Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramírez known as Richard Ramirez was an American serial killer. His highly publicized home invasion crime spree terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles area and later the residents of the San Francisco area from June 1984 until August 1985. Prior to his capture, Ramirez was dubbed “The Night Stalker” by the news media.
Ricardo “Richard” Leyva Muñoz Ramírez (/rəˈmɪərɛz/; February 29, 1960 – June 7, 2013), dubbed the Valley Intruder (as his attacks were first clustered in the San Gabriel Valley) and the Night Stalker, was an American serial killer, serial rapist, kidnapper, child abuser, and burglar, convicted in 1989.
Born in El Paso, Texas, Ramirez’s childhood is considered an influence on his crimes. His father, Julián, was prone to fits of anger that often resulted in physical abuse, causing Ramirez to seek escape by sleeping in a local cemetery. As a 12-year-old, Ramirez was strongly influenced by his older cousin, Miguel (“Mike”) Ramirez, a decorated Green Beret combat veteran who boasted of and took polaroid photos of his gruesome exploits and atrocities during the Vietnam War, such as raping Vietcong women and Vietnamese women and girls suspected of being loyal to the communist forces in the region, and murdering them by decapitating them with a machete afterwards when he was done with them, and he taught Ramirez some of his military skills that he would go on to use during his year long killing spree. It is also known that Mike showed Richard Ramirez the photos he took of his brutal war crimes, approximately when the younger Ramirez was between the ages of 11 and 12 years old, which Richard was reportedly very fascinated by and impressed with. In 1973, after his cousin Mike was incarcerated for murdering his wife during an argument, which the then 13 year old Richard was in the room to witness, Ramirez moved in with his older sister, Ruth, and her husband, Roberto, an obsessive “peeping Tom” who took Ramirez along on his nocturnal exploits. Ramirez also began using LSD and cultivated an interest in Satanism.
Ramirez’s highly publicized home invasion and murder crime spree terrorized the residents of the Greater Los Angeles area and later the residents of the San Francisco Bay Area from June 1984 until August 1985. He used a wide variety of weapons, including handguns, knives, a machete, a tire iron, and a claw hammer. In 1989, Ramirez was convicted of thirteen counts of murder, five attempted murders, eleven sexual assaults, and fourteen burglaries. The judge who upheld Ramirez’s nineteen death sentences remarked that his deeds exhibited “cruelty, callousness, and viciousness beyond any human understanding”. Ramirez never expressed any remorse for his crimes. He died of complications from B-cell lymphoma while awaiting execution on California’s death row.
Early life and education
Ramirez was born in El Paso, Texas, on February 29, 1960, the youngest of Julián and Mercedes Ramirez’s five children. His father Julián, a Mexican national and former Ciudad Juárez policeman who later became a laborer on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, was an alcoholic who was prone to fits of anger that often resulted in physical abuse towards his wife and children.
As a 12-year-old, Richard—or “Richie”, as he was known to his family—was strongly influenced by his older cousin, Miguel (“Mike”) Ramirez, a decorated Green Beret combat veteran who himself had already become a serial killer and a rapist in Vietnam, who often boasted of his severe war crimes and other violent and sexual exploits during the Vietnam War, and shared photos of his victims both during and after his crimes with his younger cousin, including Vietnamese women he had raped, murdered, and dismembered. In some of the photos, Mike posed with the severed heads of women he had sexually assaulted and murdered. Richard, who had begun smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at the age of 10, bonded with Mike through the two smoking joints and drinking beers, while Richard listened to his elder cousin’s gruesome war stories. Mike taught his young cousin some of his military skills, such as killing with stealth. Around this time, Ramirez began to seek escape from his father’s violent temper by sleeping in a local cemetery.
Richard was present on May 4, 1973, when his cousin Mike fatally shot his wife, Jessie, in the face with a handgun during a domestic argument. After the shooting, Richard became sullen and withdrawn from his family and peers. Later that year, Richard moved in with his older sister, Ruth, and her husband, Roberto, an obsessive “peeping Tom” who took Richie along on his nocturnal exploits. Ramirez also began using LSD and cultivated an interest in Satanism. Mike was found not guilty of Jessie’s murder by reason of insanity, largely thought to be due to his presumed severe wartime PTSD from his time serving in Vietnam, and was released in 1977, after four years of incarceration at the Texas State Mental Hospital. His influence over Ramirez continued, and it’s known that Mike resumed occasionally bonding with Richard over a shared use of drugs and alcohol, and that he sometimes accompanied Richard and Roberto on their nighttime voyeuristic walks, where they would spy on women in the nearby areas without their knowledge through windows.
