Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker

'A Good Boy'

How Ramirez Became the 'Night Salker'

In 1978, eighteen-year-old Ricardo Leyva a.k.a. "Richard" Ramirez moved to southern California from El Paso, Texas, his hometown. He'd dropped out of the ninth grade and had been living the life of a slacker, smoking marijuana and living on convenience store junk food, according to UPI reporters Aurelio Rojas and K. Mack Sisk. His diet was so rich in sugar, his teeth eventually started to rot, which made his breath foul and offensive, buthis halitosis fit in with the demonic personality he was intentionally cultivating. His habitual pot-smoking led to several arrests for possession as well as a misdemeanor theft charge. In California he was twice arrested for auto theft, in Pasadena in 1981 and Los Angeles in 1984.

Cover of AC/DC's Highway to Hell
Cover of AC/DC's Highway to

Michael D. Harris, reporting for UPI, wrote that years later his father would maintain that Richard was a "good boy" whose marijuana consumption "put him out of control," but it would be hard to pinpoint exactly what influences sent Richard Ramirez in the direction of devil worship. He often drew the five-point pentagram, the symbol of the devil, on his own body, and at his trial he would shout "Hail Satan!" in open court. He was a big fan of rock bands who sang about Satanism, particularly the Australian heavy-metal band AC/DC whose album, Highway to Hell, was Ramirez's absolute favorite. One song on that album, "Night Prowler," contains the lyrics, "Was that a noise outside your window?/ What's that shadow on the blind?/ As you lie there naked like a body in a tomb/ suspended animation as I slip into your room..." But it's hard to believe that rock songs and marijuana alone would turn a misdirected youth into one of the most heinous serial rapists and murderers in modern history.

Richard Ramirez displaying the pentagram on his hand
Richard Ramirez displaying
the pentagram on his hand

The turning point in Ramirez's life might well have been the night he witnessed his cousin Mike murder his wife. Mike had fought as a Green Beret in Vietnam, but the war had changed him. After he'd returned home, he boasted of torturing and mutilating the enemy, and had brought back Polaroids to prove it. He and his thirteen-year-old cousin Richard would hang out all day, getting high, which is just what they were doing when Mike's wife started to nag him about getting his life together and finding a job. To shut her up, Mike pulled out a gun and shot her in the face, killing her. Author Philip Carlo, speaking on CNBC's Rivera Live, revealed that Ramirez was spattered with the woman's blood. Mike's lawyer pointed to the incredible stress of his horrible war experiences as a mitigating factor. He was ultimately convicted, but the judge was lenient in his sentencing. Mike had been a big influence on Richard, who became fascinated with the horrible photographs of Mike's war victims. It was after the murder of Mike's wife that Richard, the epileptic youngest child in a family of three boys and two sisters, started skipping school and smoking pot as much as he could every day. He soon took to stealing to support his drug use .

The police have no evidence that Richard Ramirez killed at anytime before he reached Los Angeles, and little is known about his activities in the first few years he lived there. . No doubt his crimes were escalating during this period. Simple theft led him to breaking and entering, and eventually he must have become adept at it. Initially he probably stole whatever valuables he could find, then quickly left before he was caught. But as he grew more proficient, he also grew bolder, staying longer in the houses that he burglarized. Perhaps he stayed to watch the inhabitants sleeping in their beds. Perhaps he took souvenirs, particularly items that belonged to the female residents. Like his cousin Mike, he might have even taken photographs that he could relish later. This no doubt excited him and helped him develop the depraved fantasies that took over his thinking.

But eventually he felt compelled to do more. The horrible scenes that ran through his mind like a horror movie on a continuous loop weren't satisfying him anymore. They had to emerge from his mind and become reality. When Richard Ramirez finally crossed that line and started to play out his fantasies, the Night Stalker was born. Whether by conscious decision or inevitable evolution, Ramirez began to insert himself into his depraved fantasies and actively participate in their reenactment for his own gratification.

His first known victim was a seventy-nine-year old Glassel Park resident named Jennie Vincow. On June 28, 1984, she had apparently left a window open because it had been hot that evening. Ramirez simply removed the screen and climbed in. Vincow's son, who lived in the apartment over her ground floor apartment, discovered her body sprawled out on the bed. She had been stabbed repeatedly, and her throat was slashed so savagely she was nearly decapitated. The intruder also ransacked her apartment and helped himself to her valuables. Fingerprints were recovered from the window sill, and the autopsy revealed signs of sexual assault. The Night Stalker's fantasy had finally become reality.

It would be eight months before he struck again.

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