Recalling Ramirez: Even Friends Didn't Trust Him

Times Staff Writer

By the time they began high school together in 1974, Alma Gaytan Orozco no longer talked much with the boy who lived next door in their barrio in the center of this city.

"When I would come home from school or work, I wouldn't greet him," said Orozco, 25. "People started saying he was getting into people's houses. Our house was broken into, but we didn't have any proof it was him. Just the thought that it was him was scary, and I didn't want to have anything to do with him."

Orozco's neighbor was Richard Ramirez, who was arrested last weekend in Los Angeles as the suspected Night Stalker.

Interviews with friends and acquaintances of Ramirez--alleged to have committed perhaps 15 slayings and 21 assaults, kidnapings and rapes in a rampage that California authorities believe may have begun with a June, 1984, murder--paint a picture of a youth who early on was known as a loner and troublemaker.

He progressed from glue sniffing in his early teens to marijuana smoking in high school and an expensive cocaine habit as a young man.

Known as a petty thief as a teen-ager, he apparently became fascinated both with the art of burglary and, later, Satanism. He began by shoplifting junk food, practiced picking pockets among his friends--who say even they couldn't trust him--and apparently taught himself to be an accomplished burglar.

Ramirez never seemed to have a job or a girlfriend. After going to California as a young man, he had money to buy drugs but lived in shabby hotels, merging with transients, drifters and small-time criminals on the Skid Rows of Los Angeles and San Francisco. A tall, skinny man who was self-conscious about his weight, he suffered such severe tooth decay that his gapped, discolored teeth were one of his most distinguishing features.

After minor run-ins with the law in El Paso and Los Angeles on drug and vehicle offenses, Ramirez was imprisoned in Los Angeles for nearly five months in 1983 on an auto theft conviction. He was convicted again in connection with an auto theft in late 1984, and served 36 days in Los Angles County Jail. Both times, he provided aliases to authorities. The Night Stalker killings began shortly after his second release.

Dick Schuller, an electrical shop teacher at Ramirez's high school, remembered him as "essentially a troublemaker."

"He didn't give a damn about anything," Schuller said. "I do know that he hit the dope pretty hard, and that he was into heavy rock 'n' roll."

But Ramirez did not get much attention from administrators in a school with about 3,200 students. Cesar G. Mendoza and G. Irene Trejo, two assistant principals at El Paso's Jefferson High School when Ramirez was there, said he was a "quiet" boy whom they remembered primarily for his truancy.

Ramirez dropped out of high school shortly after his 17th birthday. In two or three years, he began drifting between El Paso and California.

Eddie Gonzales, 30, a neighborhood friend, said that on his last visit to El Paso, about two years ago, Ramirez did have one passion: "He really wanted to be a good burglar."

Recent news reports of "someone who had masterminded a big theft" had impressed Ramirez, who spent an evening drinking beer and talking "about burglaries he'd done," Gonzales said.

"He would just walk in and walk out, and people would be in the house, and wouldn't even know he was there," Gonzales said.

Gonzales said that Ramirez "was known around here as a thief" and was nicknamed "Dedos"-- Spanish for "Fingers."

"He might rip you off, but he wasn't the kind of guy you'd be afraid to walk into in the middle of the night," Gonzales said.

Gonzales also said that as a teen-ager, Ramirez would shoplift junk food.

"He'd wear some big coat, and hide whatever he took," Gonzales said. "He used to love those Hershey bars."

But Gonzales described Ramirez as "just a neighborhood character."

"I saw him on TV," Gonzales said. "He had a completely different look on his face from the last time I saw him. He's got a crazed look on his face that he didn't have when he was here. . . . I'd sure like to know what changed the guy."

Gonzales offered some theories.

"He was alone a lot," Gonzales said. "Maybe that contributed to it. . . . I know he used to like to drop acid. He was here in my house (when he was about 18) and had dropped three tabs of acid. . . . Usually one tab of acid is a lot. Three, that's more than a lot."

