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Opinion

Op-Ed: The ‘Night Stalker’ taught Orange County you can’t master plan away the darker elements of human nature

JAN. 25, 1988 -- Richard Ramirez, accused ‘Night Stalker’ suspect, during the hearing in which his t
Richard Ramirez, the convicted ‘Night Stalker,’ during a hearing on Jan. 25, 1988.
(Los Angeles Times)

In the summer of 1985, Richard Ramirez — dubbed the Night Stalker by news media — terrorized Southern California. He drove the L.A. Basin freeways, pulled into suburban neighborhoods, climbed through open windows and killed men and women in their homes. If you lived in Southern California then, the Night Stalker got inside your head. Even if he didn’t get inside your house, he went to bed with you at night.

I was 15 in 1985, growing up in master-planned Irvine — Orange County’s mostly white, upper-middle-class resort/suburbia, a place where people left their doors unlocked at night. Back then, the town was surrounded by orange groves and strawberry fields. The hills were dotted with cattle and cowboys. On hot days, the ocean breeze was singed with the spice of eucalyptus trees. It was easy, surrounded by this California Eden, to feel removed from the endless bad news to the north in Los Angeles. Gang killings, robberies, rapes, high-speed chases — that was someone else’s bad news. That’s why you moved to Irvine: the safe, clean, calm opposite of L.A.

Then on Aug.25, 1985, we woke to find that the Night Stalker had raped a woman and shot her boyfriend in their bedroom in Mission Viejo, just south of us. While we slept — our sliding glass doors and windows wide open to the Pacific breeze — Ramirez had driven down the Santa Ana Freeway, pulled off at Alicia Parkway, and turned in to a neighborhood a lot like mine. He could have exited at Culver Drive or Jeffrey Road. He could have turned in to my housing tract. He could have parked in front of my house on Comet Street and climbed through the first-story window into my bedroom.

I hadn’t realized until that moment the privilege we possessed, the entitlement he stole from us — the feeling of security.
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The fear that day was palpable. It was sweltering, hovering near triple digits in the afternoon and stagnating in the 80s at night. My childhood home didn’t have air conditioning, yet my father sawed lengths of broomsticks to wedge into the window wells and the door tracks, so nothing could be opened inside or out. My dad — former 82nd Airborne — was frightened, and by the time he finished barricading the house, I was terrified.

I remember lying in bed the night after the Mission Viejo attack, sweating, watching my darkened window, certain the Night Stalker was coming to get me. I hadn’t realized until that moment the privilege we possessed, the entitlement he stole from us — the feeling of security, of living in a place that was separate from the violence in the rest of the world. We thought we earned that security because we made the right choices. We had gotten the right education, worked the right jobs, and the perfection of Irvine cemented in us a sense that our town was the way the world should be.

But certainty made us blind as well. Ramirez never did strike in Irvine, but you cannot master plan away the darker elements of human nature. Maybe it’s because I was growing older, maybe it had nothing to do with the Night Stalker at all, but I remember the summer of ’85 as a turning point. I noticed some things for the first time. I saw the way everyone on our street ignored the Vietnam vet who beat his son. I recognized the skinhead punks hanging out near the new Japanese restaurant as something more sinister than teenage rebellion. When a woman was hit by a train, I understood that she’d stood on the tracks on purpose, waiting to be obliterated. And some of us came to know that a beloved teacher liked to touch boys, though we didn’t admit this to each other until many years later.

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The silences surrounding these realities were haunting, an isolating white noise of denial. After all, what was our town worth — a homogeneously boring cluster of tract homes and shopping malls — if it wasn’t pristine, safe? The power of master planning was the illusion that the only things we had to fear existed outside of the town’s borders. When the Night Stalker was caught by a vigilant group of East L.A. neighbors, six days after Mission Viejo, the illusion was restored and our fear of the outside world reinforced. But Irvine was never the same for me — and I suspect for many others — though I clung to its illusions for a while, living in that silence intrinsic to denial until I left the town for good some eight years later.

Of course, our town was never as safe as it seemed to us. Four years before the summer of the Night Stalker, Manuela Witthuhn had been raped and bludgeoned in her home on a quiet Irvine street with a greenbelt running through it, a stone’s throw from the Santa Ana Freeway. Her killer is suspected to be the so-called Original Night Stalker. Never captured or even identified, he is responsible for at least 12 Southern California homicides. But I wouldn’t find out about that until 31 years after her death, doing research for a book, in my home office on the other side of the country.

Alan Drew is the author of the recently published novel “Shadow Man,” based on Richard Ramirez. He is an English professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

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