Richard Ramirez: Who was the feared ‘Night Stalker’ serial killer?

The notorious serial killer known as the ‘Night Stalker’ terrorised Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 18 December 2023 06:24 GMT
Related video: Trailer for Night Stalker on Netflix

Richard Ramirez was a notorious American serial killer, rapist and burglar who blazed a trail of terror through California in the summer of 1985.

Emerging from a troubled background in Texas before drifting out west, Ramirez is believed to have killed at least 14 people and attempted to kill many more in a spree that led to him being nicknamed “the Night Stalker” in the press.

His modus operandi often involved breaking into suburban homes in the dead of the night, raping and killing victims before leaving Satanic symbols behind at the scene.

Ramirez was finally apprehended in August 1985 and sentenced to death in November 1989.

He died of cancer in San Quentin prison while awaiting execution in July 2013.

Who was Richard Ramirez?

Born on 29 February 1960 in El Paso, Texas, Ricardo Leyva Munoz Ramirez was the fifth child to his Mexican immigrant parents Julian and Mercedes Ramirez.

Julian worked as a labourer on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and had formerly been a policeman. He was also an alcoholic who would lash out violently against his wife and children when drunk.

Ramirez is understood to have been knocked unconscious by one of his father’s swings aged five, one of a series of head injuries sustained in childhood that psychiatrist Michael Stone, for one, later blamed for him developing “temporal lobe epilepsy, aggressivity, and hypersexuality” that would impact his later behaviour.

Unable to turn to his father for guidance, Ramirez found an even less admirable role model in his cousin Mike, a decorated Green Beret who had just returned from the Vietnam War.

Mike was prone to recounting tales of the atrocities he had personally committed during the conflict, showing his impressionable relative Polaroid photographs of the women he had raped or dismembered during his tour of duty.

Richard Ramirez
Richard Ramirez (Netflix)

In 1973, a young Ramirez was present when Mike shot dead his wife Jessie in an argument, a crime for which he was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to the Texas State Mental Hospital.

Ramirez thereafter moved in with his older sister Ruth and her husband Roberto, an incurable peeping tom, who would invite his young brother-in-law along on his nightly voyeurism expeditions.

By the time he was a teenager, Ramirez had begun taking LSD and had developed a morbid interest in Satanism and the occult – his adolescent sexual fantasies becoming increasingly violent in nature.

He dropped out of high school and found work at a Holiday Inn, where he robbed guests while they slept.

He was then forced to flee when he was caught molesting two children in an elevator and attempting to rape a woman in her room. He relocated to California in 1982.

How many people did Richard Ramirez kill?

Although the case was not conclusively tied to him until 2009, Ramirez’s first victim was Mei Leung, a nine-year-old child who he raped and killed after luring her into the basement of a San Francisco apartment building in April 1984.

His second murder set the pattern he followed in most of his subsequent crimes.

In June 1985, Ramirez broke into the home of Jennie Vincow, 79, in Glassell Park, Los Angeles, sexually assaulted her and slit her throat. He then stole whatever money he could find to subsidise his growing cocaine habit, the reason for his grotesquely rotten teeth.

Nine months later, on 17 March 1985, Ramirez hid in the Rosemead garage of Maria Hernandez, 22, and opened fire on her as she arrived home. Incredibly, Hernandez survived by playing dead but her roommate, Dayle Yoshie Okazaki, 34, alerted by the gunshot, was less lucky. Within an hour, Ramirez had also shot and killed driver Tsai-Lian Yu, 30, after dragging her from her car in Monterey Park.

A growing media sensation, dubbed the “Walk-In Killer” and the “Valley Intruder”, Ramirez struck again 10 days later when he assaulted and murdered middle-aged married couple Vincent and Maxine Zazzara in their home in Whittier. Vincent was killed instantly but Maxine fought back, attempting to shoot Ramirez with a shotgun stowed under her bed, leading the enraged attacker to violently mutilate her, carving an inverted crucifix into her chest and leaving the scene with her eyeballs in a jewellery box.

Continuing to evade the police, Ramirez returned to Monterey Park on 14 May and killed another couple, William and Lillian Doi, in their home.

Days later, on 29 May, he murdered elderly sisters Ma Bell and Nettie Lang in Monrovia.

In both of these two cases, Ramirez raped and tortured his victims while he also drew a Satanic pentagram on Lang using her own lipstick.

One day later, he raped and robbed housewife and mother Carol Kyle, 42, in Burbank but did not kill her.

He then murdered Arcadia resident Mary Louise Cannon, 75, in her own home on on 2 July.

A botched attack on Whitney Bennett, 16, in Sierra Madre followed on 5 July before he killed Joyce Lucille Nelson, 60, in Monterey Park on 7 July and, the very same night, raped and robbed Sophie Dickman, 63, in the same neighbourhood.

Ramirez in custody
Ramirez in custody (Netflix)

During the attack on Dickman, he demanded that she “swear on Satan” that she had no further valuables to hand.

Further deadly attacks on the couples Maxon and Lela Kneiding in Glendale, Chainarong and Somkid Khovananth in Sun Valley, Chris and Virginia Peterson in Northridge and Sakina and Elyas Abowath in Diamond Bar followed in July and August.

The police manhunt was closing in on Ramirez and he left Los Angeles to return to San Francisco.

On 18 August, he killed Peter and Barbara Pan, both in their 60s, and left further occult symbols and the phrase “Jack the Knife” scrawled across the wall.

His final attack on 24 August saw him shoot dead Bill Carns, 30, and rape his fiancee Inez Erickson, 29, saying to her: “Tell them the Night Stalker was here.”

How was Richard Ramirez caught?

During his rampage, Ramirez had left a string of clues – notably fingerprints and footprints – at crime scenes and in the cars he habitually stole to get about.

Ultimately, this enabled detectives to track down a mugshot from an earlier auto theft arrest and trace his movements from the distinctive style of Avia shoes he wore.

“We know who you are now, and soon everyone else will. There will be no place you can hide,” officers said in a televised press conference on 29 August 1989, correctly deducing that Ramirez would be closely watching the coverage.

He was finally captured two days later on 31 August when he was recognised by shoppers in an East Los Angeles convenience store.

Ramirez fled the scene in panic, tried to break into one vehicle and then another before being violently attacked and detained by members of the public.

How did Richard Ramirez die?

After a lengthy trial that began with Ramirez shouting “Hail Satan!” as he entered the courtroom, he was finally convicted on 20 September 1989 on all 43 counts: 13 counts of murder, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults and 14 burglaries.

He was sentenced to death by gas chamber on 7 November.

“Hey, big deal, death always comes with the territory. I’ll see you in Disneyland,” he said when the verdict was read out in court.

Ramirez spent the remainder of his life incarcerated at California’s San Quentin State Prison, where he received regular fan mail and even got married in 1996, before dying from complications arising from secondary to B-cell lymphoma on 7 June 2013, aged 53.

His horrific story has been told in Philip Carlo’s book The Night Stalker (1996), in numerous movies and, most recently, in a four-part Netflix documentary.

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