In deepest, darkest Los Angeles smack-dab in the middle of the Reagan Era, residents were terrified to sleep lest they become the next victim of a serial killer the press were calling “The Night Stalker.”
His bloody string of home-invasion murders—most of which were clustered in and around LA in the spring and summer of 1985—were known not only for their spectacular brutality but for their Satanic element at a time when the nation was in the throes of a “Satanic Panic” that was mostly empty moral hysteria…except in cases such as this.
Ramirez brutalized both genders and his murder victims ranged from as young as nine to as old as 83. He shot them and slashed them and bashed them with hammers. He raped them before and after killing them. As the summer of 1985 raged his murders became more frequent until he was finally chased down and beaten by an angry mob in East LA after some women in a grocery store recognized him from a photo the police had just released to the newspapers.
Known for his heavy-metal Mexi-Stoner Devil Horns aesthetic and legendarily foul breath, Ramirez lapped up the role of Ultimate Bad Guy during the conservative and tight-lipped 1980s. He became one of the most recognized names and visible faces of the Golden Age of Serial Killer Celebrity that ripped through the nation in the 1990s, competing with other big names such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer for the public spotlight.
A friend of a friend once recorded a phone conversation with Ramirez from prison where The Night Stalker complained that the artwork in the new line of serial killer trading cards made him look like Michael Jackson. Think about that—this is a man who skull-fucked an elderly woman he’d just murdered, yet he was also prone to these little fits of vanity. To me, that makes him terrifyingly human. In 1994, Ramirez showed that he was a good sport (or at least lonely for pen pals) when he played along with my idea to doing a satirical profile on him modeled after Tiger Beat-style teen girls’ mags that fawned over boy teen idols.
But surely he wasn’t born a Satanic serial-killing necrophile. So what makes a Richard Ramirez? Well, that’s what I’m going to attempt to unravel here.
Childhood In Texas: Beatings, Head Injuries, And Sleeping In The Cemetery
He was born Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez in El Paso TX in 1960, the youngest five children born to Mexican immigrant parents. Before immigrating, his father had been a policeman in Juarez—just across the border from El Paso and now one of the most dangerous places on Earth—and then snatched a job working on the Santa Fe Railroad.
His father allegedly had a violent temper and beat all five of his children. The beatings became so bad that at one point young Richard—whom the family called “Richie”—would escape to sleep in cemeteries, where he found solace nestled among the dead. After Ramirez was imprisoned for the Night Stalker murders, his father infamously referred to Richie as a “good boy” whose life was ruined by marijuana abuse rather than, oh, parental abuse.
It is believed that a pair of head injuries caused Ramirez to become epileptic. At age two, a dresser fell on his head, requiring 30 stitches. At age five, Ramirez was knocked out cold after being hit in the head with a park swing. He started having seizures into his teens that rendered him a loner at school.
Neighbors described him as “quiet,” just as they seem to describe all serial killers.
The Cousin Who Taught Him How To Kill
When I was 11, I had an episode in my life. I saw my cousin shoot his wife. It wasn’t traumatic, but the shock value… I went back into the apartment to collect some things with my dad, because my cousin was in jail. The bed was all bloody. It was there where she had landed after the bullet. She got a .38 to the face. At the same time it was very… uh. The stillness of the room, the eeriness, you know. We had to open the windows to ventilate the room and it was something. It was… (long pause) …it was death! I had known the woman. I had known her very well. I went into the living room and saw her purse. I looked through her purse, saw her ID cards and her things. It was a strange feeling. That was the first time I ever ran across death. Ever since, I was intrigued. — Richard Ramirez
Ramirez’s older cousin Mike was a U.S. Army Green Beret in Vietnam who returned from that nihilistic bloodbath to proudly regale young Richie with stories of raping and murdering Vietnamese women. Mike even showed Richie the Polaroids he’d taken of his victims, including one shot where he hoisted the decapitated head of a woman he’d raped.
Apparently Richard didn’t realize this was probably something that should be reported to the police. Instead, he was fascinated and enraptured by Mike’s stories and thought it was all really cool. As an eerie foreshadowing of Richard’s later nocturnal murderous forays, Mike would take him out to the desert and train him how to kill animals with knives and guns.
Mike, who was unemployed and married, would often sit around all day with Richie, smoking weed and sharing tales of his violent rape sprees in Nam. The on May 4, 1973, his wife Jessie confronted him about being a lazy pothead who needed to get a job. As Richard watched, Mike pulled out a .38 revolver and shot his wife dead, splattering Ramirez with blood.
