Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez (/rəˈmɪərɛz/; February 29, 1960 – June 7, 2013), known as Richard Ramirez, was an American serial killer, serial rapist, and burglar. His highly publicized home invasion crime spree terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles area and later the residents of the San Francisco area from June 1984 until August 1985. Prior to his capture, Ramirez was dubbed the “Night Stalker” by the news media.
He used a wide variety of weapons, including handguns, knives, a machete, a tire iron, and a hammer. Ramirez, who claimed to be a Satanist, never expressed any remorse for his crimes. The judge who upheld Ramirez’s nineteen death sentences remarked that his deeds exhibited “cruelty, callousness, and viciousness beyond any human understanding”. Ramirez died of complications from B-cell lymphoma while awaiting execution on California’s death row.
Early life and education
Ramirez was born in El Paso, Texas on February 29, 1960, the youngest of Julian and Mercedes Ramirez’s five children. His father Julian, a Mexican national and former Juarez, Mexico policeman who later became a laborer on the Santa Fe railroad, was prone to fits of anger that often resulted in physical abuse.
As a 12-year-old, Richard – or “Richie”, as he was known to his family – was strongly influenced by his older cousin, Miguel (“Mike”) Ramirez, a decorated U.S. Army Green Beret combat veteran who often boasted of his gruesome exploits during the Vietnam War. He shared Polaroid photos of his victims, including Vietnamese women he had raped. In some of the photos, Mike posed with the severed head of a woman he had abused. Ramirez, who had begun smoking marijuana at the age of 10, bonded with Mike over joints and gory war stories. Mike taught his young cousin some of his military skills, such as killing with stealth. Around this time, Ramirez began to seek escape from his father’s violent temper by sleeping in a local cemetery.
Ramirez was present on May 4, 1973, when his cousin Mike fatally shot his wife, Jessie, in the face with a .38 caliber revolver during a domestic argument. After the shooting, Ramirez became sullen and withdrawn from his family and peers. Later that year, he moved in with his older sister, Ruth, and her husband, Roberto, an obsessive “peeping Tom” who took Richie along on his nocturnal exploits. Ramirez also began using LSD and cultivated an interest in Satanism. Mike was found not guilty of Jessie’s murder by reason of insanity and was released in 1977, after four years of incarceration at the Texas State Mental Hospital. His influence over Ramirez continued.
The adolescent Ramirez began to meld his burgeoning sexual fantasies with violence, including forced bondage and rape. While still in school, he took a job at a local Holiday Inn, where he used his passkey to rob sleeping patrons. His employment ended abruptly after a hotel guest returned to his room to find Ramirez attempting to rape his wife. Although the husband beat Ramirez senseless at the scene, criminal charges were dropped when the couple, who lived out of state, declined to return to testify against him.
Ramirez dropped out of Jefferson High School in the ninth grade. At the age of 22, he moved to California, where he settled permanently.
On April 10, 1984, Ramirez murdered 9-year-old Mei Leung in the basement of the hotel where he was living, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. He raped and beat the girl before stabbing her to death, and hanged her body from a pipe. This, Ramirez’s first known killing, was not initially identified as being connected to the subsequent crime spree. In 2009, Ramirez’s DNA was matched to a sample obtained at this crime scene. In 2016, officials disclosed evidence of a second suspect, identified through a DNA sample retrieved from the scene, who is believed to have been present at Leung’s murder. Authorities have not publicly identified the suspect, described as being a juvenile at the time, and have not brought charges due to the lack of evidence.
“Night Stalker” crimes
On June 28, 1984, 79-year-old Jennie Vincow was found brutally murdered in her apartment in Glassell Park, Los Angeles. She had been stabbed repeatedly while asleep in her bed, and her throat slashed so deeply that she was nearly decapitated. Ramirez’s fingerprint was found on a mesh screen he removed to gain access through an open window.
On March 17, 1985, Ramirez attacked 22-year-old Maria Hernandez outside her home in Rosemead, California, shooting her in the face with a .22 caliber handgun after she pulled into her garage. She survived when the bullet ricocheted off the keys she held in her hands as she lifted them to protect herself. Inside the house was her roommate, Dayle Yoshie Okazaki, 34, who heard the gunshot and ducked behind a counter when she saw Ramirez enter the kitchen. When she raised her head he shot her once in the forehead, killing her.
Within an hour of the Rosemead home invasion, Ramirez pulled 30-year-old Tsai-Lian “Veronica” Yu out of her car in Monterey Park, California, shot her twice with a .22 caliber handgun, and fled. She was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. The two murders, and attempted third, in a single day attracted extensive coverage from news media, who dubbed the curly-haired attacker with bulging eyes and wide-spaced, rotting teeth “The Walk-in Killer” and “The Valley Intruder.”
