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Bob Wells, a decorated veteran cop, dies at 85

IT WAS A classic case of mob madness. A cop had beaten a pregnant woman and shot and killed a boy.

IT WAS A classic case of mob madness.

A cop had beaten a pregnant woman and shot and killed a boy.

Not true, but it didn't matter. Mob madness had set in with a vengeance. The rioting, looting and destruction that followed over two days and nights that hot August of 1964, destroyed a vibrant community of North Philadelphia.

More than 600 businesses on what was then Columbia Avenue west of Broad Street were wrecked. Nearly 340 people were injured, 600 rioters arrested, and one man was killed.

It was estimated that as many as 3,000 people participated in the riot, and the loss was put at $3 million in 1964 dollars.

The man who inadvertently sparked the disaster didn't deserve to be remembered that way. Robert L. Wells was a much-decorated cop, efficient and dedicated, the pride of the force.

But Aug. 28, 1964, was a day in his life that would live in infamy.

Robert Wells, who was a frequently commended cop before the riot and would go on to win more commendations and honors afterward, died of a heart attack May 31. He was 85 and lived in Fern Rock.

Bob was also an excellent artist whose sketches of criminal suspects from witness descriptions led to arrests.

But that hot Friday in 1964, on a business strip that was so full of life it was dubbed "Jump Street," Bob Wells triggered disaster while just trying to do his job.

A man and woman were fighting in a car stuck in the middle of the intersection of 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue, blocking traffic.

Bob Wells and his partner, John J. Hoff, were dispatched to the scene and tried to reason with the woman - described later by the cops as "one of those nasty-mouthed broads" - to no avail.

After getting her out of the car, she got into a physical altercation with the officers, but was eventually wrestled into an arriving police wagon.

While this was going on, an ugly crowd gathered. One man punched Hoff and knocked him down. A brick was thrown; a bottle was thrown. The madness had begun.

Wells and Hoff were injured, along with about 100 other cops before the rioting fizzled out on Sunday evening.

Civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore, after whom the avenue was renamed in 1987, tried to speak to the mob, as did music legend Georgie Woods, but nobody was listening.

Mayor James H.J. Tate hurried back to Philly from the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City that nominated Lyndon Johnson for president. Police reinforcements arrived on the scene in buses commandeered from the old PTC.

But nothing could stop or even slow down the insanity. As an FBI report put it later, the riot was "a senseless attack on all constituted authority, without purpose or object."

Wells himself later called the riot a "spontaneous insurrection."

Bob, a Navy veteran, joined the Police Department in 1953. At the time of the riot, he had accumulated 19 commendations. He won several more before his retirement in 1979.

He had attended art school before becoming a cop, and continued doing freelance art throughout this life. He designed signs for businesses and liked to draw portraits of his grandchildren.

After he left the police force, he worked in security for the Philadelphia Gas Works for a time.

Writing in the Police Officer's Magazine, Bob Ballantine, recording secretary of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, described Bob as "larger than life - a cop's cop."

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

Services: Were yesterday. Burial was in Merion Memorial Park, Bala Cynwyd.