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Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez, known as Richard Ramirez (February 29, 1960 – June 7, 2013), was an American serial killer, 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 was an avowed Satanist, never expressed any remorse for his crimes. The judge who upheld his thirteen death sentences remarked that Ramirez’s 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, a Mexican national and former Juarez policeman who later became a laborer on the Santa Fe railroad, was a hard-working man prone to fits of anger that often resulted in physical abuse. As a child, Ramirez sustained two serious head injuries. When he was two years old a dresser fell on top of him, causing a forehead laceration requiring thirty stitches to close. When he was five years old he was knocked unconscious by a swing at a park, after which he experienced frequent epileptic seizures that persisted into his early teens. As a twelve-year-old he 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 smoked marijuana since the age of ten, bonded with Mike over many joints and gory war stories. Mike taught his young cousin some of his military skills, such as killing with stealth and surety. Around this time, Ramirez began to seek escape from his father’s violent temper by sleeping in a local cemetery.
“Richie”, as he was known to his family, was present when Mike shot his wife, Jessie, in the face with a .38 caliber revolver during a domestic argument on May 4, 1973, killing her. After the shooting Richie 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. He began using LSD and cultivated an interest in Satanism. Mike Ramirez was found not guilty of Jessie’s murder by reason of insanity (with his combat record as a mitigating factor), and was released in 1977 after four years of incarceration at the Texas State Mental Hospital. His influence over Richard 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. Though 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, 9-year-old Mei Leung was found murdered in a hotel basement where Ramirez was living in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. The girl had been raped, beaten and stabbed to death, and her body was found hanging from a pipe. This, his first known killing, was not initially identified as being connected to the crime spree. In 2009, Ramirez’s DNA was matched to DNA obtained at the crime scene. In 2016, officials disclosed evidence of a second suspect, identified through a DNA sample retrieved from the crime scene, who is believed to have been present at Leung’s murder. Described as being a juvenile at the time, authorities have not publicly identified the suspect, and have not brought charges due to the lack of sufficient evidence.
– “Night Stalker” crimes
On June 28, 1984, 79-year-old Jennie Vincow was found brutally murdered in her apartment in Glassell Park. 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, 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 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, shot her twice with a .22 caliber handgun, and fled. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The two murders (and third attempt) 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 burgled a year earlier in Whittier at approximately 2 a.m. and killed the sleeping Vincent Zazzara, age 64, with a gunshot to his head from a .22 caliber handgun. Zazzara’s wife Maxine, age 44, was awakened by her husband’s murder, 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. An infuriated Ramirez shot her three times with the .22, then fetched a large carving knife from the kitchen. Her body was mutilated with multiple stab wounds, and her eyes were gouged out and placed in a jewelry box, which Ramirez 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 in search of another random victim and entered the home of Bill Doi, 66, and his disabled wife Lillian, 56. Surprising Doi in his bedroom, he 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 Mercedes-Benz to Monrovia and stopped at the house of Mabel “Ma” Bell, 83, and her sister Florence “Nettie” Lang, 81. Finding a hammer in the kitchen, he bludgeoned and bound the invalid Lang in her bedroom, then bound and bludgeoned Bell before using an electrical cord to electrically shock the woman. After raping Lang, he used Mabel Bell’s lipstick to draw a pentagram on her thigh, as well as one on the wall of both bedrooms. Discovered two days later, both women were found alive but comatose; Bell later died of her injuries.
The next day, he drove the same car to Burbank and sneaked into the home of Carol Kyle, 42. At gunpoint, he bound Kyle and her 11-year-old son with handcuffs and ransacked the house. He released Kyle to direct him to where the family’s valuables were; he then sodomized her repeatedly. He 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 Toyota to Arcadia, randomly selecting 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 crime scene.
On July 5, 1985, Ramirez broke into a home in Sierra Madre and bludgeoned sixteen-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 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. She survived the savage beating, which required 478 stitches to close the lacerations to her scalp.
On July 7, 1985, Ramirez burglarized the home of Joyce Lucille Nelson, 61, again in Monterey Park. Finding her asleep on her living room couch, he beat her to death using his fists and kicking her 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. 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 Kneidling residence, he drove to Sun Valley. At approximately 4:15 am, he broke into the home of the Khovananth family. He murdered Chainarong Khovananth, by shooting the sleeping man in the head with a .25 caliber handgun, killing him instantly. He then repeatedly raped Somkid Khovananth, beating and sodomizing her. He bound the couple’s terrified eight-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 and broke into the home of Chris and Virginia Peterson. Ramirez crept into the bedroom and startled Virginia, 27; he shot her in the face with a .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun. He shot Chris Peterson in the temple and attempted to flee, but Peterson fought back and avoided being hit by two more shots during the struggle before Ramirez escaped. The couple survived their injuries.
On August 8, 1985, Ramirez drove a stolen car to Diamond Bar 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 and sodomized her. He repeatedly demanded that she “swore on Satan” that she would not scream during his assaults. When the couple’s three-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 the Los Angeles area and headed to the San Francisco Bay area. On August 18, 1985, Ramirez entered the home of Peter and Barbara Pan. Peter, aged 66, was killed in his sleep with a gunshot to his temple from a .25 caliber handgun. Barbara, aged 62, was beaten and sexually violated before being shot in the head and left 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 ballistic and shoe print evidence from the Night Stalker crime scenes matched the Pan crime scene, then-mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein divulged the information in a televised press conference. This leak infuriated the detectives in the case, as they knew that the killer would be following media coverage and have an 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 L.A. area.
On August 24, 1985, Ramirez traveled 76 miles south of Los Angeles in a stolen orange Toyota to Mission Viejo, and broke into the house of Bill Carns, 30, and his fiancée, Inez Erickson, 29, through a back door. Ramirez entered the bedroom of the sleeping couple 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, he dragged Erickson to another room to rape and sodomize her. He then demanded cash and more jewelry, making Erickson “swear on Satan” there was no more. Before leaving the home Ramirez told Erickson, “Tell them the Night Stalker was here.” As he left in the Toyota, thirteen-year-old neighbor James Romero III noticed the same “weird-looking guy in black” that he had seen earlier in the night and thought suspicious, and he decided to write down as much of the license plate as he could. Inez Erickson untied herself and went to a neighbor’s house to get help for her severely injured fiancé. Surgeons were able to remove two of the bullets from his head, and he survived his injuries.
When news of the attack broke, Romero told his parents about the strange man in the orange Toyota, and they immediately contacted the police and provided the partial license plate number. Erickson was able to give a detailed description of the assailant to investigators. The stolen car was found on August 28 in Wilshire, and police were able to obtain 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 Richard Muñoz 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 a mug shot of Ramirez from a December 12, 1984, arrest (photo, below right) for car theft to the media, 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 the state of California. After failing to meet his brother, he returned to Los Angeles early on the morning of August 31. He walked past officers who were staking out the bus terminal in hopes of catching the killer should he attempt to flee on an outbound bus. He walked a few blocks 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 covers 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 him until police arrived and took Ramirez into custody.
Trial and conviction
Jury selection for the case started 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 the courtroom 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; they could not help wondering if Ramirez had somehow directed this event from inside his prison cell, and if he could reach other jury members. However, Ramirez was not responsible for Singletary’s death; she had been 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: 13 counts of murder, 5 attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults and 14 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, 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, he proposed to her, 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 and Ramirez eventually separated. By some estimates, he would have been in his early seventies before his execution was carried out, due to the lengthy California appeals process.
On August 7, 2006, his 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.
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.