The Night Stalker
“Ramirez developed a fixation on Satan. He finally had a name to call the darkness growing within him.”
Some serial killers check every box – then there are others like Richard Ramirez that break all the “rules.”
Dancing with Death
Death seemed to never be far from Richard Ramirez. He nearly died during gestation due to the fumes from his mother’s work at a boot factory, yet was born on February 22, 1960. At age 2, he suffered severe head trauma when a dresser fell on him. Again at age 5, while playing at the park, Richard was knocked unconscious when he walked in front of a swing. Within a year, he began having seizures. By age 10, he had begun sniffling glue and smoking pot. During the 5th grade, Ramirez was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and pulled from sports. This particular form of epilepsy can produce a number of frightening symptoms: disassociation from reality; hallucinations; amnesia; sudden and unprovoked feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, and euphoria. TLE can also cause depression and compulsive behavior, including hyperreligiosity (an obsession with certain aspects of religion).
When Ramirez was 12, he grew close to his older cousin Miguel who had recently returned from the Vietnam War. Miguel introduced him to violent fantasies. He showed Ramirez pictures he’d taken in Vietnam of the atrocities of the war – including photos of those Miguel had personally tortured and killed. He also taught Ramirez how to move silently and kill with stealth. Ramirez put these new “skills” into practice by breaking into homes. He felt a sense of power as he walked around inside the homes of his victims.
A year later, at age 13, Ramirez witnessed his cousin shoot and kill his wife in cold blood. This event would trigger an “awakening” in Ramirez. He accompanied his father back to the scene of the crime to retrieve personal belongings from the house, which Ramirez would later describe as a “mystical experience.” Ramirez described feeling a “tingling” sensation from looking at the place where his cousin’s wife had died. Ramirez was ordered by his father to go through her things and look for valuables. He later said that rifling through the belongings of a murdered person was “the best feeling.” After this event, Ramirez began visiting and even sleeping in graveyards after dark.
The Darkness Grows
When Ramirez was 13 or 14 years old, he made a trip from El Paso, TX to spend some time with his older brother in Los Angeles. The older Ramirez boy, who was a petty thief, taught Richard additional tips on how to be a successful burglar. The rest of Ramirez’s teen years were a filled with growing deviancy. He dropped out of high school. He was fired from his first job at a hotel — for sneaking in the room of a guest and attempting to sexually assault her. As an avid hunter, Ramirez honed the art of the silent kill, becoming highly skilled at sneaking up on his prey and killing it with a knife. He also became a fan of horror movies and the rock band AC/DC – especially their song The Night Prowler, which depicts a dark fantasy about a killer who stalks his victims in the night, sneaks in their windows while they sleep, and stabs them in the back.
One additional formative experience in the creation of the “Night Stalker” was through Jehovah’s Witness meetings Ramirez began attending as a teenager. As a result of these meetings, Ramirez developed a fixation on Satan. He finally had a name to call the darkness growing within him.
In 1978, at the age of 18, Ramirez moved permanently to Los Angeles. He financed his new life through various and escalating criminality: selling drugs, stealing cars, and nighttime home invasions. He also left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and joined the Church of Satan.
In the summer of 1978, Ramirez committed what is believed to be his first violent crime – the assault of a woman he was doing drugs with. It’s likely he committed other violent crimes between 1978 and 1984, but April of ’84, it when Ramirez killed for the first time. It was 25 years before this murder of a 9 year old girl would be linked to him through DNA. It’s possible that the girl caught him stealing in her apartment building and Ramirez killed her to keep from being caught. But with his murderous rampage begun, he would kill incessantly until finally caught 15 months later.
In June of ’84, Ramirez killed again – this time a 79 year old woman murdered in her apartment. A fingerprint was recovered outside her bedroom window. It was 8 months before Ramirez killed again. In March of 1985, Ramirez purchased a .22 revolver. He would use it in several of his forthcoming crimes. Later that month, Ramirez turned his gun against two women. The first survived when she shielded her face with her hands and the bullet ricochet off her keys. Her 35 year old roommate would not be so lucky. Ramirez entered the women’s apartment, stalked, and killed her. He fled the scene, but left behind his AC/DC hat, plunging the rock band into a flood of negative publicity over their song The Night Prowler from their hit album Highway to Hell. Later that evening, Ramirez killed again: he carjacked a woman, shooting her twice after pulling her from her car.
The media began to throw around nicknames for the brutal killer such as ““The Walk-In Killer,” “The Valley Intruder,” and “The Night Stalker.” On March 20th, Ramirez kidnapped and repeatedly assaulted an 8 year old girl, before releasing her near a phone booth. A week later, Ramirez struck again. He returned to the site of one of his previous break-ins, where once inside, Ramirez shot and killed the husband. Moments later, the wife, awakened by the gunfire, confronted the killer with a handgun – that was not loaded. In a particularly violent manner, Ramirez shot her three times, stabbed her repeatedly, and then cut out her eyes which he then put in a jewelry box. Ramirez made another identifying mistake – leaving his size 12 footprint in a flowerbed.
Forty-eight days later, Ramirez killed again, sparking a spree of serial murders often just days apart and claiming the lives of 8 more victims. Interspersed between these killings were several more burglaries, assaults, and attempted murders.
- On May 14th, he struck in Monterey Park, CA. One homeowner died; the other survived.
