Police on Saturday were seeking a gunman who shot and killed Corona's first female police officer as she rode in a van on the Riverside Freeway. A second woman was seriously injured in the Friday night shooting.
Patricia Dwyer, an eight-year veteran of the Corona Police Department, was off duty and sitting in the back seat at 11:10 p.m. when a single shot from a handgun penetrated the side of the van and struck her, police said.
The bullet, apparently fired by a motorist who had earlier made an obscene gesture, passed through Dwyer's upper body and hit 21-year-old Wendy Varga, a family friend who was sitting in the back seat next to her, Corona Police Sgt. Rick Goldman said. Varga, a Rancho Cucamonga resident, was hit in the throat, but the bullet struck a vertebra and lodged in her shoulder, he said.
The shooting occurred as the van was moving eastbound on the 91 Freeway near Corona's West Grand Boulevard off-ramp.
Dwyer's husband Mike, who was driving, raced to Corona Community Hospital but his wife, a 45-year-old mother of three, was pronounced dead shortly after they arrived, Goldman said. Varga was in intensive care Saturday at the hospital and listed in stable condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Police said they have no reason to believe that the gunman knew the identities of the people he was shooting at.
The Dwyers, of Woodcrest, a small Riverside County community 12 miles east of Corona, were taking an injured son, 22-year-old Mark Dwyer, to a hospital when the incident occurred.
"We were driving in the fast lane and we observed a car sort of weave in front of us," said Mike Dwyer in a telephone interview Saturday. "He slowed down and I hit my brights and he made (obscene) gestures. . . . I pulled to the right lane and tried to pass. He accelerated.
"We assumed it wasn't a threat and didn't get a (complete) license number."
Finally, Dwyer said, he was able to pass the motorist but "once I got in front, he followed us a long way. Then as we came into Corona he was gesturing for us to pull off the freeway."
"We were still eastbound in the fast lane and he was getting off at (the) Main Street off-ramp going toward Corona," Dwyer said. "He fired one shot."
Dwyer said he knew immediately that his wife was hit.
"I quickly pulled across all the lanes to the (next) off-ramp," he said.
Escort to Hospital
About a block away he came across two police cars, and quickly explained what had happened, Dwyer said. The patrol cars provided an escort to a hospital with flashing lights and sirens.
"I'll tell you, it's very sad," said Dwyer. "She was a very fine person."
Corona police said they are searching for a man described as about 35 years old with a mustache and wearing glasses. The suspect's vehicle was believed to be a four-door, tan or beige 1980 or 1981 Buick with a small hood ornament.
Police believe that they have a partial license number of the vehicle, Goldman said. The first two digits are unknown, but are followed by BS0. The last two letters or numerals also are unknown, he said.
Several members of the 70-officer Corona Police Department were involved in the investigation Saturday.
Lt. Robert J. Martin, who is heading the investigation, said roadblocks were set up at freeway off-ramps in Corona Saturday night in an attempt to find witnesses.
Martin added that his office will hold a press conference either today or Monday to seek public assistance in tracking down the killer.
"The public has given us a number of calls," said Corona Police Capt. Rod Fick. "Quite a few citizens have expressed their sorrow. Everyone here really feels the loss."
Dwyer began her police career as a dispatcher for the Corona department and then became a reserve officer, Goldman said. Later she worked in the canine unit and as a member of the SWAT team.
Married 27 Years
Mike Dwyer, a Riverside City firefighter, said he and his wife had been married 27 years. Their other children are girls, 17 and 18 years old.
Dwyer said they were returning from the Speedway Motorcycle Races at Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, where Mark Dwyer was injured in a race. Mark Dwyer was the top point scorer on an American team that competed recently against six of the world's best riders, his father said.
The Dwyers were taking their son to be examined at County General Hospital in Riverside.
"He was bruised in a number of places but complaining of neck pain and we didn't want to take a chance," Mike Dwyer said. "He really didn't want to go, but we wanted to have him checked."
Mark Dwyer was hospitalized Friday for observation.
"I told my son this morning" that his mother had died, Mike Dwyer said Saturday.