One of the most ruthless, vicious serial rapist-killers in American history died Friday, reportedly of natural causes, while serving the last 24 years of his life time on California's inappropriately named death row.
His name was Richard Ramirez. And there's a story behind how he became known as the "Night Stalker."
The news stories about his death alluded to his "earning" the moniker. Since I am the guy who bestowed that title on him, here's the rest of the story.
Ramirez wasn't just your run-of-the-mill serial killer – even by California standards. He terrorized the entire state by breaking into homes at night, raping women, boys and girls and then strangling them, slashing their throats or shooting them.
He would force mothers to watch him sodomize their sons before they were both murdered. He would have sex with some of the corpses. He would spray-paint Satanic symbols on the walls of some of the victims' homes.
He was ultimately convicted of 13 murders during a spree of several months, ending Aug. 31, 1985.
How did it end?
The police were able to put together a sketch of Ramirez based on sightings. It was published the same day on the front page of the newspaper I worked for at the time, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Within hours, Ramirez was spotted by citizens in East L.A. who captured him and beat him until police arrived.
I couldn't help but feel a little bit of responsibility for his capture, having made the decision to put that police sketch on the front page of the paper that day. In fact, some of those beating him actually held copies of the paper in their hands as they held him for police.
Before I dubbed him the "Night Stalker" in a 72-point headline across the front page that read, "The Night Stalker's deadly trail," he was known by other feeble names, like the "Valley Intruder." That didn't seem appropriate for someone who murdered in valleys, on hills and across the state in prolific and gruesome fashion. (The Los Angeles Times can't even tell the truth about the naming of a serial killer.)
I actually won an award for that headline from the Hearst Corporation.
Naming serial killers was something of an art form in California. There were so many. But there was no one quite like Ramirez.
At his arraignment, he held up his hand with a pentagram scrawled on it and shouted, "Hail Satan!"
I have to say that covering Ramirez's bloody trail actually brought me closer to God.
Ramirez was associated with a Hispanic gang of Satan worshippers called the Stoners before he began freelancing. I had a run-in with that gang one very dark night in L.A.
At the time, I was working at night, directing the newsroom operation. Because I started my shift later in the day, all of the premium parking spaces inside the fenced perimeter of the paper were taken. So I had to improvise by parking in a lonely, secluded, dark parking lot across the street. It was completely shrouded by buildings except for an alleyway entrance.
Normally I would move my car inside the compound just after dark, after spaces opened up when the day crew left. But on more than one occasion, I simply forgot.
I usually wouldn't leave the paper until about 2 a.m. On one particular occasion, as I entered the alleyway, I saw a group of somewhere between 50 and 100 gangbangers having a late-night block party in the parking lot. There were bonfires burning, broken beer and whiskey bottles littering the ground and the distinct odor of marijuana burning.
My car was about 100 feet in front of me – the longest 100 feet I ever traversed in my memory.
As I began to approach the car, the Stoners began to converge toward me. I had to race them to the car, unlock the door, get in, start the car and high-tail it out of that narrow alleyway before I was beaten to death.
There was no other option. On foot, I was a dead man.
Just when it looked like I was going to make it, I glanced at the little Chevy and realized the windows had already been smashed on all sides. That made opening the door a little easier, but it meant sitting down on shards of broken glass. That's what I did. Fortunately the car started right up and I took off – all the while feeling glass penetrating my derriere.
As I approached the alleyway and escape, I saw in my rear-view mirror that the entire group of Stoners was chasing me on foot, hurling bottles, cursing me and shouting incomprehensible epithets. Some were no more than 10 feet behind me.
But I made it out – alive. I literally counted my blessings that night. I thanked God as soon as my racing heartbeat approached normalcy.
Shortly thereafter, I bought my first handgun.
That was several months before I named Ramirez the "Night Stalker." I always wondered if he was in that party.
I guess I'll never know.
Now he's dead and, apparently, getting the unrepentant desires of his heart – eternity in hell.
That's my Richard Ramirez story.