The adolescent Ramirez began to meld his burgeoning sexual fantasies with violence, including forced bondage and rape. While still in school, he took a job at a local Holiday Inn, where he used his passkey to rob sleeping patrons. On at least one occasion, Ramirez sexually fondled and molested two children in an elevator at the hotel, but was never reported or prosecuted for this act. His employment ended abruptly after Ramirez attempted to rape a woman in her hotel room, before her husband returned to find them. Although the husband beat Ramirez senseless at the scene, criminal charges were dropped when the couple, who lived out of state, declined to return to testify against him.
On April 10, 1984, Ramirez murdered 9-year-old Chinese-American girl Mei Leung in the basement of the apartment building where he was living at the time, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Leung was with her 8-year-old brother when she reportedly lost a $1 dollar bill and went to look for it, to which Ramirez approached Leung and told the girl he knew where it was, and to follow him to the basement. The child agreed, and once they were in the basement, Ramirez beat, strangled, and raped Leung before stabbing her to death, and hanging her partially nude body from a pipe by her blouse. This, Ramirez’s first known killing, was not identified as being connected to his subsequent “Night Stalker” crime spree until 2009, when Ramirez’s DNA was matched to a sample obtained at this crime scene. In 2016, officials disclosed evidence of a second suspect, identified through a DNA sample retrieved from the scene, who is believed to have been present at Leung’s murder. Authorities have not publicly identified the suspect, described as being a juvenile at the time, and have not brought charges due to the lack of evidence. This crime likely wasn’t connected to Ramirez initially because it didn’t fit the same pattern as the rest of his known subsequent murders. The rest of Ramirez’s known homicides usually involved him breaking into a home to kill or shooting someone who was in car on the freeway after stopping them, while Leung was lured to the basement to be killed.
On June 28, 1984, 79-year-old Jennie Vincow was found brutally murdered in her apartment in Glassell Park, Los Angeles. She had been stabbed repeatedly while asleep in her bed, and her throat slashed so deeply that she was nearly decapitated. Ramirez’s fingerprint was found on a mesh screen he removed to gain access through an open window.
On March 17, 1985, Ramirez attacked 22-year-old Maria Hernandez outside her home in Rosemead, California, shooting her in the face with a .22 caliber handgun after she pulled into her garage. She survived when the bullet ricocheted off the keys she held in her hands as she lifted them to protect herself. Inside the house, her roommate, Dayle Yoshie Okazaki, age 34, heard the gunshot and ducked behind a counter when she saw Ramirez enter the kitchen. When she raised her head he shot her once in the forehead, killing her instantly.
Within an hour of the Rosemead home invasion, Ramirez pulled 30-year-old Tsai-Lian “Veronica” Yu out of her car in Monterey Park, shot her twice with a .22 caliber handgun, and fled. She was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. The two murders, and attempted third, in a single day attracted extensive coverage from news media, who dubbed the attacker, described as curly-haired with bulging eyes and wide-spaced, rotting teeth, “The Walk-in Killer” and “The Valley Intruder.”
On March 27, 1985, Ramirez entered a home that he had burglarized a year earlier just outside of Whittier, California, at approximately 2 a.m. and killed the sleeping Vincent Charles Zazzara, age 64, with a gunshot to his head from a .22 caliber handgun. Zazzara’s wife, Maxine Levenia Zazzara, age 44, was awakened by the gunshot, and Ramirez beat her and bound her hands while demanding to know where her valuables were. While he ransacked the room, Maxine escaped her bonds and retrieved a shotgun from under the bed, which was not loaded. The infuriated Ramirez shot her three times with the .22, then fetched a large carving knife from the kitchen. He mutilated her body by stabbing her several times, then poked out her eyes with the knife and placed them in a jewelry box, which he took when he left and kept at his apartment as a souvenir until his arrest. The autopsy determined that the mutilations were post-mortem. Vincent and Maxine’s bodies were discovered by their son, Peter. Ramirez left footprints from a pair of Avia sneakers in the flower beds, which the police photographed and cast. This was virtually the only evidence that the police had at the time. Bullets found at the scene were matched to those found at previous attacks, and the police determined that a serial killer was at large.
