The Twisted Tale Of Richard Ramirez, The “Night Stalker” Serial Killer Of 1980s Los Angeles

Published December 5, 2017
Updated July 29, 2020
Published December 5, 2017
Updated July 29, 2020

Over a period of 14 months, Richard Ramirez, also known as the "Night Stalker," killed 13 people and attempted to kill five more across California.

Richard Ramirez

Getty ImagesRichard Ramirez during his trial.

When Richard Ramirez walked into a convenience store in Los Angeles in August of 1985, he failed to notice the group of police officers standing in the street or the stacks of newspapers on the racks outside.

It wasn’t until he looked out the window and saw a group of elderly women, fearfully pointing him out to a police officer, that he realized the face on the cover of those newspapers was his own. He quickly fled.

The ensuing chase involved seven police cars and a helicopter tracking Ramirez through the streets and alleyways of Los Angeles. Eventually, a group of bystanders finally caught the exhausted Ramirez and tackled him, beating him with a metal pipe. By the time police arrived, Richard Ramirez was thanking them for arresting him.

After a dramatic chase with an even more dramatic ending, the Night Stalker, a vicious serial killer and rapist who had terrorized Los Angeles residents for over a year, had finally been caught.

Night Stalker Mugshot

Getty ImagesA mug shot of the ‘Night Stalker’ serial killer, who perpetrated a series of brutal murders in the Los Angeles area in 1984 and 1985.

Richard Ramirez, dubbed the Night Stalker by the local media, had begun his killing spree exactly 14 months before his arrest. In that time, he killed 13 people, attempted to kill five more, and assaulted countless others. On top of his physical crimes, he was guilty of burglary and petty theft. Though his murders only spanned a year, his life of crime began when he was just 13 years old.

How A Childhood Of Trauma Twisted The Mind Of Richard Ramirez

Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, Richard Ramirez was often subjected to abuse by his father. He even sustained two serious head injuries, after which he experienced frequent epileptic seizures. To escape his violent father, Ramirez began to hang out with his older cousin, Miguel, a decorated Vietnam veteran.

Unfortunately, Miguel’s influence wasn’t much better than his fathers’ had been. During his time in Vietnam, Miguel had developed a habit of torturing women. Miguel often showed Ramirez photos of the horrors he had inflicted on the women, including one where he posed with one of the women’s severed heads. Later, Miguel would fatally shoot his own wife, in full view of a 13-year-old Ramirez, who would take the event deeply to heart.

The shooting turned Richard Ramirez from a scared, abused young boy into a hardened, sullen man. He began using LSD and cultivating his interest in Satanism, which he practiced throughout his life.

Still under his murderous older cousin’s influence — Miguel had been found not guilty of the shooting, and spent just four years in an insane asylum before being released — Ramirez developed an obsession with the same kinds of sexual violence Miguel had inflicted on the Vietnamese women in his photos.

Night Stalker Crime Scene

YouTubeA crime scene photo from one of the Richard Ramirez’s murders.

Richard Ramirez’s sexual obsessions escalated soon after. Ramirez was arrested for attempted rape. The charges were later dropped when the woman declined to testify against him, but the damage had already been done. Ramirez had developed a taste for the depravity and started to actively indulge his depraved impulses.

Ramirez Escalates Into Vicious Serial Killing

On June 28, 1984, he found it in the form of 79-year-old Jennie Vincow. Authorities found the woman’s body in her bed, brutally raped, her throat slashed so deeply she was almost decapitated. Her apartment showed sign of forced entry and items were found to be missing as well.

After the Vincow murder, it would be another few months before Richard Ramirez struck for the second time, but when he did, he would pursue his depraved impulses with horrific dedication.

On March 17, 1985, Ramirez’s murder spree began in earnest with an assault on Maria Hernandez in her home. She managed to escape, but her roommate, Dayle Okazaki, was not so lucky and he became Ramirez’s second known murder victim.

Later that night, Richard Ramirez’s bloodlust still wasn’t sated and he would shoot and kill Tsai-Lian Yu. He would continue to stalk and murder his victims for close to 14 months and strike terror in the heart of Californians throughout the state.

Ten days later, Richard Ramirez established the pattern that would come to define his murders when attacked Vincent Zazzara, 64, and his wife, 44-year-old Maxine Zazzara. He began by shooting and killing Vincent, then he assaulted Maxine before killing her with a knife. If that weren’t ghastly enough, Richard Ramirez also gouged out her eyes.

