Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker

Ramirez and Satan: Perfect Together?

To understand Richard Ramirez and his passion for the devil, we need to examine more than just his life; we must also look at the times.

Ramirez committed his murder spree in 1985, in the midst of the "satanic panics" that swept the country throughout the decade.    Anxiety over Satanists and evil conspiracies mounted on a cultural scale, and narratives told by people in therapy about ritual abuse by secret Satanic rings showed many common elements—and no evidence.  Whole masses of people developed similar physical symptoms that were primarily emotional in origin, and the idea of ritual abuse was heavily promoted by journalists, therapists, physicians, drug companies, and whoever else might find some stake in them.

Serial killers, too, adopted satanic robes.  During that decade, Robert Berdella killed six men in Missouri for satanic purposes, Antone Costa killed four women in Cape Cod in rituals, Thomas Creech admitted to 47 satanic sacrifices, and Larry Eyler buried four of his 23 victims under a barn marked with an inverted pentagram.  Nurse Donald Harvey, suspected in the deaths of 47 patients, admitted to a fascination with black magic, and Leonard Lake, who had teamed up with Charles Ng for a series of torture-murders, was affiliated with a coven of witches.  One killer targeted homeless men, ringing his victims with a circle of salt.  A teenager who wanted to follow the devil murdered his parents in their beds.

Also during the 1980s, a former associate of John Wayne Gacy named Robin Gecht inspired a group of three other men known as the Ripper Crew in killing an estimated eighteen women.  They would murder a victim, sever her left breast with a thin wire, clean it out to use for sexual gratification, and then cut it into pieces to consume.  Ostensibly, they were worshipping Satan, and eating the flesh was a form of demonic communion.

The Night Stalker had the same devilish persuasion.  He'd creep up in the night, dressed in black, and enter homes surreptitiously.  Sometimes he removed the eyes of his victims, as if for a ritual.  He bludgeoned two elderly sisters and left Satanic symbols on the thigh of the one who died in the form of a pentagram.  He also drew pentagrams on the walls in lipstick.  When he was arrested, Ramirez reportedly said he was a minion of Satan sent to commit the Dark One's dirty work.

Was this admission some kind of preparation for an insanity defense or something he truly believed?   If he believed it, did it inspire more savagery?  Did it cause him to kill?  Let's review some of the influential factors of his life that have been commonly linked to the development of a violent temperament.  

He was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1960, the youngest of five children.   He was a quiet boy, according to neighbors, with hard-working parents.  However, Richard's father had a temper and sometimes beat the kids.  The model of abuse in the form of a parent can often be a bad start for a child, especially a boy watching his father.  Add to that, possible abuse from a male teacher, and Richard had two role models who demonstrated how to use others for their own frustrated ends.  Richard was afraid of his father, and he would leave home to hang out in a nearby cemetery, even spending the night.  He found peace among the dead, and this may have been where he first developed an attraction to the macabre.  

Forensic psychologist Dr. N. G. Berrill, from John College of Criminal Justice, pointed out on Court TV's Mugshots that a means for getting over one's fears is "to identify with what's frightening you.  One way to do that is to become a frightening person yourself."

More than one criminal has become the very thing that scared him, turning from victim into victimizer.  Yet Ramirez would take this transformation another step.  It would become more than just frightening people.  He would want to mutilate them, degrade them, and radiate their fear in larger ripples at others.

Ramirez also suffered from epileptic seizures—possibly viewed as a weakness in that south-Texas culture, since it forced him to give up football--and he became something of a loner in school.  He was thin and girlish in appearance, so he may have been ridiculed.  Yet he had ambitions to become famous.  He wanted people to know him.  He wanted to make a difference.

He looked up to an older cousin named Mike, who may have become something of a father substitute.  Mike loved to prove how tough he was, especially by fighting.  As Richard hung out with him day after day, absorbing Mike's life philosophies, he learned a new outlook.  Mike had survived the rigors of Vietnam, and when he returned, even more hardened and covered in tattoos, he became larger-than-life in Richard's eyes.  He'd come through an ordeal and he had secrets from an exotic place.  That was pretty exciting, but even better were the photographs that Mike liked to show Richard of the butchered dead—including women.  He said that killing made him feel like a god, and there was nothing more powerful.  Mike bragged that he had raped and murdered a number of women, and he had the photos to prove it.  While Richard may have been shocked at first, eventually he got used to such sights, especially since it was important to show Mike that he could handle it.  Mike might have been testing young Richard, not yet even an adolescent, but Richard was up to the test.  He took it in and wanted more.