On May 14, 1985, Ramirez returned to Monterey Park and entered the home of Bill Doi, age 66, and his disabled wife, Lillian, age 56. Surprising Doi in his bedroom, Ramirez shot him in the face with a .22 semi-automatic pistol as Doi went for his own handgun. After beating the mortally wounded man into unconsciousness, Ramirez entered Lillian’s bedroom, bound her with thumbcuffs, then raped her after he had ransacked the home for valuables. Bill Doi died of his injuries while in the hospital.
On the night of May 29, 1985, Ramirez drove a stolen car to Monrovia, and stopped at the house of Mabel “Ma” Bell, age 83, and her disabled sister, Florence “Nettie” Lang, age 81. Finding a hammer in the kitchen, he bludgeoned and bound Lang in her bedroom, then bound and bludgeoned Bell before using an electrical cord to shock the woman. After raping Lang, he used Bell’s lipstick to draw the Satanic pentagram symbol on her thigh as well as on the walls of both bedrooms. The women were found two days later, alive but comatose and critically injured. Bell later died of her injuries in the hospital.
The next day, Ramirez drove the same car to Burbank, and sneaked into the home of Carol Kyle, age 42. At gunpoint, he bound Kyle and her 11-year-old son with handcuffs, then ransacked the house. He released Kyle to direct him to where the family’s valuables were; he then raped her repeatedly. Ramirez also repeatedly ordered her not to look at him, telling her at one point that he would “cut her eyes out”. He fled the scene after retrieving the child from the closet and binding the two together again with the handcuffs.
On the night of July 2, 1985, he drove a stolen car to Arcadia, and randomly selected the house of Mary Louise Cannon, age 75, a widowed grandmother. After quietly entering Cannon’s home, he found her asleep in her bedroom. He bludgeoned her into unconsciousness with a lamp and then repeatedly stabbed her in the head, neck, and chest using a 10-inch butcher knife from her kitchen. She was found dead at the scene.
On July 5, 1985, Ramirez broke into a home in Sierra Madre and bludgeoned 16-year-old Whitney Bennett with a tire iron as she slept in her bedroom. After searching in vain for a knife in the kitchen, Ramirez tried to strangle the girl with a telephone cord. He stated that he was startled to see electrical sparks emanate from the cord, and when his victim began to breathe, he fled the house believing that Jesus Christ had intervened and saved her. Bennett survived the savage beating and attempted strangulation, although 478 stitches were required to close the lacerations to her scalp.
On July 7, 1985, Ramirez burglarized the home of Joyce Lucille Nelson, age 60, in Monterey Park. Finding her asleep on her living room couch, he beat her to death unarmed by punching her in the head and stomping on her face repeatedly. A shoe print from an Avia sneaker was left imprinted on her face. After cruising two other neighborhoods, he returned to Monterey Park and chose the home of Sophie Dickman, age 63. Ramirez assaulted and handcuffed Dickman at gunpoint, attempted to rape her, and stole her jewelry; when she swore to him that he had taken everything of value, he told her to “swear on Satan”.
On July 20, 1985, Ramirez purchased a machete before driving a stolen Toyota to Glendale, California. He chose the home of Lela Kneiding, age 66, and her husband Maxon, age 68. He burst into the sleeping couple’s bedroom and hacked them with the machete, then killed them with shots to the head from a .22 caliber handgun. He further mutilated their bodies with the machete before robbing the house of valuables. After quickly fencing the stolen items from the Kneiding residence, Ramirez drove to Sun Valley.
At approximately 4:15 am, he broke into the home of the Khovananth family. He shot the sleeping Chainarong Khovananth in the head with a .25 caliber handgun, killing him instantly, then repeatedly raped and beat Somkid Khovananth. He bound the couple’s 8-year-old son before dragging Somkid around the house to reveal the location of any valuable items, which he stole. During his assault he demanded that she “swear to Satan” that she was not hiding any money from him.
