When police investigators arrived at a double-murder scene on March 28, 1985, they found a distinctive shoe print in a flower bed outside the Whittier home. Within four months, they would encounter that same shoe print at five other residential robbery-murder scenes throughout Los Angeles County.
Those shoe prints would emerge as one of the first key clues that alerted police agencies to the likelihood that a serial killer was roaming the county, killing, raping, slashing and beating victims during nighttime burglaries.
New details of how an areawide police task force pursued the trail of the sadistic killer, who became known as the Night Stalker, began to emerge last week with the opening of the prosecution case against Richard Ramirez, 28, now facing 13 murder charges.
In addition to the shoe prints, the Night Stalker task force quickly learned to recognize other signatures left by the killer. Among them were distinctive slash wounds in five of the murders, similar handcuffs used to restrain some of the victims--and then left behind--and "blunt force" head trauma to half a dozen others.
Method of Entry
In many cases, the killer apparently entered the homes through an unlocked window or door after removing a screen. In two incidents, the intruder apparently gained entry somehow through a pet door. In Monrovia, he painted two pentagrams--an inverted star inside a circle--on the thigh of one victim and on the bedroom wall of a second.
And after Ramirez's Aug. 31, 1985, arrest, authorities say, his fingerprints were matched with those found at several of the crime scenes.
But such clues pointing to one suspect were still in the future as homicide detectives arrived in Whittier that March morning nearly four years ago and noticed the shoe print.
Police next encountered the shoe print in early May, outside a Monrovia home that had been ransacked. The elderly woman resident died a short time later of natural causes.
Five days after that break-in, the same shoe print--made by an Avia aerobics shoe--turned up outside the bedroom window of a Monterey Park home. The man in the house had died from a gunshot wound to the head.
From then through July 20, 1985, the shoe print appeared at murder scenes in Monrovia, Arcadia, Monterey Park and Sun Valley. By then, the Night Stalker task force--one of the largest police mobilizations since the infamous Hillside Strangler case in the 1970s--was in full gear.
As the crimes continued, interviews with survivors and other evidence left the task force with little doubt that a brazen killer was on the loose. The same four handguns, for instance, were being used in many of the killings.
By then, it had also become apparent that the killer typically struck homes in quiet, often remote residential neighborhoods close to the freeways.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block held a press conference on Aug. 8 after an alleged Night Stalker attack in Diamond Bar in which a man was shot to death and his wife sexually assaulted. The sheriff's remarks touched off widespread fear throughout Southern California, prompting runs on gun shops and home-security stores.
"As information began to develop from other police agencies, regarding the nature and the method of operation and so forth, it became apparent that at least some of these crimes may have been committed by the same individual," Block said.
While the Night Stalker task force was already in high gear, Ramirez twice had close encounters with members of the LAPD who stopped him on traffic charges. Once Ramirez ran away, and the other time he was given a ticket for a minor traffic violation.
Ramirez eventually was identified through a partial fingerprint on a stolen car, which was found abandoned. A witness had placed the car at the scene of an alleged Night Stalker attack in Orange County. Ramirez, a self-proclaimed devil worshiper from El Paso, Tex., had a criminal record, mostly involving drugs and vehicle violations in Los Angeles.
He was captured by civilians after he tried to commandeer a getaway car in East Los Angeles, about 12 hours after his photograph was widely disseminated.
Identified by Survivors
Afterward, he was identified by many survivors of alleged Night Stalker attacks and was linked to many recovered items that had been taken from the crime scenes, such as TVs, stereos and jewelry that were confiscated from a relative and an acquaintance. Police also found a car in the El Sereno area linked to Ramirez that had a pentagram drawn on the dashboard.
Retrospectively, homicide detectives also linked to Ramirez the murder in June, 1984, of a 79-year-old Glassell Park woman. Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Phil Halpin said during his opening statement last week that two of Ramirez's fingerprints were found on the frame of a window screen that had been removed from the woman's ground-floor apartment.
In the trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, Ramirez faces 13 murder counts and 30 other felony charges, including attempted murder, rape, sodomy and oral copulation. He faces a 14th murder charge in San Francisco and attempted murder and sexual assault charges in Orange County.