- Two weeks later, on May 29th, he attacked two women in Monrovia, CA. This crime scene photosproduced an infamous image of a pentagram written in lipstick on the wall above the victims. Both women initially survived, though one later died in the hospital of her injuries.
- The following day, Ramirez drove a stolen car to Burbank, CA and attacked a woman and her son. Both survived.
- Two days later, on June 2nd, he entered the home of a 75 year old woman and murdered her with a knife.
- On June 5th, Ramirez entered the unlocked window of a 16 year old girl and violently beat her with a tire iron. She miraculously survived, but required 478 stitches and reconstructive surgery. A bloody shoe print matching those from previous crime scenes was recovered from the girl’s bedspread.
- Two days later, Ramirez struck twice in the same night. On June 7th, he first broke into the home of a woman named Joyce. After robbing and murdering her, he moved on to one of her neighbor’s homes. Inside the second home, Ramirez forced the woman at gunpoint to “swear on Satan” before assaulting her and burglarizing her home.
- On July 20th, Ramirez added a machete to his arsenal and then proceeded to attack twice more. He first struck in Glendale, CA, claiming the lives of a husband and wife. He then drove 10 miles to Sun Valley, CA and attacked a family. The husband was killed, though the wife and son survived.
- Ramirez attacked again on Aughts 6th. Inside a Los Angeles home, Ramirez shot a wife and husband. Both survived the attack.
- On August 8th, he attacked another family. Like in the Sun Valley attack, the husband was killed, but the wife and son survived.
- Ten days later on August 18th, Ramirez drove north to San Francisco. He entered a home and committed his final two murders: a husband and wife in their sixties. Before he left, he drew a pentagram with lipstick above the crime scene. Then-mayor of San Francisco Diane Feinstein carelessly jeopardized the investigative work of the Los Angeles police department by revealing details about the suspect: the unusual size and specific shoe brand he wore. Ramirez promptly ditched the shoes off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Breaking the Case
On August 25th, there was a huge break in the case. A 13 year old boy caught Ramirez prowling outside his house. He rushed outside with a pen and paper and recorded a full description of Ramirez’s car, as well as a partial license plate as Ramirez fled.
Later that evening Ramirez struck one final time. He entered into the home of an engaged couple and shot them both. They would survive. Ramirez ditched his car, careful to wipe every surface of fingerprints — except he missed one fingerprint on the rearview mirror. The fingerprint was matched to an earlier Ramirez arrest. A short time later, Ramirez’s mugshot and name were broadcast on every TV station.
On August 30th, Ramirez traveled to visit his brother in Tucson, AZ, unaware that he had been identified. The next day, he arrived back in LA to see his face plastered everywhere. A group of Hispanic women recognized him and began shouting “El Matador!” (the killer). Ramirez fled with a mob chasing him. He attempted three different carjackings trying to escape, but was thwarted each time. The mob eventually caught him and beat him until the police “rescued” him. The Night Terror’s reign was over.
Ramirez displayed various courtroom antics to disrupt his trial, but was ultimate sentenced to death for 13 counts of murder, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries on September 20, 1989. His sentence was never carried out; he died in prison at age 53 from complications of lymphoma in 2013.
There are several things that stand out about this serial killer. The first is his head trauma as a child that likely was the cause of his seizures and temporal lobe epilepsy. There have been a number of studies demonstrating how traumatic brain injury can permanently alter the mind, changing behavior — including inducing violence. It’s suggested that this occurred with Aaron Hernandez, the football star turned killer.
It seems pretty clear that Ramirez was a sociopath rather than a natural born psychopath (for an explanation of the difference, see my post here: Are Some People Born Evil). The head injuries, together with an alcoholic and abusive father, the negative influence of his cousin Miguel, and witnessing a murder at the age 13, all seemed to have a profound anti-social effect on the young Ramirez.
In many ways, Ramirez operated outside the mold of a traditional serial killer profile. Thought, he displayed some of the expected characteristics: an identifiable “MO” or pattern for his crimes — burglary, sexual assault, and homicide, his crimes often seemed to have no rhyme or reason. He rarely if ever had a “cooling off” period — often attacking twice in the same night and in consecutive days. His victims ranged from 8 to 83. And they included men, women, and children. Though he frequently killed with his .22 caliber revolver, he also killed with knives, by strangulation, and at least once attempted to do so with a tire iron.
It’s hard then to nail down a motive for Ramirez’s violence. If I had to pick one though, I’d say robbery. He didn’t always sexually assault his victims. He didn’t even always kill them. But he did almost without exception rob them. That with his frequent carjackings leads me to robbery as his chief motive. Though he seemed to enjoy the more violent aspects of his crimes as well.
The satanic angle is notable as well. He’s not the only serial killer to claim that he killed for Satan or while under demonic control, or even to dabble in the occult. But his connect to Satanism and his occultic antics are definitely the most identifiable of any other serial killer that comes to mind. He genuinely seem to be obsessed with Satan — the pentagrams, his outbursts in the courtroom of “Hail Satan,” forcing his victims to pledge oaths to Satan.
I believe there is a fairly good likelihood that satanic influence was a significant factor in his crimes. The occult is a real, if unseen, force in this world, and his repeated drug use, fascination with Satan, and obsession with death could have opened him up to demonic control. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.1
Legions of the Night
You don’t understand me.
You are not expected to.
You are not capable of it.
I am beyond your experience.
I am beyond good and evil,
Legions of the night – night breed
Repeat not the errors of the Night Stalker
And show no mercy.
– Richard Ramirez