The aging, green Pontiac Grand Prix looked to be just another one of the many cars--stolen, broken down or simply abandoned--that drivers often leave along the quiet Lincoln Heights street that borders the Golden State Freeway.
For about a month, the hottest missing car in Southern California sat at a curb accumulating dust. But Sunday night, as police swarmed around and a tow truck driver wearing white gloves carefully hauled the car away, neighbors realized that it had been left there by a man they had all been afraid of: Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez.
The discovery of the 1976 Pontiac rekindled concerns on North Avenue 23 about neighborhood safety--and what residents say police have not done about it.
Stalker task force investigators had been searching for the green Grand Prix since July 20, when a witness reported spotting it driving away from the scene of a killing in Sun Valley, where a man was slain in his bedroom, his wife raped and their 8-year-old son beaten.
And for much of the time since, authorities said, it was parked on Avenue 23, a scant two blocks from a freeway off-ramp. The street sweeper that supposedly cleans the area every Wednesday between 1 and 5 a.m. must have swept right around it at least three times.
Hollenbeck Division police, in whose jurisdiction the street lies, refused comment Monday on any matters concerning the Night Stalker, referring all inquiries to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Detectives there were unavailable for comment.
Authorities said Sunday that a man believed to be Ramirez's brother told them where to find the car. His identity could not immediately be learned.
"We have a lot of cars stolen and left across the street, and we call police if it looks stripped or abandoned," said Mary Ellen Rodriguez, 24, whose family has lived on the block for 17 years.
Rodriguez said the abandoned cars worry her almost as much as do the homeless winos who have hauled in mattresses, even old armchairs, to set up housekeeping in little clearings across the street, under the bushes that screen Avenue 23 from the freeway.
Rodriguez, who has a little girl and is concerned about the other children on the street, said increased police visibility is needed to deter crime.
The short street, lined on one side with California bungalows, dead-ends in an industrial area. It is a polylingual street too. The old-time families are Latinos, the newcomers Chinese and Vietnamese and the language and cultural differences can make neighborliness a delicate matter.
Rodriguez would have reported the abandoned Pontiac herself, but it was parked farther down the street, across from an occupied house, and she thought it might belong to a resident, so she refrained.
"It's a lesson to police," said one resident who also complains to police about the street. She did not want her name used. "They should patrol here" because of the cars, "and with all those winos, they should cut those trees."
Jason Hai, 25, whose family has lived on Avenue 23 for two years, was astonished to learn that the dirty car parked across from his house was allegedly the Night Stalker's.
"What a surprise--his car? . . . I thought it was just another abandoned car," he said.
Stem the Tide
While some, like Rodriguez and her sister Valerie Velasquez, 19, have tried to stem the tide of abandoned cars and resident derelicts, others have gotten so accustomed to it that they figure there is little that even police can do to stop it.
"I noticed it'd been a few weeks there anyway, and I never saw anyone get close to it," said retired welder Edward A. Rodriguez, no relation to the sisters. "I thought probably something was wrong with it, or (the owner) didn't want to wash it."
"I saw the car sitting there for three weeks, and I didn't think anything of it," neighbor Federico Hernandez said.
The recovery of the dust-caked car yielded police few if any clues. Sources said a tire iron was found inside, but they doubted it had been used as a weapon.
A similar tire iron, left at the scene of one of the 16 murders attributed to the stalker, was believed to have been used to bludgeon a victim to death.
State motor vehicle records show the Pontiac registered to Jesus Estrada at a San Fernando address. However, Estelle Gonzales, who said she has lived at that address for 17 years, said Friday that she did not own the car and did not know Ramirez.
Still, it sent a shudder through the neighborhood: The thought that the suspected killer dropped his car there and sauntered off to continue what police say was his killing spree.
For the past few weeks, Mary Ellen Rodriguez's aunt Mary, who lives with them, had slept during the day so she could stay awake and alert at night and had scolded family members who opened louvered windows in the heat. She nearly fainted, said her niece, when she learned how near the man had been.
"I thank God he didn't decide to come in here," said Edward Rodriguez. "I told my wife, 'This is a real small world.' He was so close."