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'Night Stalker' held Southern California captive in 1985

Richard Ramirez, a figure of terror who died peaceably in a hospital bed, lived up to his gruesome nickname.

June 07, 2013|By Patt Morrison, Los Angeles Times

Southern California is miserably accustomed to serial killers — the Manson Family, the Hillside Strangler, the Freeway Killer, the Skid Row Slasher.

But there had never been one quite like Richard Ramirez, who deserved the flashy, fearsome tabloid nickname "The Night Stalker."

In the spring of 1984, Los Angeles was about to hoist its flags to welcome the world to the Summer Olympics. Richard Ramirez, as slapdash car thief, a weed and junk-food fancier, a dabbler in satanism, began the slow, bloody trek of murders that would build to a gory frenzy by the following summer.

His 1985 crime calendar began in February, with a pair of sisters murdered in their homes. In March, two people in the San Gabriel Valley were killed, only one hour and a few miles apart. The descriptions began to cohere, of a killer with hideously snaggled teeth and a rock-star mane of hair.

Other serial killers, their neighbors and friends often say, looked "so normal." Not this one.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department started out calling the killer the "Valley Intruder" for his geographic forays, but Ramirez soon ranged a lot farther afield — so far afield that it was hard to think of these crimes as the work of the same man. Eventually, he took his terrifying brand of killings all the way from Mission Viejo to San Francisco, and "The Night Stalker" he became, until he died Friday, peaceably, in a hospital bed. He had outlasted the California gas chamber, where he had been sentenced to in 1989.

For once, the tabloid nickname didn't overstate it. To murder, he added rape and sodomy, and grotesque touches: the slit throats, the mutilations. One woman's eyes were gouged out after she died. He daubed a pentagram in lipstick on a victim's leg, like the one he would ink on his own palm to flash in court, on trial for his life. He wrote on the walls, Manson-style. He shot a woman's fiancé and made her swear allegiance to Satan. "Hail, Satan!" he shouted a few weeks later, manacled in a courtroom.

By August 1985, this one man held millions of Southern Californians captive, prisoners of the randomness, the gruesomeness of his crimes. The victims had nothing in common except an unlocked door, an open window.

So, in the sweltering misery of August, people nailed their sash windows shut. They slid dowels into the bases of sliding glass doors. They screwed in brighter light bulbs. They bought new door locks and deadbolts. They bought new guns and unearthed the old ones. Alarm company and gun store owners would arrive to open up shop for the day and find a line of people waiting at the door.

The Night Stalker had already pulled one woman out of her car and killed her right there in the street, so Angelenos drove with windows rolled up and doors locked. They hustled from their cars into the stores and back again. One Times reporter wrote that at night, his neighborhood was lighted up like a movie set. Restaurants and bars could have saved themselves the trouble of opening up.

The Guardian Angels betook themselves and their red berets to Mission Viejo, and on the sidewalks of the street where Ramirez had shot a man and raped a woman a few days before, an elderly El Toro inventor loudly peddled his invention, a $45 burglar alarm.

The Manson murders of the rich and renowned in 1969 had sent Hollywood's beautiful people into a state of fearful alarm. Richard Ramirez — whose name and face were broadcast at last on Aug. 30 — had 10 million Californians lying wakeful in their beds, alert to every rattle and footfall.

It was already pushing 100 that morning, the last day of August 1985, when Ramirez got off a Greyhound bus from Arizona and plunged into the steamy streets of Skid Row, wearing a Jack Daniel's T-shirt and grimy jeans. He stopped into a liquor store, saw his face on the front page of La Opinion and took off.

Somehow, he managed to get four miles away, to East Hubbard Street on L.A.'s Eastside, scurrying into alleys, trying to steal cars. The cops had been after him about 20 minutes, since someone had spotted him acting funny and called police.

He waved a knife at a woman in a parked car, but a barber chased him off. Another man, not far away, was working on the transmission of his jacked-up red Mustang when Ramirez hopped in, threw the car in reverse and pulled the car off the jack. The man tried to pull the key out as Ramirez gunned the car backward. "I got a gun!" Ramirez yelled.

But the man hung on and forced the car to a stop. Ramirez ran toward another car, demanded the keys. The driver shoved him aside with the car door and ran. Her passenger ran off, too, screaming, "That's the Night Stalker! That's the Night Stalker!"

The neighbors swarmed. A man working on his chain-link fence smashed Ramirez over the head with a steel rod. Another man and his sons joined the chase.

By the time the cops pulled up, Ramirez was a beaten man. As Times editor Frank del Olmo wrote, "Ramirez was set upon not because he might be the Night Stalker but because he was a stranger in the neighborhood who hit a woman and tried to steal a car. You don't do that in a barrio, which can be as close-knit as a family."

Long before social media, the news flamed across Southern California, from house to house, from street to street, from phone to phone. "They got him!" hollered boys on bikes. "They got him!" called out strangers at gas stations, in bars, in the malls. "We got him!" exulted the people of East Hubbard Street.

California, said Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, "can breathe a sigh of relief tonight."

The next day was Sept 1. The roasting heat of August began to wane noticeably. Southern California could, at last, open its windows again.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

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