The Night Stalker
Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, epitomizes the unpredictable, compulsive serial killer. His motives and methods made it obvious that the rules by which we traditionally believed serial killers operated were anything but reliable. His horrific criminal career also taught us that there is no room for competition, jealousy, and lack of cooperation among local police jurisdictions when a pernicious murderer of the stature of the Night Stalker is moving among us. It is likely that a more coordinated and collegiate approach among competing police departments in Southern California during the 1980s would have resulted in an earlier apprehension of the Night Stalker, and would have saved lives. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and Ramirez used this unfortunate flaw in our law enforcement system to his advantage.
Ramirez was born in 1960 to devoted, hard working, Mexican immigrants. The last of five children, he was raised in El Paso, Texas, with a good deal of family attention and support, although without much money. When he was in the fifth grade, the Ramirez family learned that Richard suffered from childhood epilepsy, which, combined with the fact that he was the youngest child, made him the unquestioned center of his parents’ attention. Although this disorder hampered the boy’s ability to play sports—and clearly frustrated him—the seizures eventually subsided on their own and left him physically unaffected.
Since he was the last of the Ramirez’s children, Richard’s parents placed a good deal of hope in his future and tried to support him in the best way possible. Unfortunately, despite their persistent efforts, it is difficult to imagine how much worse his life could have turned out to be as an adult. However, until he reached adolescence, it seemed that Richard was on the right course in life, and his parents must have been generally pleased with their son.
Throughout his early school years, until the age of thirteen, Richard was a good student, often earning better than average grades. His early background was free of significant behavioral problems or brushes with the law, although he did show a sharp and sometimes unpredictable temper—an apparent trademark of all the males in the Ramirez family. Despite a promising start to his life, shortly before Richard was ready to attend high school he was set on a course of destructive behavior that would eventually lead him to become one of the most feared serial killers in California’s history.
By his thirteenth birthday, Richard had grown close to his older cousin, who had been a Green Beret in Vietnam and had returned to Texas after his discharge from the military. He was an imposing, highly decorated soldier, who must have seemed like a real-life hero to the impressionable boy. However, Richard’s cousin was also an angry and often violent man, who loved to share his war experiences with his young protégée. This regularly took the form of graphic combat stories that were sometimes accompanied by even more troubling photographs. Over time, Richard’s cousin taught the youngster how to use weapons, how to fight, and how to use basic survivalist tactics. He also introduced the teenager to his first experience with drugs. During the time they spent together, Richard and his cousin became inseparable, and the youngster’s behavior began to deteriorate significantly.
Ramirez was still only thirteen years old when he witnessed his cousin shoot his wife in the face after one of their seemingly endless arguments. His cousin was quickly arrested, tried for murder, pleaded temporary insanity, and received a lenient sentence because of his excellent military record. However, by this time, Richard had already become obsessed with his cousin’s lifestyle and behavior, which he emulated in every way he could. With his beloved mentor now behind bars, Richard was suddenly left to his own devices, and his life decisions went from bad to worse. Even at such an early age, Ramirez was using marijuana on a regular basis, had lost all interest in finishing his education, and was beginning to steal.
For a short time, Richard went to live with his older brother, Ruben, in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his experiences with Ruben were as bad as those with his cousin. Ruben was a heroin addict and a seasoned burglar, who did little to push his younger brother in a positive direction. Rather, he re-established the same kind of poor role model that had already captured the youngster’s interest. By the time Richard returned to Texas, he was a regular drug user who had taken to burglary to support his habit.
For the next few years, Richard attended school in Texas, increased his use of drugs, and continued to steal, although he somehow managed to avoid any significant entanglements with the law. During this period, Richard was able to land a job at a local hotel, which provided him with a master key to the guestrooms. From time to time, he would steal valuables from the guests, although he was never caught or charged with a crime. It was also around this time that he developed a passion for voyeurism and would regularly try to catch women at the hotel or in the neighborhood while they were undressing.