On March 27, 1985, Ramirez entered a home that he had burglarized a year earlier in Whittier, California, at approximately 2 a.m. and killed the sleeping Vincent Charles Zazzara, age 64, with a gunshot to his head from a .22 caliber handgun. Zazzara’s wife Maxine Levenia Zazzara, age 44, was awakened by the gunshot, and Ramirez beat her and bound her hands while demanding to know where her valuables were. While he ransacked the room, Maxine escaped her bonds and retrieved a shotgun from under the bed, which was not loaded. The infuriated Ramirez shot her three times with the .22, then fetched a large carving knife from the kitchen. He mutilated her body by stabbing her several times, then gouged out her eyes and placed them in a jewelry box, which he left with. The autopsy determined that the mutilations were post-mortem. Ramirez left footprints from a pair of Avia sneakers in the flower beds, which the police photographed and cast. This was virtually the only evidence that the police had at the time. Bullets found at the scene were matched to those found at previous attacks, and the police realized a serial killer was at large. Vincent and Maxine’s bodies were discovered by their son, Peter.
On May 14, 1985, Ramirez returned to Monterey Park and entered the home of Bill Doi, 66, and his disabled wife, Lillian, 56. Surprising Doi in his bedroom, Ramirez shot him in the face with a .22 semi-automatic pistol as Doi went for his own handgun. After beating the mortally wounded man into unconsciousness, Ramirez entered Lillian’s bedroom, bound her with thumbcuffs, then raped her after he had ransacked the home for valuables. Bill Doi died of his injuries while in the hospital.
On the night of May 29, 1985, Ramirez drove a stolen car to Monrovia, California, and stopped at the house of Mabel “Ma” Bell, 83, and her disabled sister, Florence “Nettie” Lang, 81. Finding a hammer in the kitchen, he bludgeoned and bound Lang in her bedroom, then bound and bludgeoned Bell before using an electrical cord to shock the woman. After raping Lang, he used Bell’s lipstick to draw a pentagram on her thigh as well as on the walls of both bedrooms. The women were found two days later, alive but comatose. Bell later died of her injuries.
The next day, Ramirez drove the same car to Burbank, California, and sneaked into the home of Carol Kyle, 42. At gunpoint, he bound Kyle and her 11-year-old son with handcuffs, then ransacked the house. He released Kyle to direct him to where the family’s valuables were; he then raped her repeatedly. Ramirez also repeatedly ordered her not to look at him, telling her at one point that he would “cut her eyes out”. He fled the scene after retrieving the child from the closet and binding the two together again with the handcuffs.
On the night of July 2, 1985, he drove a stolen care to Arcadia, California, and randomly selected the house of Mary Louise Cannon, 75. After quietly entering the widowed grandmother’s home, he found her asleep in her bedroom. He bludgeoned her into unconsciousness with a lamp and then repeatedly stabbed her using a 10-inch butcher knife from her kitchen. She was found dead at the scene.
On July 5, 1985, Ramirez broke into a home in Sierra Madre, California, and bludgeoned 16-year-old Whitney Bennett with a tire iron as she slept in her bedroom. After searching in vain for a knife in the kitchen, Ramirez attempted to strangle the girl with a telephone cord. He was startled to see electrical sparks emanate from the cord, and when his victim began to breathe, he fled the house believing that Jesus Christ had intervened and saved her. Bennett survived the savage beating although 478 stitches were required to close the lacerations to her scalp.
On July 7, 1985, Ramirez burglarized the home of Joyce Lucille Nelson, 61, in Monterey Park. Finding her asleep on her living room couch, he beat her to death using his fists and kicking her in the head. A shoe print from an Avia sneaker was left imprinted on her face. After cruising two other neighborhoods, he returned to Monterey Park and chose the home of Sophie Dickman, 63. Ramirez assaulted and handcuffed Dickman at gunpoint, attempted to rape her, and stole her jewelry; when she swore to him that he had taken everything of value, he told her to “swear on Satan”.
On July 20, 1985, Ramirez purchased a machete before driving a stolen Toyota to Glendale, California. He chose the home of Lela Kneiding, 66, and her husband Maxon, 68. He burst into the sleeping couple’s bedroom and hacked them with the machete, then killed them with shots to the head from a .22 caliber handgun. He further mutilated their bodies with the machete before robbing the house of valuables. After quickly fencing the stolen items from the Kneiding residence, Ramirez drove to Sun Valley.