Ramirez may also have been deeply affected by the death of his best friend, Nicholas Nevarez, in a gruesome traffic accident in 1980, Gonzales said. Ramirez was in the back seat when a van, driven by another friend, crashed into a fence, he said.

"The guy got impaled--that pole went right through the guy," Gonzales said. "He saw the whole thing. . . . I think maybe that accident had a lot to do with it."

Born in El Paso on Feb. 28, 1960, Ramirez--whose name is given as Ricardo Ramirez on the birth records at the El Paso county clerk's office--was the youngest of five children in a Catholic family.

His father, Julian Ramirez, is a longtime employee of the Santa Fe Railway. His mother also worked while he was growing up, neighbors say. They recall that his parents were strict and old-fashioned. They often took the children to a nearby church, later demolished for construction of a freeway interchange that neighborhood residents call "the spaghetti bowl."

Ramirez's sister, Rosa Flores, still lives in the small white stucco house on Ledo Street where the children grew up, but the parents moved three or four years ago to a tract home on the edge of town.

In an interview with the El Paso Times on the day of his son's arrest, Julian Ramirez blamed his son's difficulties on marijuana. He also said that while he was born in Mexico, his wife and children were all El Paso natives.

Flores later declined a reporter's request to speak with the family, citing advice from an attorney.

School records show that Ramirez entered a Head Start program, aimed at helping children from disadvantaged families, in 1966, and began first grade later that year.

Frances Yvonne Bustillos, who grew up a few doors down Ledo Street from the Ramirez home, remembered Richard as "a quiet boy" in grade school.

"He would play around with the kids during recess and lunch," said Bustillos, 25. "In about the 8th grade, he started sniffing glue, I know that. I guess that's how he got started on drugs. From that, he went to marijuana."

Bustillos said her most vivid memory of Ramirez was that as a fifth- and sixth-grader at Cooley, he "used to have seizures."

"All of a sudden, you'd turn around and he'd be kicking and screaming, and they'd have to take him out," she said. "We don't know if they were epileptic seizures."

Bustillos and school officials said they were not aware of any such problem after Ramirez got older.

Ramirez was sometimes called "Ricky Robon"--Ricky the Thief in Spanish, Bustillos said.

Bustillos recalled that she and other neighborhood girls sometimes teased Ramirez by calling out, "It's time to close your doors--here comes Ricky Robon" when they saw him coming down the street.

"We used to make a joke of it," she said. "He'd just pass by. It didn't bother him."

Bustillos said that "around the neighborhood, he tried to get into houses" but that she never knew of him getting away with anything of great value.

"I guess at that time, it was more that he was seeing if he could get into the house," she said. "At school, he would pick purses and pockets, and see how much money he could get. Among his friends, he'd practice."

Several neighbors, however, said they never knew of Ramirez causing trouble.

"He was a pretty good guy," said Armando Sanchez, 58, who lived down the street. "He didn't bother anybody. . . . Actually, I don't think he did it. He's a skinny guy--I don't see how he could get so tough."

Remained a Freshman

Ramirez entered Jefferson High School in 1974. He was registered as a student until early 1977, but was absent so much that he never got out of freshman classification, school officials say.

After dropping out of school, Ramirez was assigned to a half-way house for delinquent youths.

His name first appears in El Paso Police Department records on Dec. 7, 1977, when a traffic stop led to his arrest on suspicion of marijuana possession.

In addition to a small quantity of marijuana, police found a ski mask, a toy cap pistol and a purse belonging to a woman who had reported it stolen from her handbag while she was shopping the day before, said Bill Moody, Assistant Dist. Atty. in El Paso. He said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the purse-snatching charge.

Ramirez was arrested three more times in El Paso for alleged marijuana possession. He completed a pretrial intervention program in a 1978 case; charges were dismissed for insufficient evidence in a 1979 case. His only conviction was in a 1982 case, when he pleaded guilty, and was given a 50-day suspended sentence and fined $115, Moody said.