At one point, Ramirez sneaked into the hotel room of a female guest and attacked her from behind, tied her, and tried to rape her. His assault was interrupted when the woman’s husband unexpectedly returned to the room and severely beat Richard before turning him over to the authorities. In defending himself, Ramirez claimed that the woman he had attacked had actually solicited him for sex. Since the youngster had no criminal record, he was treated with astonishing leniency by the court and simply returned to the custody of his parents without so much as a probationary sentence. Ramirez was only fifteen years old at the time.
Shortly after he turned eighteen, Richard left Texas and moved to Los Angeles, where he initially stayed once again with his brother. However, the two men soon argued and Richard left his brother’s home to find his own way in life. By then, he was a regular drug user and an experienced burglar. At this point, there was no turning back for the young man. He had simply fallen too far into the abyss that had grown around him years earlier.
Addicted to cocaine, and often using LSD or PCP, Ramirez found himself in a world of dark, violent fantasies that involved intense themes of sexual domination and sadism. He was an accomplished burglar, who began to feel invincible in his ability to avoid detection. Ramirez had also discovered the writings of Anton LaVey, the founder and high priest of the Church of Satan in San Francisco. Through LaVey’s words, the young man discovered what he believed to be the most powerful force in the universe—Satan. In Satan he found the ultimate excuse to freely exercise a compulsion for unspeakable mayhem and violence that had been brooding within his heart for years. He had finally reached the point in his life at which society would become the victim who would catapult him to the fame he had always desired so intensely.
The Night Stalker’s year of lethal violence began when he was twenty-four. It included beatings, slashing, shootings, and unspeakable acts of sexual abuse and molestation. His victims were children, women, men, and even those who were elderly and disabled. Although the Night Stalker is believed to have murdered as many as twenty individuals, several of his victims survived the assaults, and a few were even able to provide fairly detailed descriptions of their attacker. In addition to this, Ramirez was often sloppy in his brutality, regularly leaving a variety of clues at crimes scenes, although it took investigators a year to piece this information together and use it successfully in their search for the serial killer. Like a number of other serial murderers, Richard Ramirez was more lucky than proficient when it came to avoiding capture for so long, thanks in great measure to an uncoordinated investigation into his crimes.
Here is a brief summary of the Night Stalker’s yearlong reign of terror in Southern California, which began in 1984. It does not include many of the victims who survived his attacks, nor the countless other felonies that he is believed to have committed during this period. Even in its abbreviated form, it is a tale of extraordinary viciousness that has rarely been duplicated in our long history of crime:
- June 28, 1984, Glassell Park: A 79-year-old woman is repeatedly stabbed and her throat is slashed in the first confirmed Night Stalker murder. Typical of the pattern that he will follow throughout the next year, the serial killer breaks into the victim’s home at night and steals her valuables after the murder. In virtually every attack, Ramirez seemed to delight in spending time with his victims in their homes, inflicting a broad array of cruel punishments.
- March 17, 1985, Rosemead: A 34-year-old woman is shot to death in her condominium. Her roommate is wounded but survives, providing police with their first physical description of the suspect. The description is vague but later proves to comport with the appearance of Richard Ramirez.
- March 17, 1985, Monterey Park: On the same night as the Rosemead attack, a 30-year-old woman is dragged from her car and shot several times. She dies the next day from her wounds. This would not be the first time that Ramirez would claim more than one victim in two different locations on the same night. However, at this point in the saga of murder, investigators had no idea that the crimes were related.
- March 26, 1985, Whittier: A couple is brutally murdered in their home. The 64-year-old man is beaten and shot to death. His 44-year-old wife is shot and stabbed to death, and her eyes are carved out and placed in a jewelry box.
- May 14, 1985, Monterey Park: A 65-year-old man is shot in the head, while his wife, although beaten and brutalized, survives the attack. Footprints are discovered at the crime scene, which are later linked to Richard Ramirez.
- May 29, 1985, Monrovia: Two weeks after the Monterey Park attack, two elderly sisters, aged 81 and 84, are brutally beaten in their home. One of them is an invalid. The assailant draws a pentagram on one of the victim’s thighs and scrawls other pentagrams on the interior walls of the home. One of the women survives the assault, while the other dies.
