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Recalling Ramirez: Even Friends Didn't Trust Him

September 08, 1985|DAVID HOLLEY | Times Staff Writer

EL PASO — By the time they began high school together in 1974, Alma Gaytan Orozco no longer talked much with the boy who lived next door in their barrio in the center of this city.

"When I would come home from school or work, I wouldn't greet him," said Orozco, 25. "People started saying he was getting into people's houses. Our house was broken into, but we didn't have any proof it was him. Just the thought that it was him was scary, and I didn't want to have anything to do with him."

Orozco's neighbor was Richard Ramirez, who was arrested last weekend in Los Angeles as the suspected Night Stalker.

Interviews with friends and acquaintances of Ramirez--alleged to have committed perhaps 15 slayings and 21 assaults, kidnapings and rapes in a rampage that California authorities believe may have begun with a June, 1984, murder--paint a picture of a youth who early on was known as a loner and troublemaker.

He progressed from glue sniffing in his early teens to marijuana smoking in high school and an expensive cocaine habit as a young man.

Known as a petty thief as a teen-ager, he apparently became fascinated both with the art of burglary and, later, Satanism. He began by shoplifting junk food, practiced picking pockets among his friends--who say even they couldn't trust him--and apparently taught himself to be an accomplished burglar.

Ramirez never seemed to have a job or a girlfriend. After going to California as a young man, he had money to buy drugs but lived in shabby hotels, merging with transients, drifters and small-time criminals on the Skid Rows of Los Angeles and San Francisco. A tall, skinny man who was self-conscious about his weight, he suffered such severe tooth decay that his gapped, discolored teeth were one of his most distinguishing features.

After minor run-ins with the law in El Paso and Los Angeles on drug and vehicle offenses, Ramirez was imprisoned in Los Angeles for nearly five months in 1983 on an auto theft conviction. He was convicted again in connection with an auto theft in late 1984, and served 36 days in Los Angles County Jail. Both times, he provided aliases to authorities. The Night Stalker killings began shortly after his second release.

Dick Schuller, an electrical shop teacher at Ramirez's high school, remembered him as "essentially a troublemaker."

"He didn't give a damn about anything," Schuller said. "I do know that he hit the dope pretty hard, and that he was into heavy rock 'n' roll."

But Ramirez did not get much attention from administrators in a school with about 3,200 students. Cesar G. Mendoza and G. Irene Trejo, two assistant principals at El Paso's Jefferson High School when Ramirez was there, said he was a "quiet" boy whom they remembered primarily for his truancy.

Ramirez dropped out of high school shortly after his 17th birthday. In two or three years, he began drifting between El Paso and California.

Eddie Gonzales, 30, a neighborhood friend, said that on his last visit to El Paso, about two years ago, Ramirez did have one passion: "He really wanted to be a good burglar."

Recent news reports of "someone who had masterminded a big theft" had impressed Ramirez, who spent an evening drinking beer and talking "about burglaries he'd done," Gonzales said.

"He would just walk in and walk out, and people would be in the house, and wouldn't even know he was there," Gonzales said.

Gonzales said that Ramirez "was known around here as a thief" and was nicknamed "Dedos"-- Spanish for "Fingers."

"He might rip you off, but he wasn't the kind of guy you'd be afraid to walk into in the middle of the night," Gonzales said.

Gonzales also said that as a teen-ager, Ramirez would shoplift junk food.

"He'd wear some big coat, and hide whatever he took," Gonzales said. "He used to love those Hershey bars."

But Gonzales described Ramirez as "just a neighborhood character."

"I saw him on TV," Gonzales said. "He had a completely different look on his face from the last time I saw him. He's got a crazed look on his face that he didn't have when he was here. . . . I'd sure like to know what changed the guy."

Gonzales offered some theories.

"He was alone a lot," Gonzales said. "Maybe that contributed to it. . . . I know he used to like to drop acid. He was here in my house (when he was about 18) and had dropped three tabs of acid. . . . Usually one tab of acid is a lot. Three, that's more than a lot."

Ramirez may also have been deeply affected by the death of his best friend, Nicholas Nevarez, in a gruesome traffic accident in 1980, Gonzales said. Ramirez was in the back seat when a van, driven by another friend, crashed into a fence, he said.

"The guy got impaled--that pole went right through the guy," Gonzales said. "He saw the whole thing. . . . I think maybe that accident had a lot to do with it."

Born in El Paso on Feb. 28, 1960, Ramirez--whose name is given as Ricardo Ramirez on the birth records at the El Paso county clerk's office--was the youngest of five children in a Catholic family.

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