Mike received a reduced sentenced because it was determined he had PTSD from Vietnam. Richard retreated into his own head, smoking weed, visiting cemeteries…and studying Satanism.
Devil Worshiper: Swear Your Love For Satan
Amid all the mass delusions in the 1980s that the nation was gripped in a wave of Satanic abuse—with foiled witch hunts such as the McMartin Preschool debacle and metal acts such as Judas Priest and Ozzy Osborne being accused causing kids to kill themselves¬—there were a string of killers who dedicated their deeds to Satan. Among these are Robin Gecht and the “Ripper Crew” in Chicago (who are suspected of killing up to eighteen women and eating their flesh in homage to the Dark One) and torture-killers Charles Ng and Leonard Lake (who claimed to be members of a witches’ coven).
But none was as successful at marketing his brand with a pentagram as Richard Ramirez. He said he first became enamored of Satanism while in jail on minor charges in California and another inmate said that it was logical for bad guys to worship the Devil: “Why worship the good guy, when the things you do aren’t so good?” Ramirez recalls the con saying.
An earnest acolyte of Anton Lavey and his Satanic Bible, Ramirez was also an avid listener of Satanic heavy metal, with AC/DC’s Highway to Hell his alleged favorite album. That disc included a song called “Night Prowler.”
He scrawled pentagrams at some of his crime scenes. While torturing one woman and forcing her to perform oral sex on him, he repeatedly demanded that she confess her love for Satan. At his preliminary hearing on murder charges, he shouted “HAIL SATAN!” in the courtroom and flashed a pentagram he’d drawn on his palm. After being convicted of murder when his lawyers warned him he may receive the death penalty, he reportedly told them, “I’ll be in hell then, with Satan.”
Reign of Blood: 1984-1985
Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders but is strongly suspected of 17. The first and the last murder occurred in the San Francisco area. All the rest happened in and around Los Angeles.
April 10, 1984: Although this is not technically classified as one of the “Night Stalker” murders, Ramirez was living in a motel in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district when the body of a 9-year-old girl named Mei Leung was found raped and stabbed to death in the basement. His DNA was later matched to that found at the crime scene.
June 28, 1984: Ramirez crawled through the screen window of a 79-year-old LA-area woman named Jennie Vincow on a hot summer night as she slept. He stabbed her and slashed her throat so brutally that her head was nearly severed. An autopsy showed that she had been raped.
March 17, 1985: After a nearly nine-month hiatus, Ramirez returned with a vengeance, shooting two women at their LA condo, killing one. An hour later, he pulled another woman out of her car and shot her dead.
March 27, 1985: This double murder was the first of what would become a pattern for Ramirez—he’d tiptoe into a married couple’s house as they slept and shoot the man dead before engaging in prolonged rape, and mutilation of his wife. In this case he crawled into the house of Vincent and Maxine Zazzara, shooting both dead. He left Vincent’s body alone, though: He mutilated Maxine and infamously plucked out her eyeballs, placing them in a jewelry box, and leaving with them.
April 14, 1985: Ramirez slipped into the Monterey Park home of Bill Doi and his disabled wife Lillian. He shot Bill in the face and beat him unconscious. Bill later died of his injuries in the hospital. He bound Lillian with thumbcuffs and raped her before combing the house for valuables.
May 29, 1985: He stole a Mercedes-Benz and drove it to Monrovia, CA, entering the house of octogenarian sisters Mabel “Ma” Bell and Florence “Nettie” Lang. He beat both women with hammers, shocked Bell with an electrical cord, and raped Ms. Lang. Bell would die of her injuries.
June 27, 1985: Ramirez invaded the home of 32-year-old Patty Elaine Higgins of Arcadia, CA, slitting her throat and killing her.
July 2, 1985: Five days later in the same town where he’d murdered Patty Higgins, Ramirez entered the home of Mary Louise Cannon, 75, fatally slashing her throat.
July 7, 1985: Back in the East LA suburb of Monterey Park, Ramirez burglarized the home of 61-year-old Joyce Lucille Nelson. He beat her to death with punches and kicks.
July 20, 1985: Three murders in one night. Ramirez murdered and butchered a couple in their sixties, then invaded another house, shooting and killing the husband instantly before raping the man’s wife while her eight-year-old son screamed.