At approximately 4:15 am, he broke into the home of the Khovananth family. He shot the sleeping Chainarong Khovananth in the head with a .25 caliber handgun, killing him instantly, then repeatedly raped and beat Somkid Khovananth. He bound the couple’s terrified 8-year-old son before dragging Somkid around the house to reveal the location of any valuable items, which he stole. During his assault he demanded that she “swear to Satan” that she was not hiding any money from him.
On August 6, 1985, Ramirez drove to Northridge, California, and broke into the home of Chris and Virginia Peterson. He crept into the bedroom, startled Virginia, 27, and shot her in the face with a .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun. He then shot Chris in the neck and attempted to flee; Chris fought back while avoiding being hit by two more shots during the struggle before Ramirez managed to escape. The couple survived their injuries.
On August 8, 1985, Ramirez drove a stolen car to Diamond Bar, California, and chose the home of Sakina Abowath, 27, and her husband Elyas Abowath, 31. Sometime after 2:30 am he entered the house and went into the master bedroom. He instantly killed the sleeping Elyas with a shot to the head from a .25 caliber handgun. He handcuffed and beat Sakina while forcing her to reveal the locations of the family’s jewelry, and then brutally raped her. He repeatedly demanded that she “swear on Satan” that she would not scream during his assaults. When the couple’s 3-year-old son entered the bedroom, Ramirez tied the child up and then continued to rape Sakina. After Ramirez left the home, Sakina untied her son and sent him to the neighbors for help.
Ramirez, who had been following the media coverage of his crimes, left Los Angeles and headed to the San Francisco Bay area. On August 18, 1985, he entered the home of Peter and Barbara Pan. He shot the sleeping Peter, 66, in the temple with a .25 caliber handgun. He then beat and sexually assaulted Barbara, 62, before shooting her in the head and leaving her for dead. At the crime scene, Ramirez used lipstick to scrawl a pentagram and the phrase “Jack the Knife” on the bedroom wall. When it was discovered that the ballistics and shoe print evidence from the Los Angeles crime scenes matched the Pan crime scene, San Francisco’s then-mayor Dianne Feinstein divulged the information in a televised press conference. This leak infuriated the detectives in the case, as they knew the killer would be following media coverage, which gave him opportunity to destroy crucial forensic evidence. Ramirez, who had indeed been watching the press, dropped his size 11 1/2 Avia sneakers over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge that night. He remained in the area for a few more days before heading back to the Los Angeles area.
On August 24, 1985, Ramirez traveled 76 miles south of Los Angeles, in a stolen orange Toyota, to Mission Viejo. That night, he arrived at the home of James Romero, Jr., who had just returned from a family vacation to Rosarito Beach in Mexico. Romero’s son, 13-year-old James Romero III, happened to be awake and heard Ramirez’s footsteps outside the house. Thinking there was a prowler, James went to wake his parents, and Ramirez fled the scene. James raced outside and noted the color, make, and style of the car, as well as a partial license plate number. Romero contacted the police with this information, believing James had chased away a thief.
After this encounter, Ramirez broke into the house of Bill Carns, 30, and his fiancée, Inez Erickson, 29, through a back door. Ramirez entered the sleeping couple’s bedroom and awakened Carns when he cocked his .25 caliber handgun. He shot Carns three times in the head before turning his attention to Erickson. Ramirez told the terrified woman that he was the “Night Stalker” and forced her to swear she loved Satan as he beat her with his fists and bound her with neckties from the closet. After stealing what he could find, Ramirez dragged Erickson to another room to rape her. He then demanded cash and more jewelry, and made her “swear on Satan” there was no more. Before leaving the home, Ramirez told Erickson, “Tell them the Night Stalker was here.” Erickson untied herself and went to a neighbor’s house to get help for her severely injured fiancé. Surgeons removed two of the bullets from his head, and he survived his injuries.
Erickson gave a detailed description of the assailant to investigators, and police obtained a cast of Ramirez’s footprint from the Romero house. The stolen car was found on August 28 in Wilshire Center, Los Angeles, and police obtained a single fingerprint from the rear-view mirror despite Ramirez’s careful efforts to wipe the car clean of his prints. The print was positively identified as belonging to Ramirez, who was described as a 25-year-old drifter from Texas, with a long rap sheet that included many arrests for traffic and illegal drug violations. Law enforcement officials decided to release to the media a mug shot of Ramirez from a December 12, 1984, arrest (photo, below right) for auto theft, and the “Night Stalker” finally had a face. At the police press conference it was announced: “We know who you are now, and soon everyone else will. There will be no place you can hide.”
On August 30, 1985, Ramirez took a bus to Tucson, Arizona, to visit his brother, unaware that he had become the lead story in virtually every major newspaper and television news program across California. After failing to meet his brother, he returned to Los Angeles early on the morning of August 31. He walked past police officers, who were staking out the bus terminal in hopes of catching the killer should he attempt to flee on an outbound bus, and into to a convenience store in East Los Angeles.