- June 27, 1985, Arcadia: A young, female schoolteacher is sodomized in her home and has her throat slashed in a fatal attack.
- July 2, 1985, Arcadia: Less than two miles away and a week later, a woman in her seventies is slain in the same manner as the schoolteacher. Police immediately see a connection between the two Arcadia murders, although they have not yet established a positive link with the previous attacks.
- July 7, 1985, Monterey Park: A 61-year-old woman is beaten to death in her home. That same night, the killer rapes and brutally beats another woman in her home. Fortunately, the Night Stalker’s second victim survives the assault.
- July 20, 1985, Glendale: A 69-year-old man and his 66-year-old wife are slashed and shot to death in their home.
- July 20, 1985, Sun Valley: On the same night as the Glendale attack, a 32-year-old man is beaten and shot to death in his home. His wife is raped and beaten, and his 8-year-old son is also beaten.
- August 6, 1985, Northridge: A 38-year-old man and his 27-year-old wife are critically wounded by gunshots in their home. They survive the attack and provide a new description to investigators, which generally confirms the previous descriptions of the Night Stalker.
- August 8, 1985, Diamond Bar: Two days later, a 35-year-old man is shot to death in his home. His wife is beaten and sexually molested. Following this attack, investigators make a public announcement that they are searching for serial killer.
- August 17, 1985, San Francisco: Realizing that the police are on to him, the Night Stalker decides to change the location of his attacks. In the only known fatal assault outside of Southern California, a 66-year-old man is shot to death in his home. His wife is also shot and beaten, but survives her wounds. She provides yet another description of the assailant, which closely matches the appearance of Richard Ramirez.
- August 25, 1985, Mission Viejo: A 29-year-old man is shot in the head and his fiancée is raped before their car is stolen. Both survive the attack. On August 28, the automobile is recovered and a set of fingerprints belonging to Richard Ramirez is recovered. After the killer’s description appears extensively in the newspapers and on television, Ramirez is captured by citizens in Los Angeles on August 31, 1985.
The Night Stalker’s last day of freedom nearly cost him his life. Ironically, it was responding police officers who rescued him from several angry citizens who were beating him into submission after he had tried to forcibly steal an automobile. In a turn of events that should have shattered his belief in Satan’s protection, Ramirez was relieved to be saved by the same pursuers who he had always thought would never be able to capture him. In fact, he pleaded with them to be taken into custody and out of the hands of his enraged captors. Much to the pleasure of investigators in the case, the man who had so terrorized Southern California for more than a year ultimately proved to be easily subdued.
Although Ramirez bragged that he had murdered twenty individuals, investigators believe that the actual number was sixteen. However, given the large number of unsolved homicides that typically plague this area of California, no one can ever be certain of how many murders were actually committed by the Night Stalker. In the end, he was formally charged with 13 counts of homicide and dozens of counts of other felonies, including sexual assault, and breaking and entering. It is virtually certain that many of his crimes, possibly including additional homicides, will never be brought to light.
After more than a year of legal delays, the Night Stalker’s trial finally began in July 1988, more than two years after he first faced a preliminary hearing for his crimes. However, it took some six months before a jury was finally seated and matters began in earnest, in January 1989.
From the onset of the trial, it became clear that Richard Ramirez was basking in the self-perceived glory of his horrific crimes and the inevitable, sensational media coverage that followed in their wake. His typical court garb was a dark suit and sunglasses, which made him look like a cross between a rock star and a Mafia hit-man. Ramirez incessantly played to the court, the jury, a disturbing number of women who apparently had fallen in love with the killer, and virtually everyone else in attendance at trial. Throughout the proceedings, the Night Stalker showed no remorse for his brutality. Rather, he took every opportunity to demonstrate his unremitting faith in Satan and a complete disdain for his victims. Finally, on September 20, 1989, he was convicted of 13 counts of murder and 30 additional felonies, which resulted in multiple death sentences.