On August 6, 1985, Ramirez drove to Northridge and broke into the home of Chris and Virginia Peterson. He crept into the bedroom, startled Virginia, age 27, and shot her in the face with a .25 caliber semi-automatic handgun. He then shot Chris in the neck and attempted to flee; Chris fought back while avoiding being hit by two more shots during the struggle before Ramirez managed to escape. The couple survived their injuries.
On August 8, 1985, Ramirez drove a stolen car to Diamond Bar, California, and chose the home of Sakina Abowath, age 27, and her husband Elyas Abowath, age 31. Sometime after 2:30 am he entered the house and went into the master bedroom. He instantly killed the sleeping Elyas with a shot to the head from a .25 caliber handgun. He handcuffed and beat Sakina while forcing her to reveal the locations of the family’s jewelry, and then brutally raped her. He repeatedly demanded that she “swear on Satan” that she would not scream during his assaults. When the couple’s 3-year-old son entered the bedroom, Ramirez tied the child up and then continued to rape Sakina. After Ramirez left the home, Sakina untied her son and sent him to the neighbors for help.
Ramirez, who had been following the media coverage of his crimes, left Los Angeles and headed to San Francisco. On August 18, 1985, he entered the home of Peter and Barbara Pan. He shot the sleeping Peter, age 66, in the temple with a .25 caliber handgun, which killed him instantly. He then beat and sexually assaulted Barbara, age 62, before shooting her in the head and leaving her for dead. At the crime scene, Ramirez used lipstick to scrawl a pentagram and the phrase “Jack the Knife” on the bedroom wall. Ramirez again left a shoe print at the scene that detectives discovered and matched to a specific Avia shoe that wasn’t common at the time. Upon the detectives’ discovery of the make and U.S. distribution of Ramirez’s Avia shoes, it was found that only six of them existed in the size 11 and a half. With five of them shipped to locations in Arizona, and one shipped to a shoe store in Los Angeles, it was evident that the one pair of its size and kind in the state of California then belonged to Richard. When it was discovered that the ballistics and shoe print evidence from the Los Angeles crime scenes matched the Pan crime scene, San Francisco’s then-mayor Dianne Feinstein divulged the information, including the gun caliber, in a televised press conference. This leak infuriated the detectives in the case, as they knew the killer would be following media coverage, which gave him opportunity to destroy crucial forensic evidence. Ramirez, who had indeed been watching the press, dropped his size 11 1/2 Avia sneakers over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge that night. He remained in the area for a few more days before heading back to the Los Angeles area.
On August 24, 1985, Ramirez traveled 76 miles south of Los Angeles, in a stolen orange Toyota, to Mission Viejo. That night, he arrived at the home of James Romero Jr., who had just returned from a family vacation to Rosarito Beach in Mexico. Romero’s son, 13-year-old James Romero III, happened to be awake and heard Ramirez’s footsteps outside the house. Thinking there was a prowler, James went to wake his parents, and Ramirez fled the scene. James raced outside and noted the color, make, and style of the car, as well as a partial license plate number. Romero contacted the police with this information, believing James had chased away a thief.
After this encounter, Ramirez broke into the house of Bill Carns, age 30, and his fiancée, Inez Erickson, age 29, through a back door. Ramirez entered the sleeping couple’s bedroom and awakened Carns when he cocked his .25 caliber handgun. He shot Carns three times in the head before turning his attention to Erickson. Ramirez told her that he was the “Night Stalker” and forced her to swear she loved Satan as he beat her with his fists and bound her with neckties from the closet. After stealing what he could find, Ramirez dragged Erickson to another room before raping her. He then demanded cash and more jewelry, and made her “swear on Satan” there was no more. Before leaving the home, Ramirez told Erickson, “Tell them the Night Stalker was here.” Erickson untied herself and went to a neighbor’s house to get help for her severely injured fiancé. Surgeons removed two of the three bullets from his head, and he survived his injuries.
