Richard Ramirez was an American serial killer who killed at least 14 people and raped and tortured at least two dozen more, mostly during the spring and summer of 1985. After developing epilepsy as a child, he became a heavy drug user and cultivated an interest in Satanism, which became a calling card for investigators at his crime scenes. Apprehended in August 1985, Ramirez was sentenced to death at the conclusion of his trial in 1989. He spent the remainder of his days at California's San Quentin Prison, before dying from cancer on June 7, 2013, at age 53.
Ramirez was born Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez on February 29, 1960, in El Paso, Texas, the fifth child of Mexican immigrants Mercedes and Julian Ramírez. Known as Richard or Ricky, Ramirez reportedly sustained multiple head injuries at an early age; after he was knocked unconscious by a swing at age 5, he began experiencing epileptic fits.
As an adolescent, Ramirez was heavily influenced by his older cousin, Miguel, who had recently returned from fighting in the Vietnam War. The two smoked marijuana together as Miguel told Ramirez about the torture and mutilation he had inflicted on several Vietnamese women, corroborating these stories with photographic evidence. At age 13, Ramirez witnessed his cousin murder his wife.
Dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Ramirez was arrested for the first time in 1977, for marijuana possession. He soon moved to California, progressing to cocaine addiction and burglary, and cultivating an interest in Satanism. He was arrested twice in the Los Angeles area for auto theft, in 1981 and again in 1984, and noticeably began to neglect his personal hygiene.
Theft turned to violence with Ramirez's (then) first known murder on June 28, 1984; the victim was 79-year-old Jennie Vincow, who was sexually assaulted, stabbed and killed during a burglary in her own home. What followed was a spree of brutal murders, rapes and robberies, leaving dozens of victims in its wake.
Ramirez next struck nearly nine months later. On March 17, 1985, he attacked Maria Hernandez, who managed to escape, and then killed her roommate, Dayle Okazaki. Not satisfied with these assaults, he also shot and killed Tsai-Lian Yu the same evening, spurring a media frenzy that saw Ramirez dubbed the "Valley Intruder" by the press.
Just 10 days later, on March 27, Ramirez murdered 64-year-old Vincent Zazzara and Zazzara's 44-year-old wife, Maxine, using an attack style that would become a pattern for the killer: The husband was shot first, then the wife was brutally assaulted and stabbed to death. In this case, Ramirez also gouged out Maxine Zazzara's eyes.
A full-scale police operation yielded no concrete results, and Ramirez repeated his attack pattern on pensioners William and Lillie Doi in May 1985. Over the next few months, his murder rate escalated, claiming another dozen victims in a frenzy of burglary, assault and brutal violence, complete with Satanic rituals. The Los Angeles Police Department responded by putting together a dedicated task force, with the FBI stepping in to assist.
The relentless media and police pressure, aided with descriptions from his surviving victims, forced Ramirez to leave the L.A. area that August. He journeyed north to San Francisco, where he took two more victims, Peter and Barbara Pan, on August 17. His unmistakable M.O., complete with Satanic symbolism, meant that the "Valley Intruder" moniker was no longer applicable; the press quickly coined a new name, the "Night Stalker," as most of his assaults took place at night in his victims' homes.
Ramirez's actions on his final night of terror, on August 24, 1985, soon led to his capture. First, he was spotted outside a Mission Viejo home, where he unwittingly left a footprint, before the witness took note of his car and license plate. Later, after Ramirez raped another woman at her home (and shot her fiance), the victim provided a detailed description of her assailant, who had forced her to swear her love for Satan.
Ramirez's abandoned car was found a few days later, complete with enough of a fingerprint to make a match, and his criminal record enabled the police to finally put a name to the "Night Stalker." National TV and print media coverage featuring his prison photo, along with a series of clues from witnesses and survivors, led to Ramirez's capture on August 31, after he was badly beaten by East L.A. residents while attempting two carjackings.
Ramirez waited in jail as his trial was continuously pushed off, the delay marked by a series of motions and bickering between the prosecutors and defense attorney. Because the geographical spread of the crimes also complicated the scope of the trial with jurisdictional issues, some of the charges against Ramirez were dropped in order to expedite what was becoming a long journey to justice.
The jury selection process finally moved forward on July 22, 1988, and the trial itself commenced the following January. During this time, Ramirez attracted a cult-like following of supporters, many of whom were black-clad Satan worshipers. Ramirez himself often dressed in black, along with dark shades, for his courtroom appearances.
Yet another delay occurred when one juror was found murdered on August 14, 1989, but rumors that Ramirez had orchestrated her death proved unfounded. On September 20, 1989, the jury finally returned a unanimous guilty verdict on 43 charges, including 13 counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, 11 sexual assault charges and 14 burglary charges.
Two weeks later, the same jury recommended the death sentence on 19 counts. Leaving the courtroom, Ramirez responded, "Hey, big deal, death always comes with the territory. I'll see you in Disneyland." The convicted murderer was formally sentenced to death in the gas chamber on November 7, 1989, and was sent to San Quentin Prison in California to spend the remainder of his days.
While incarcerated, Ramirez married one of his supporters, 41-year-old Doreen Lioy, in 1996. His long-awaited appeal finally made it to the California State Supreme Court in 2006, before being rejected.
Ramirez eventually was linked to more vicious crimes. In 2009, a DNA sample connected him with the April 10, 1984, rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in San Francisco.
After nearly 24 years on death row, Ramirez died on June 7, 2013, at the age of 53, from complications related to B-cell lymphoma. According to San Quentin corrections officers, Ramirez's death came shortly after he was taken to Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California.