For a while, Ramirez fell from the media limelight; however, he continued to capture the imagination of many true-crime devotees. Seven years after his conviction, in 1996, while on San Quentin’s death row, the Night Stalker was married to a woman who had become his ardent admirer during the unremitting media coverage of his trial and its aftermath. Today, Ramirez awaits the last of his appeals and a final date with the executioner.
What was Richard Ramirez, and how do we classify him? Was he an organized or disorganized serial killer? If organized, of what type? What do we really know about this predator, and what have we learned from his horrific crimes that could help us deal with future serial killers?
The Night Stalker is technically classified as a mixed-type serial killer because his behavior and signature borrowed elements from both the organized and disorganized type of offenders. In truth, Ramirez broke all the rules of how we generally understand these predators. He successfully defied any attempt to clearly categorize him in a formal way. Unfortunately, this is not an unusual scenario with serial killers. They often cannot be categorized successfully, or in more than general terms. However, the Night Stalker proved to be wildly beyond accepted psychological or criminal categorizations. He was a true predator without any hint of conscience, whose exceptional brutality helped define many of the essential characteristics of the kind of societal assailant that we now recognize as a Millennium Murderer.
In many ways, Richard Ramirez rewrote our understanding of serial killers, and he significantly clouded it. Like other serial killers, Ramirez selected his victims at random. However, he demonstrated no preference for any societal, age, or sexual subgroup. In this sense, the Night Stalker lashed out against women and men, young and old, the infirm, and even children, all with equal fury and disdain. He murdered his victims with unspeakable brutality using guns, knives, blunt objects, and even a machete. Like the disorganized serial killer, Ramirez would sometimes use weapons that he found in the victims’ homes. Like an organized serial killer, he would often bring his own weapons with him. It didn’t seem to matter to the Night Stalker how he killed his victims, so long as it was brutal and shocking.
Ramirez would travel significant distances to select his victims, at one point even driving the length of the state of California. This kind of behavior was traditionally attributed to the organized serial killer. However, the Night Stalker’s crime scenes were typically chaotic and gruesome—and he would regularly attack his prey from behind—just as one would expect from a disorganized serial killer. In the end, the murder’s ability and willingness to vary the locations of his attacks probably kept him on the streets far longer than he should have been.
Many believe that this predator was a master at claiming his victims across police jurisdictions, which confused and prolonged the investigation because of the poor cooperation and interdepartmental jealousies that were rampant in Southern California at the time. In effect, Ramirez used the weaknesses of his pursuers against them in a rather sophisticated way, which is certainly a hallmark of the organized serial killer. However, he also left numerous clues behind, such as footprints and even fingerprints in a variety of obviously sloppy and disorganized crime scenes. Nonetheless, Ramirez planned his attacks in at least a modest way, carefully selecting homes that he felt he could enter without being seen or immediately heard, although he did not seem to care about who lived in these houses. To the mind of this enigmatic killer, any victim would do, and the rules of the lethal game were his alone.
Richard Ramirez was convinced that he could not be captured—that his lord, Satan, would protect him throughout his killing career, regardless of his actions. However, despite this bizarre belief, Ramirez was legally sane and well able to understand the meaning of his actions. He certainly knew right from wrong, and he took obvious delight in living on the darkest side of human depravity that he could muster. In this sense, he was a serial killer by choice, not in accordance with the will of some ill-defined demon.
In the final analysis, Richard Ramirez was a Millennium Murderer of the most horrific kind—a man who felt no compulsion about his actions, cared only for his own unspeakable gratification, and was completely dissociated from his victims and society at large. That he was so successful in evading capture for so long, and claiming so many innocent lives, was more a tribute to the lack of coordination among several law enforcement agencies in Southern California than it was to the concise planning of the Night Stalker, or the intervention of Satan. Ultimately, Richard Ramirez was truly a man without a soul. In that sense he probably was the devil’s work, as well as one of the most pernicious Millennium Murderers of the late twentieth century.