The Night Stalker Terrorizes California

From Los Angeles to San Fransisco, people went to bed fearing that “The Night Stalker” – as the press would call him – would break into their homes while they slept, hellbent on performing a Satanic ritual of rape, torture and murder.

During his reign of terror, he struck seemingly at random while traveling all over California, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, not staying in one place for too long.

The victims were both male and female, ranging in age from 22 to 80, from all over southern California. The one thing all of the crime scenes had in common was evidence that a Satanic ritual of some kind had occurred.

As word of the Night Stalker started to spread, it seemed that no one was safe. Eventually, by August of 1985, the public anxiety caused a surge in gun sales, lock installations, and window bars.

Police increased their presence on the street tenfold and the FBI created a special task force dedicated to hunt down the killer.

Soon, a witness was able to provide police with a license plate number for a vehicle believed to belong to Ramirez. Tracking down the vehicle, they were able to find a partial fingerprint in the vehicle that they could run through the Los Angeles Police Department’s new fingerprint database.

Other tips had come in and the name Ramirez had become known to the police, but with such a common name in California, it wasn’t guaranteed that they could turn up anything useful. They ran the fingerprint through the computerized database against anyone in the system with the name Ramirez.

Through sheer good luck, the LAPD was able to identify Richard Ramirez via their fingerprint database. The records on file were of anyone ever fingerprinted who was born after January 1960 — and it just so happened that Ramirez was born in February 1960.

Police Sketch Of Richard Ramirez

YouTube The police sketch of Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker.

Soon, one of Ramirez’s victims who survived was able to give a detailed enough description that a sketch artist could provide the newspapers with a picture. The Night Stalker’s image was published in every newspaper in southern California, in the hopes that someone would notice it and recognize Ramirez.

The Night Stalker’s Reign Of Terror Comes To An End

Ironically, the only one who didn’t notice his own fame was Richard Ramirez, ultimately leading to his downfall.

Returning to Los Angeles, he was soon identified in the street, fled the police, and famously came within moments of being beaten to death by a vigilante mob who recognized him and seized him as police closed in.

After his arrest, in the most expensive trial the state of California had ever seen, Richard Ramirez was convicted of all charges against him, including 13 counts of murder, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries.

After the verdict was read in court, he yelled at the jury that had just convicted him: “I am beyond good and evil. I will be avenged. Lucifer dwells in us all. That’s it.”

He was sentenced to death by asphyxiation in a gas chamber and was incarcerated in San Quentin Prison, housed on death row to await his execution.

Due to the enormity of his case – including 50,000 pages of trial records – it would take many years before the appellate court couldn’t hear his appeal, which it did until 2006. This delay effectively stayed his execution indefinitely.

During this extended delay, Richard Ramirez met a female admirer who had struck up a correspondence with Ramirez, and in 1996, he married her.

“He’s kind, he’s funny, he’s charming,” Ramirez’s new wife, Doreen Ramirez, told CNN the following year. “I think he’s a really great person. He’s my best friend; he’s my buddy.”

That was a pretty singular take, however. For the millions of Californians who lived in terror for more than a year in mid-1980s, Ramirez was little better than the demons he worshiped.

“It’s just evil. It’s just pure evil,” Peter Zazzara, the son of Vincent and Maxine Zazzara, told CNN in 2006. “I don’t know why somebody would want to do something like that. To take joy in the way it happened.”

During his first round of appeals in 2006, the appellate court upheld the original ruling and sentence. However, Richard Ramirez submitting more requests for more appeals, delaying his execution for the next seven years.

Having received a diagnosis of B-cell lymphoma, there was a race of sorts to see who could kill Richard Ramirez first: the State of California or cancer.

It would be cancer, in the end, that killed Richard Ramirez. He died in prison in 2013 at the age of 53 after spending 23 years on death row. Not once during those 23 years did he admit wrongdoing, or express remorse. In fact, upon hearing his sentence, the Night Stalker smiled.

“Hey, big deal,” he told the judge who had sentenced him to die. “Death always comes with the territory. I’ll see you in Disneyland.”

Now that you’ve read about Night Stalker serial killer Richard Ramirez, learn about five serial killers you’ll wish you’d never heard of. Then, take a look at these 21 serial killer quotes that will chill you to the bone.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.