Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Gary Bowen was laid to rest. He was buried in a private ceremony at Miramar National Cemetery. We apologize for the error.
SAN DIEGO — A San Diego police officer who died unexpectedly this month was remembered in a Thursday memorial service for his dedication as a public servant and his unique talent as a forensic artist.
Gary Bowen, a former U.S. Navy corpsman who served with the Marine Corps, was just 49 years old when he died on Jan. 12. The San Diego Police Department said the officer suffered from “medical complications” but did not share further details.
After a brief procession from a mortuary in Temecula, Bowen was laid to rest Thursday at Miramar National Cemetery following a service at North Coast Church in Vista. The funeral service is available to view online in its entirety.
Bowen was a two-decade veteran who most recently worked on SDPD’s homeless outreach team after stints with various divisions at the department. He was hired in 1998 and earned his first commendation when he was still a recruit. It was the realization of a life-long dream: When he was a kid, Bowen had a police scanner and would ride around town on his bike trying to catch a glimpse of a crime scene, he once told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
After more than a decade as a patrol officer, Bowen was growing frustrated with the quality of SDPD’s computer-generated composite sketches. Believing that it was keeping his department from identifying suspects and victims, the officer set out to make better sketches himself, attending 120 hours of training at his own expense.
Bowen eventually finished his certification and started producing sketches professionally, basing the renderings on descriptions provided by victims and witnesses. His sketches were instrumental in identifying perpetrators in some 100 cases, according to the department, and were frequently seen in Crime Stoppers bulletins featured on FOX 5. Bowen was one of just two police sketch artists in San Diego County.
Beyond his skill with the pencil, the officer had to learn how to best coax out a useful description from his interviewee. Sometimes they were the victim of a violent crime, other times they were quite young. Often, Bowen was asking a person to recall specific details despite only seeing the criminal for a few moments.
As described in the Union-Tribune column, he often dealt with victims who were “distraught, angry, sobbing or yelling.” But Bowen would remain patient during the sometimes hours-long interviews, knowing an accurate composite could help bring someone to justice.
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit spoke at Thursday’s memorial, saying that Bowen “embodied the very spirit of service, and loved and respected everybody.”
Nisleit recounted the officer’s dedication to his craft, describing the early days of his training, when he would show his wife mugshots, ask her to memorize the faces, and then have her describe them to him so he could practice sketching. Then he would compare the two images to judge his handiwork. Over time, the sketches became remarkably accurate.
A talented problem-solver, it’s no surprise Bowen is deeply missed by his loved ones and colleagues, Nisleit said.
“If you talk to anybody who knows Gary, you’ll hear the words — the common words — to describe him,” the chief said. “Honorable, dependable, skilled, compassionate and helpful.”
Bowen is survived by his wife, Monica, and their two sons, Trevor and Alex. San Diego’s police union shared a fundraising campaign with proceeds going to the family.
City News Service contributed to this report.