After noticing a group of elderly Mexican women fearfully identifying him as “El Matador” (or “The Killer”), Ramirez saw his face on the front pages on the newspaper rack and fled the store in a panic. After running across the Santa Ana Freeway, he attempted to carjack a woman but was chased away by bystanders, who pursued him. After hopping over several fences and attempting two more carjackings, he was eventually subdued by a group of residents, one of whom had struck him over the head with a metal bar in the pursuit. The group held Ramirez down and relentlessly beat him until the police arrived and took him into custody.
Trial and conviction
Jury selection for the trial began on July 22, 1988. At his first court appearance, Ramirez raised a hand with a pentagram drawn on it and yelled, “Hail Satan!” On August 3, 1988, the Los Angeles Times reported that some jail employees overheard Ramirez planning to shoot the prosecutor with a gun, which Ramirez intended to have smuggled into the courtroom. Consequently, a metal detector was installed outside, and intensive searches were conducted on people entering.
On August 14, the trial was interrupted because one of the jurors, Phyllis Singletary, did not arrive at the courtroom. Later that day, she was found shot to death in her apartment. The jury was terrified, as they could not help wondering whether Ramirez had somehow directed this event from inside his prison cell, and whether he could reach other jurors. However, it was ultimately determined that Ramirez was not responsible for Singletary’s death, as she was shot and killed by her boyfriend, who later committed suicide with the same weapon in a hotel. The alternate juror who replaced Singletary was too frightened to return to her home.
On September 20, 1989, Ramirez was convicted of all charges: thirteen counts of murder, five attempted murders, eleven sexual assaults, and fourteen burglaries. During the penalty phase of the trial on November 7, 1989, he was sentenced to die in California’s gas chamber. He stated to reporters after the death sentences, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.” The trial cost $1.8 million ($3.71 million in 2019 dollars), which at the time made it the most expensive in the history of California until surpassed by the O. J. Simpson murder case in 1994.
By the time of the trial, Ramirez had fans who were writing him letters and paying him visits. Beginning in 1985, Doreen Lioy wrote him nearly 75 letters during his incarceration. In 1988, Ramirez proposed to Lioy, and on October 3, 1996, they were married in California’s San Quentin State Prison. For many years before Ramirez’s death, Lioy stated that she would commit suicide when Ramirez was executed. However, Lioy eventually left Ramirez. By the time of his death Ramirez was engaged to a 23-year-old female writer. By some estimates, he would have been in his early 70s before his execution was carried out, due to California’s lengthy appeals process.
On August 7, 2006, Ramirez’s first round of state appeals ended unsuccessfully when the California Supreme Court upheld his convictions and death sentence. On September 7, 2006, the California Supreme Court denied his request for a rehearing. Ramirez had appeals pending until the time of his death.
Psychiatrist Michael H. Stone describes Ramirez as a ‘made’ psychopath as opposed to a ‘born’ psychopath. He says that Ramirez’s schizoid personality disorder contributed to his indifference to the suffering of his victims and his untreatability.
Ramirez died of complications secondary to B-cell lymphoma at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California, on June 7, 2013. He had also been affected by “chronic substance abuse and chronic hepatitis C viral infection”. At 53 years old, he had been on death row for more than 23 years.
In popular culture
- Manhunt: Search for the Night Stalker (1989) is a TV movie by Bruce Seth Green, based on the true story of Richard Ramirez and the two Los Angeles police detectives who tried to track him down.
- Nightstalker is a 2002 film written and directed by Chris Fisher based on Richard Ramirez.
- Nightstalker is a 2009 video written and directed by Ulli Lommel.
- The Night Stalker is a 2016 film directed by Megan Griffiths based on the life of Richard Ramirez.
- American Horror Story: Ramirez is featured in the fifth and ninth seasons of the FX horror anthology series, firstly being portrayed by Anthony Ruivivar and then later by Zach Villa.
- Original Night Stalker (a.k.a. East Area Rapist) who began his crime spree in California in 1976, and shared a similar moniker to the public.
- Delroy Easton Grant, a serial rapist who operated in London during the 1990s and 2000s, sometimes referred to by the British media as the “Night Stalker”.
- List of serial killers in the United States
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- Manhunt: Search for the Night Stalker (TV movie 1989) on IMDb
- Nightstalker (2002) on IMDb
- Nightstalker (Video 2009) on IMDb
- The Night Stalker (2016) on IMDb
- “Camp Redwood”. American Horror Story: 1984. (full credits) on IMDb
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