The key insight here is that Richard's exposure to Mike's atrocities occurred at a time in his life when he was also becoming a young man, and often when things get associated with physical excitement and intrigue during early sexual development, they also become eroticized.  Thus they become a part of the mental landscape as well.  Sexual fantasies can develop from the associated images, and those fantasies become repetitive and more detailed throughout one's life and may lay the groundwork for later acts.  Richard supposedly had viewed Polaroids of Mike in sexual activity in which the woman was a helpless victim and of Mike murdering these same women.  He saw how his idol could do these things without a qualm, no doubt got excited by the naked women in sexual positions, and probably learned that women could be easily used as objects for degradation.   It was all part of being a real man, yet it was also forbidden, which gave Mike's macho realm an added allure.

In addition to that, Mike also taught Richard the art of hunting as a predator.  They would go into the desert at night to observe and sneak up on animals.  Mike then would show Richard how to kill an animal with a knife or gun, and it's likely they indulged in some bloody aspects of this sport.

As Richard developed, Mike became his role model and whatever Mike did without fear, Richard wanted to do.  That set him up for one more incident that would prove everything that Mike had demonstrated thus far.

One day, Mike got into a fight with his wife, who wanted him to get a job, and decided to end her harassment.  He drew a revolver and shot her.  Then he told Richard to leave.  For this crime, Mike went to a mental institution, judged to have been temporarily insane.  Yet right after the incident, Richard went into the home with his father and saw and smelled the blood.  He felt a connection with the dead, he confessed later to author Philip Carlo (The Night Stalker), which bordered on the mystical.

Some psychologists pinpoint this killing as the turning point for him, but it's more likely that he had already become inured to death, especially with women, via the photographs Mike had shown him, and by killing animals up close.  This incident was probably not as traumatic for him as it might have been, given what he'd already been exposed to.  The numbness had already developed in him.  Otherwise, we might expect that he'd have run from the apartment and gone to the police, or gone into a depression and avoided his cousin thereafter.  In fact, he told no one that he had witnessed the crime.

What may have been just as instrumental in his development is that he did attend church, so to be able to worship and also accept his cousin's violent attitudes indicated that he'd already begun to compartmentalize—to act and think differently in different contexts.  That's the most dangerous kind of person, because it becomes difficult for others to recognize the violent side, and difficult for the person to stop his own violent acts.  He may not even view them as bad.

Eventually, Richard discovered the Church of Satan, and that seemed to draw all the threads of his temperament together in the right way.  The themes of dominance, control, and power called to him, as did the idea of something sacred, even if it was evil.  All of this might have made him able to erase his feelings of weakness.

Then when he was 18, he moved to California.  He had nothing much to do there, so he stole cars, listened to music, and looked for opportunities, whatever they may be.  He would steal without compunction and buy drugs.  He still sought something that might make him significant.

Richard Ramirez had perceived in the culture around him---he was not far from where teachers had been arrested in 1983 at the McMartin pre-school and accused as a ring of Satanists corrupting children—that people were afraid of Satan, and to him that probably meant that aligning himself with the Prince of Darkness would empower him in a unique way.   People would actually fear him.  So he cultivated the trappings of Satanism that were popular during the 1970s and 80s—pentagrams, black clothing, demonic eyes, stealthy ways, and a penchant for the night.  He took his cue from the song, "Night Prowler," noting how the person who made others afraid was the person in control.

So he went on his murder spree, was caught, and went through a trial.  He was certainly making a name for himself, but it wasn't enough just to be another serial killer.  There were plenty of those by the 1980s—even a trial in Orange County at the same time.  He perceived that he had set himself apart with his satanic incarnation, and he played that up for the press.

At a preliminary hearing, Ramirez flashed a pentagram that he'd had tattooed onto the palm of his hand.   When he was convicted and his lawyers warned him that he could get the death sentence.  "I'll be in hell, then," he said, "with Satan."  He saw the newspaper articles talking about him as the devil and understood that he was a celebrity now.  The more he flashed the pentagram or talked about serving Satan, the more he was quoted in the papers.  He adopted sunglasses to enhance his mystique.  He apparently embraced the idea that he was a "monster."  Even during his trial, when one juror was murdered, the incident made other jurors wonder if Ramirez had called forth demons to attack that person. They were fearful that he might pick them off.  He'd often tried to intimidate them individually with his stares. 

He was sentenced to death and sent to Death Row in San Quentin.   When talking to police officers, he was quite curious as to whether there would now be books about him as there were about Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper.  He loved the idea that someone had made a movie.

During the 1990s, Jason Moss wrote to Ramirez as part of his project to write to serial killers, and Ramirez reportedly wanted him to become a Satanist.

Since Ramirez's beliefs seem fundamental to his desire to be notorious and unique, it's difficult to know to what degree he was sincerely devoted to Satan.  Yet it's likely that his desire to kill and the manner in which he committed his crimes had more to do with his cousin Mike's psychological influence, coupled with his notion that killing makes one a god.

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