently precipitated a 1964 riot in North Philadelphia, died of a heart attack Tuesday, May 31, at Albert Einstein Medical Center.

By the summer of 1964, Officer Wells had been on the police force for 11 years and had earned 19 commendations. On Friday night, Aug. 28, he and his partner, John Hoff, arrived on the scene of a traffic jam at 22d Street and Columbia Avenue, now Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

A large Buick was stopping traffic. The woman in the car had her hands around her husband's neck and was trying to bang his head against the steering wheel. Officer Wells was eventually able to put the woman in the back of a police vehicle. By then, a large crowd had formed.

As recounted in The Inquirer in 1989, on the 25th anniversary of the riot: "Someone throws a brick. Someone throws a bottle. The crowd closes in."

The riot would have a devastating effect on a vital and lively neighborhood.

Incited by rumors that police had beaten a pregnant woman, and shot and killed a boy, an estimated 3,000 people participated in rioting and looting before the chaos ended that Sunday night.

More than 600 businesses, most of them small stores, were damaged, with losses put at $3 million. About 600 people were taken into custody, and 308 were charged with crimes, mostly burglary. Nearly 340 people were injured, including Officers Wells and Hoff, as well as 98 other police officers. One person was killed when he attacked a police officer and was shot.

It was, Officer Wells later told The Inquirer, "a spontaneous insurrection."

After that summer, Officer Wells would win several more commendations, including a citation in 1968 for arresting two men who were trying to shoot a third man, and a citation in 1979 for apprehending a thief who was robbing a Penn Fruit grocery in Logan. He was off duty at the time.

Officer Wells attended art school before joining the force and sometimes used his talent on the job. In March 1964, he interviewed witnesses in the beating of a proprietor of a hat store on Columbia and drew a sketch of the perpetrator from their description. He showed it to residents in the area of the crime and was able to make an arrest.

"He was larger than life, a cop's cop," said Bob Ballantine, recording secretary of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. Ballantine profiled Officer Wells for an article in Peace Officer's Magazine.

Officer Wells, a Navy veteran who was a member of the highway patrol for much of his career, retired from the force in 1979.

He then worked in security for Philadelphia Gas Works for several years. As a freelance artist, he designed signs for businesses and events. He also drew portraits of his grandchildren. He enjoyed socializing with friends at the Oak Lane Diner.

He is survived by his wife, Shirley; sons Wayne Nichols and Robert Wells Jr.; daughters Jackie Johnson, Teresa Maddox, Cheryl Humes, Brenda Demps, and Cheryl Pierce; and numerous grandchildren.

A funeral will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday, June 7, at Corinthian Baptist Church, 6113 N. 21st St. Friends may call from 9 a.m. Burial will be in Merion Memorial Park, Bala Cynwyd.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.