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How the public helped police to catch the Night Stalker

A stock photo showing street lights in the fog

Between June 1984 and August 1985, residents throughout the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas of California were terrorised by a ruthless serial killer known as the ‘Night Stalker’.

This elusive murderer entered homes through unlocked doors and windows late at night. Once inside, he brutally killed the occupants and sexually assaulted the women and even sometimes the children. He then rummaged through the home, occasionally stealing items but mostly taking nothing other than his victim’s life. In some homes, he left behind pentagrams in blood while in others, he forced his victims to “swear to Satan”.

The Night Stalker played no favourites when it came to selecting his victims. They ranged in age from 16 to 83. He had victims of all races, genders, and creeds and utilized multiple methods of murder; some victims were bludgeoned while others were stabbed or shot. The crime scenes were gruesome, with many of the victims being mutilated before and after death. He was also connected to at least four kidnappings and molestations, with the youngest abduction victim being just 6-years-old.

Many residents throughout California were so fearful that they would become the next victim that they slept with whatever weapons they had available: guns, baseball bats, golf clubs, and even hair spray. Gun sales went through the roof as Californians scrambled to protect themselves and their loved ones. It was a long and hot summer but residents slept with their windows closed out of fear that an open window would be an easy way in for the sadistic serial killer. As one police officer said: “Better to wake up in a pool of sweat than a pool of blood.” (The Sacramento Bee, 1 September 1985 – 'Angry Crowd Nabs Stalker Suspect')

A reward fund for information that could lead to the Night Stalker was put forward, and it swelled to over $70,000.

In the early morning hours of 25th August 1985, Bill Carns and his fiancé, Inez Erickson, were asleep in their home in Mission Viejo, California, when they were awoken by gunshots. Carns was shot three times in the head while Erickson was bound, beaten, and raped. The Night Stalker forced her at gunpoint to say that she loved Satan before leaving with a handful of valuables. Carns survived the shooting, but not without permanent scars. (Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2013 – '"Night Stalker" Victim on Killer’s Death: "Justice Has Been Served"')

Three days before this attack, a bright orange 1976 Toyota was stolen from a man in Watts. Before police learned of the attack on Carns and Erickson, they received a report from 13-year-old James Romero, who lived near the engaged couple. He said that somebody was prowling along the side of his garage. Romero woke his father, and they witnessed a man driving away from the scene in a bright orange 1976 Toyota. They made a note of the license plate number and reported it to the police. (The Orange County Register, 3 September 1987 – 'Ramirez’s Lawyers Try to Discredit Identification of Alleged Night Stalker')

The stolen car was discovered abandoned around a mile away in Mission Viejo. It was transported to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department where it was examined with a laser device. By this point, investigators had linked the stolen car with the Night Stalker attack.

A fingerprint was found and checked against approximately 100 similar fingerprints on the computer database. There was a match: Richard Ramirez. (The Sacramento Bee, 1 September 1985 – 'Stalker Suspect ID Reached by Laser, Sleuthing and Luck') This same fingerprint had been found in a number of the Night Stalker’s crime scenes, including the murder of 79-year-old Jenny Vincow, who was stabbed to death in her ground floor apartment. (UPI, 4 September 1985 – 'The Accused Night Stalker Has Been Linked by a Fingerprint')

The following day, on 30th August 1985, law enforcement hastily called a news conference in which they identified Ramirez as their main suspect. They had considered withholding his identity but thought out of concern for public safety, it was best if everybody knew. (Daily Breeze, 31 August 1985 – 'Night Stalker Suspect Named')

They described him as a 25-year-old unemployed Hispanic man, originally from El Paso, Texas. They informed the public he had lived in the Los Angeles area for several years and regularly frequented the San Francisco area as well.

The public was asked to keep an eye out for Ramirez but not to approach him as he was considered armed and dangerous. They described him as standing at around six foot 1 inch tall, 155 pounds, with black hair, brown eyes, thick lips, and bulging eyes. They also said that he had extensive decay to his upper and lower front teeth; something that many of his surviving victims commented on.

During the news conference, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block said: “Every law enforcement officer in the State of California will be looking for him. Every citizen will now know exactly what this individual looks like.”

With his name and face in the public, the hunt was on. Ramirez had been visiting his brother in Tucson, Arizona, and was completely unaware that he was on the front of newspapers throughout California. On the morning of 31st August, he took a Greyhound bus back to Los Angeles. Once here, he entered a liquor store and saw his face plastered across all the newspapers.

Ramirez quickly left the liquor store, but not before he was noticed by several witnesses. Around ten minutes later, the trail of the Night Stalker ended in a mad chase through a residential street in east Los Angeles. In a frantic attempt to flee, Ramirez tried to steal a gold-coloured Ford. He grabbed the woman from the car, punched her in the stomach, and stole her keys. (UPI, 31 August 1985 - 'Police Saturday Arrested the Alleged Night Stalker')

Nearby, 85-year-old Jose Burgoin heard the commotion and ran over to try and help the woman. Ramirez threatened the elderly man, telling him he would shoot him if he came any closer. “I didn’t see a gun so I opened the door and pulled him out of the car,” Burgoin recollected to the Los Angeles Times. (Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2013 – 'Neighbors in East L.A. recall capture of “Night Stalker"')

By this point, other residents had gathered in the street, including the woman’s husband who was alerted by her screams. Ramirez took off on foot, and the woman’s husband gave chase. The man hollered to his neighbours who came out to assist and he even managed to hit Ramirez over the head several times with a fence post. Eventually, the mob tackled Ramirez to the ground and held onto him while police rushed to the neighbourhood after receiving dozens of calls.

When police arrived, Ramirez shouted in Spanish: “It’s me, it’s me,” before adding: “I’m lucky the police got here.” As he was handcuffed and placed into the back of a patrol vehicle, the neighbours in the mostly Hispanic neighbourhood gathered around. “Let him loose for the public. We’ll take care of him!” one shouted.

The arrest finally released the grip of terror that Ramirez had held over several communities throughout California. The Los Angeles City Count honoured five citizens who assisted with the capture of Ramirez; Carmelo Robles, Frank Moreno, Jose Burgoin, Manuel De La Torre, and Faustino Pinon. Sheriff’s Deputy Andres Ramirez, who was the officer to arrest Ramirez, commented: “Half of my job was done by the time I got to the scene. Basically, all I had to do was handcuff him.” (Daily Breeze, 4 September 1985 – '5 Honored as Heroes in Capture of Stalker Suspect')

The reward fund was split among 19 people who were instrumental in the identification and apprehension of Richard Ramirez. Some of those included people who knew Ramirez and called in tips after seeing the composite sketch of the Night Stalker. It also included the brave residents of the neighbourhood where Ramirez had finally been captured and James Romero, the teenage boy who got the license plate of the stolen car. (The Los Angeles Times, 25 October 1989 – 'Stalker bounty: 19 Collect Shares of the County’s $36,777 Reward Fund')

During Ramirez’s first court appearance, he flashed his left palm, showing a pentagram. As he was led from the courtroom, he shouted: “Hail Satan!” He was charged with 68 felony counts, including 15 murders. (UPI, 24 October 1985 – 'Accused Night Stalker Richard Ramirez Shouted "Hail Satan" as he was Led from Courtroom')

In 1989, he stood trial and was convicted of 13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber. As he was led to the patrol van to transport him to San Quentin, he turned to the media and said: “Hey, big deal, death always comes with the territory. I’ll see you in Disneyland.”

Richard Ramirez never made it to the gas chamber; on 7th June 2013, he died in prison from complications secondary to B-cell lymphoma.