August 9, 1985: Ramirez stole a car and made his way to the coastal town of Diamond Bar, breaking into a young couple’s house around 2:30AM. He shot the husband in the head, killing him. He handcuffed and raped the wife while insisting she “swear to Satan” not to scream.
August 17, 1985: Back in the Bay Area, Ramirez busted into the home of a sexagenarian couple named Barbara and Peter Pan. (Yes—Peter Pan.) He shot and killed Peter instantly before raping Barbara and leaving her for dead.
Over the next twelve days Ramirez would zigzag up and down the California coast and then to Tucson, AZ, before finally returning to East Los Angeles to face his demise.
End Of The Line: Captured By An Angry Mob In East L.A.
Based on a single fingerprint brushed from a car Ramirez had stolen, police were able to finally identify the Night Stalker. On August 28, 1985, police released a 1984 mug shot of Ramirez to the press, and his face was soon plastered all over the media.
Three days later while Ramirez was milling about in an East LA grocery store, some women pointed at him and loudly identified him as “the killer.” At this point Ramirez noticed his face on a stack of newspapers, panicked, and ran out of the store.
He attempted three carjackings before an angry mob of Mexican residents subdued him and beat the snot out of him before police arrived and arrested him.
The Trial: “It’s Just Pure Evil”
Wearing shades and basking in the spotlight like an LA showbiz superstar, Ramirez entered his trial on murder charges with a poll showing that 93% of the public had heard of him and most thought he was guilty. After years of delays and endless motions, jury selection begin in July 1988. A pool of an estimated 1,600 potential jurors were screened before both sides could decide on twelve they felt were unbiased. In early August, rumors emerged that Ramirez had planned to bring a gun into the courtroom, causing officials to install metal detectors in the building.
In mid-August, one of the jurors, a female, was murdered, leading to immediate suspicion that one of Ramirez’s countless groupies or acolytes had carried out vengeance on his behalf. But it turned out that the woman had been murdered by her boyfriend, and the trial proceeded along its slow, sluggish pace.
Over a year later and with LA taxpayers poorer to the tune of $1.8 million—it became the most expensive trial in LA history prior to the OJ Simpson murder trial—a jury returned guilty verdicts for 11 murders in LA and two in San Francisco.
Ramirez received the death penalty. The sentencing judge declared that Ramirez had demonstrated “cruelty, callousness and viciousness beyond any human understanding.”
“It’s just evil. It’s just pure evil,” said Peter Zazzara, son of the first couple that Ramirez had murdered. “I don’t know why somebody would want to do something like that. To take joy in the way it happened.”
When facing reporters while being transported from his cell, Ramirez was said to have flashed the devil horns and uttered one word: “Evil.”
Richard Ramirez’s Wife And His Love Letters From Prison
As with the Manson Family trial—which also took place in LA—observers were aghast to see the number of nubile young women drawn to a man most would consider subhuman. But all throughout his trial, young girls flocked to get a glimpse of this dark messiah.
As is the case with many extremely bad boys—we’re not talking about boys who chew gum in class and steal newspapers here—a certain type of female found herself wildly attracted to Richard Ramirez. Such women are said to be afflicted with “hybristophilia,” which Wikipedia describes as a psychological condition wherein “sexual arousal, facilitation, and attainment of orgasm are responsive to and contingent upon being with a partner known to have committed an outrage, cheating, lying, known infidelities, or crime—such as rape, murder, or armed robbery.”
Nudging her way to the head of the pack of endless female death groupies vying for Ramirez’s attention was magazine editor Doreen Lioy, who first started writing Ramirez after his arrest. She also attended his trial and penned an estimated 75 letters to him during his time behind bars.
Ramirez proposed marriage to Doreen in 1988. They finally wed in 1996 at San Quentin State Prison.
“He’s kind, he’s funny, he’s charming,” Doreen told CNN a year after their marriage. “I think he’s a really great person. He’s my best friend; he’s my buddy.”
Richard Ramirez’s Death
Although Richard Ramirez was handed the death penalty, his own body turned on him before the State of California got to kill him. He died at age 53 of complications due to B-cell lymphoma while wasting away on Death Row.
Some—most, probably—would view his saga as a tale of ultimate evil and making unsavory pacts with Satan.
Others among us would suspect it might have something more to do with childhood head injuries and being beaten by your father.