Identification of Ramirez
Erickson gave a detailed description of the assailant to investigators, and police obtained a cast of Ramirez’s footprint from the Romero house. The stolen car was found abandoned on August 28 in Wilshire Center, Los Angeles, and police obtained a single fingerprint from the rear-view mirror despite Ramirez’s careful efforts to wipe the car clean of his prints. The print was positively identified as belonging to Ramirez, who was described as a 25-year-old drifter from Texas, with a long rap sheet that included many arrests for traffic and illegal drug violations. On 29 August 1985, law enforcement officials decided to release a mug shot of Ramirez from a 1984 arrest for auto theft to the media, and the “Night Stalker” finally had a face. At the police press conference it was announced: “We know who you are now, and soon everyone else will. There will be no place you can hide.”
Other suspected additional victims
On the night of June 27, 1985, 32-year-old Patty Elaine Higgins was murdered in her Arcadia home. The crime was not discovered until July 2, when she did not show up for work. Her attacker had sodomized her, strangled her, and slashed her throat.
Ramirez was charged with murder and burglary in relation to Higgins’ murder. However, the charges against him in this case were eventually dropped due to a lack of concrete physical evidence linking the Higgins murder to the Night Stalker crimes. Given that Ramirez bragged to other inmates about having killed “more than 20 people” while incarcerated, and the fact that it took 25 years to connect him to the April 1984 rape and murder 9-year-old Mei Leung in San Francisco, it is very likely that Richard Ramirez committed more murders than the 15 homicides that investigators and the public are currently aware of, and that these other killings simply have yet to be conclusively linked to Ramirez.
On August 30, 1985, Ramirez took a bus to Tucson, Arizona, to visit his brother, unaware that he had become the lead story in virtually every major newspaper and television news program across California. After failing to meet his brother, he returned to Los Angeles early on the morning of August 31. He walked past police officers, who were staking out the bus terminal in hopes of catching the killer should he attempt to flee on an outbound bus, and into a convenience store in East Los Angeles.
After noticing a group of elderly Mexican women fearfully identifying him as “el matador” (“the killer”), Ramirez saw his face on the front pages on the newspaper rack and fled the store in a panic. After running across the Santa Ana Freeway, he attempted to carjack a woman but was chased away by bystanders, who pursued him. After hopping over several fences and attempting two more carjackings, he was eventually subdued by a group of residents, one of whom had struck him over the head with a metal fence post in the pursuit. The group held Ramirez down and relentlessly beat him until the police arrived and took him into custody.
Trial and conviction
Jury selection for the trial began on July 22, 1988. At his first court appearance, Ramirez raised a hand with a pentagram drawn on it and yelled, “Hail Satan!” On August 3, 1988, the Los Angeles Times reported that some jail employees overheard Ramirez planning to shoot the prosecutor with a gun, which Ramirez intended to have smuggled into the courtroom. Consequently, a metal detector was installed outside, and intensive searches were conducted on people entering.
On August 14, the trial was interrupted because one of the jurors, Phyllis Singletary, did not arrive at the courtroom. Later that day, she was found shot to death in her apartment. The jury was terrified, wondering if Ramirez had somehow directed this event from inside his prison cell, and whether or not he could reach other jurors. However, it was ultimately determined that Ramirez was not responsible for Singletary’s death, as she was shot and killed by her boyfriend, who later committed suicide with the same weapon in a hotel. The alternate juror who replaced Singletary was too frightened to return to her home.
On September 20, 1989, Ramirez was convicted of all charges: thirteen counts of murder, five attempted murders, eleven sexual assaults, and fourteen burglaries. During the penalty phase of the trial on November 7, 1989, he was sentenced to die in California’s gas chamber. He stated to reporters after the death sentences, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.” The trial cost $1.8 million ($3.76 million in 2020 dollars), which at the time made it the most expensive in the history of California until surpassed by the O. J. Simpson murder case in 1994.
See also: Hybristophilia
By the time of the trial, Ramirez had fans who were writing him letters and paying him visits. Beginning in 1985, Doreen Lioy wrote him nearly 75 letters during his incarceration. In 1988, Ramirez proposed to Lioy, and on October 3, 1996, they were married in California’s San Quentin State Prison. For many years before Ramirez’s death, Lioy stated that she would commit suicide when Ramirez was executed. However, Lioy eventually left Ramirez in 2009 after DNA confirmed he had raped and murdered 9-year-old Mei Leung. By the time of his death in 2013, Ramirez was engaged to Christine Lee, a 23-year-old writer.