After a jury handed him a death sentence in 1989, the serial killer known as the Night Stalker reacted with a shrug.
“Big deal,” said Richard Ramirez, a devil-worshiping drifter whose spree of break-in murders terrorized California in mid-1980s. “Death always went with the territory.”
The end turned out to be much further away and different than Ramirez likely envisioned that day. After more than two decades on death row, Ramirez died Friday morning of natural causes at Marin General Hospital, state corrections officials said. He was 53 and had been admitted to the hospital earlier in the week from San Quentin state prison.
“It’s about time,” said Bill Carns, one of the last people attacked by Ramirez. Carns was left partially paralyzed after Ramirez broke into his Mission Viejo house in August 1985, shot him three times and raped his girlfriend. “He should have been put to death an awful long time ago.”
Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders he committed in the Los Angeles area, but authorities hold him responsible for additional slayings from Orange County to San Francisco as well as numerous rapes, assaults and burglaries.
“This person hurt many people, and our thoughts should be with the next of kin and survivors of these senseless attacks,” said L.A. Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Yochelson, who prosecuted Ramirez. Yochelson said that although the state did not execute Ramirez, who was still pursuing appeals, “some measure of justice has been achieved” because he had to live out his life behind bars.
In the summer of 1985, a string of gruesome nighttime killings generated widespread fear throughout Southern California. The assailant entered random homes through open doors or windows and shot, strangled or stabbed sleeping residents. In some cases, the attacker raped and tortured victims and left signs of Satanism — a pentagram spray-painted on a wall or drawn on a victim’s thigh.
Shortly after Carns was attacked, police zeroed in on Ramirez. The fifth child of a churchgoing family from El Paso, Texas, Ramirez had a criminal record stretching back to his teen years when he was nicknamed “Dedos,” or “fingers,” in Spanish, for his nimbleness at thievery. He ended up in California, began injecting cocaine, became involved in Satanism and started killing people.
By late August 1985, sales of guns, locks and window bars were surging and a police sketch of a suspect with piercing eyes stared out from every newspaper and television broadcast. On Aug. 31, an unidentified resident phoned the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division to report a man matching the Night Stalker’s description in the neighborhood.
What followed was one of the more dramatic pursuits in the city’s history. Seven police patrol cars and a helicopter chased Ramirez, who was on foot, through the streets and alleys of East L.A. Desperate and near exhaustion, Ramirez turned down East Hubbard Street in Boyle Heights. He tried to steal a fire-engine-red Mustang, only to be confronted by the owner’s furious father. Faustino Pinon fought with him, and other neighbors tackled and beat Ramirez bloody, with one wielding a steel rod.
By the time police arrived, Ramirez was shouting “Dejame en paz! Dejame en paz!” — Spanish for “Leave me in peace.” He thanked arriving officers for rescuing him.
“People were starting to shout, ‘You got the guy! You got the Night Stalker!’ ” recalled Capt. Andres Ramirez, who was then one of the sheriff’s deputies who arrived and no relation to the murderer. “It was like half the city of L.A. was looking for him.”
Pinon’s wife, Reyna, said Friday that there was a bitterness to the way the killer died. Ramirez was one of 59 condemned inmates in California to die of natural causes since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978.
“To me, he had a better death than all those people whose lives he took,” she said.
At his sentencing, Ramirez praised Lucifer and told a judge, jurors and a packed courtroom that included some of his victims’ relatives: “You don’t understand me. You are not expected to. You are not capable of it. I am beyond your experience.”
Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan agreed on one point. Ramirez’s crimes, which included gouging out a victim’s eyes, were “beyond any human understanding,” the judge said.
Ramirez remained defiant in prison, where he seemed to wear a perpetual sneer and enjoyed attention of female groupies. Among them was journalist Doreen Lioy, who had seen his mug shot on TV and perceived what she called his “vulnerability.” They fell in love through prison plexiglass and were allowed to touch – and marry — in 1996.
One of his nieces, Shelly Ramirez, 31, of Tucson, said her uncle believed until the end that he was Satan’s son. She said that his death left her “numb” but that she hoped “a lot of people are at rest now.”
“I don’t think what he did to anyone was right,” she added.
Because of the complexity of his case — the trial record was nearly 50,000 pages — the state Supreme Court didn’t hear Ramirez’s first appeal until 2006. The court rejected his claims, but additional state and federal appeals were expected to take many more years.
Carns was a young electrical engineer when he was paralyzed by Ramirez’s bullets, one of which is still lodged in his skull, and he wears a brace on his leg and a sling on his arm.
“Sometimes I get mad and say, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ ” he said from his home in Bismarck, N.D., where he lives on Social Security and disability payments.
“Things were really starting to happen for me, and things got cut short.”
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Maria LaGanga, Joseph Serna, Kate Mather, Christopher Goffard and Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.