Summer in Bay Area

Ramirez spent the summer of 1980 in the San Francisco Bay Area, recalled Earl Gregg Jr., 25, who said he lived with Ramirez in Richmond for about four months at that time.

Ramirez later lived in other parts of the Bay Area for a few years, moving to Los Angeles in late 1983, Gregg said.

While Ramirez lived in San Francisco, Gregg said, "he seemed like a good person." Gregg added, however, that "even though we were friends I still knew I couldn't trust him."

"There's something about him . . . if I had a thousand dollars sitting there, I wouldn't leave the guy alone with it," he said.

Ramirez "had a fascination for guns and knives," Gregg added.

Friend Noted a Change

Gregg, who now lives in Lompoc, said that when Ramirez moved to Los Angeles in late 1983 he changed dramatically. In Los Angeles, he started injecting cocaine and became involved in Satanism, Gregg said.

Gregg said he saw Ramirez periodically when he returned to the Bay Area for visits after he moved to Los Angeles.

When he returned from Los Angeles he had a witches' star--a star with a circle around it--tattooed on his elbow, Gregg said. Gregg said he believed that Ramirez's drug use "got him susceptible to people talking about Satanism."

"He was a follower, not a leader," Gregg said. "He was the kind of guy you could say, 'Come on, let's do this,' and you could totally talk him into things."

Never Known to Date

Gregg said he never knew Ramirez to date.

"He was too shy to go up to a girl and ask her for a date," he said.

Donna Louise Myers, Gregg's mother-in-law who lives in the San Francisco suburb of San Pablo, said she met Ramirez while in El Paso on vacation about six years ago.

After 1981 he visited her in San Francisco about every four to six weeks, she said. He had no permanent address or job, stayed at "cheap hotels and flophouses" and carried most of his possessions in a backpack, she said.

"He did a lot of coke," she said, adding that she did not know where he got the money for such an expensive habit.

"I presume he ripped people off," she said. "He didn't tell me where it came from, and he didn't work. He always had money, though."

"He was very far into Satanism," she added. "Satan was his friend, he said."

Favorite Rock Groups

He read comic books and detective magazines, and enjoyed such rock groups as AC/DC and Judas Priest, she said.

Ramirez traveled between Northern and Southern California, usually by plane, and used public transportation within San Francisco, Myers said.

"If he brought a car (on visits to San Francisco), it wasn't his," she added.

Ramirez "always remarked about how skinny he was" and was very self-conscious about his weight, she said.

Although he "was heavy into coke and said Satan was his hero . . . that doesn't make him a weirdo," Myers said.

Once, she recalled, he stopped by to visit just as the Stalker composite sketch was being shown on television.

'Could It Be Me?'

"He asked me if I thought he could be the Night Stalker," she recalled. "I said no, I didn't think he had the guts. He just laughed. . . . If you knew him, you wouldn't think in a thousand years he could do something like this."

During recent months, Ramirez spent a considerable amount of time living and eating in establishments near Main and 7th streets at the edge of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, business owners and workers in that area say.

Alfredo Leyva, a waiter at Margarita's Place, said Ramirez had come in to eat about 10 times, the most recent being two months ago.

"He always come in alone," Leyva said. "He don't talk with nobody."

"This guy, he looked like he was scared of something," Leyva said.

Last week after his arrest, sheriff's deputies said Ramirez appeared calm and relaxed. He was eating three meals a day and sleeping well in his cell in the clinic block of Los Angeles Central jail, said Deputy Rick Adams.

A team of deputies was keeping him under a round-the-clock suicide watch.

David Holley reported from El Paso. Contributing to this article were Bob Baker, Leonard Greenwood, Eric Malnic and Scott Ostler in Los Angeles, Miles Corwin in Lompoc and Dan Morain and Mark A. Stein in the Bay Area.

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