By Mary Vespa
March 07, 1977 12:00 PM

The word hit the South Bronx streets last July 30: Get Rosa Velez, a 20-year-old visitor from Puerto Rico who had spurned the sexual advances of a friend of the Savage Skulls gang. The next day at 6 a.m. four members of the gang’s disciplinary “Gestapo” unit brutally attacked Rosa on the third floor of a tenement.

Three Skulls members were indicted on assault and rape charges a week later (the fourth is a fugitive). But before the November trial, says Detective Bob Werner, “The message got out that if Rosa testified, the gang would kill her.” The Skulls, an eight-year-old group with some 250 members ranging in age from 10 to 25, has been called the most violent of New York’s troublesome street gangs. Over the past four years 13 Skulls have been arrested for homicide. Understandably, Rosa Velez (not her real name) fled to her homeland.

Werner, the only detective on the 82-man Bronx Youth Gang Task Force, had arrested one of Rosa’s attackers eight times before. He did not want to lose the case.

Using three days of his own time and $288 of his $19,300 annual salary for plane fare and a hotel, Werner flew to San Juan Jan. 2. He had a police photo of Rosa’s brutally beaten face and the “address of a friend of a friend of a friend.”

It took Werner and a Puerto Rican detective almost five hours to find Rosa. She works in the sugarcane fields and is sturdily built (“If it had been one-on-one she’d have killed the attacker,” says Werner), but she still was terrified. “At first,” Werner remembers, “she denied being the victim. Then she started crying.” Werner, who does not speak Spanish, pleaded with Rosa through the Puerto Rican detective. “I literally got down on my knees,” Werner recalls. “I told her she had to come back or the same thing would happen to someone else.” An hour later he had convinced her, and after she flew back to testify—under 24-hour guard—her three assailants pleaded guilty to second-degree assault (the rape charges were dropped in plea bargaining). Two of them later received two-to-six-year sentences, the other three-to-six.

Not surprisingly, a few of Werner’s colleagues have kidded him for being an overachiever. “We heard a guy we wanted had skipped to Connecticut,” remembers Officer Barney Fincke, Werner’s ex-partner. “So I said to Bobby, jokingly, ‘Why don’t we put in for a vacation day and get him?’ ”

Weary of the razzing and publicity, Werner says, “I am not a supercop; I never was. We just figured if we knocked out the Gestapo, the Savage Skulls would fall apart.” (The gang since has retreated underground.)

Brooklyn-born Werner, a 29-year-old father of two who lives in suburban New York, likes to fish and watch TV (his favorite: Police Story). A cop since 1969, he’s also taking night courses for a degree in criminal justice. After the Rosa Velez case attracted national attention, the police department reimbursed Werner’s travel expenses and Bronx DA Mario Merola gave him a certificate of appreciation. But Werner has not succumbed to any Kojakian illusions about his job. “I thought police work was a much better job than it turned out to be,” he says. “I grew up in Central Valley, N.Y., and if a trooper told you to do something, you didn’t say ‘boo.’ I once thought it would be the same in New York—I guess I was a little naive.”