The Night Stalker

Who Was Richard Ramirez?

Richard Ramirez was an American serial killer who murdered at least 14 people and was convicted of attempting to murder five others. After developing epilepsy as a child, he became a heavy drug user and cultivated an interest in Satanism, which became a calling card for investigators at his crime scenes. He committed at least 30 violent crimes that often included included rape and torture, mostly during the spring and summer of 1985. Apprehended in August of that year, Ramirez was sentenced to death at the conclusion of his trial in 1989. He spent the remainder of his days at California’s San Quentin Prison, before dying from cancer in June 2013 at age 53.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Ricardo Leyva Muñoz RamirezBORN: February 29, 1960DIED: June 7, 2013BIRTHPLACE: El Paso, TexasSPOUSE: Doreen Lioy (1996-c. 2013)ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Pisces

Early Life

Richard Ramirez was born Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramirez on February 29, 1960, in El Paso, Texas. Known as Richard or Ricky, he was the fifth child of Mexican immigrants Mercedes and Julian Ramirez. Richard reportedly sustained multiple head injuries at an early age; after he was knocked unconscious by a swing at age 5, he began experiencing epileptic fits.

As an adolescent, Ramirez was heavily influenced by his older cousin Miguel, who had recently returned from fighting in the Vietnam War. The two smoked marijuana together as Miguel told Ramirez about the torture and mutilation he had inflicted on several Vietnamese women, corroborating these stories with photographic evidence. At age 13, Ramirez witnessed his cousin kill his wife. Miguel Ramirez was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity and released four years later.

Dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Ramirez was arrested for the first time in 1977, for marijuana possession. He soon moved to California, formed a cocaine addiction, progressed to burglary, and cultivated an interest in Satanism. He was arrested twice in the Los Angeles area for auto theft, in 1981 and again in 1984, and noticeably began to neglect his personal hygiene.


Theft turned to violence with Ramirez’s first discovered murder on June 28, 1984; the victim was 79-year-old Jennie Vincow, who was sexually assaulted, stabbed, and killed during a burglary in her home. What followed was a spree of brutal murders, rapes, and robberies, leaving dozens of victims in his wake.

Ramirez next struck nearly nine months later. On March 17, 1985, he attacked Maria Hernandez, who managed to escape, and then killed her roommate, Dayle Okazaki, 34. Not satisfied with these assaults, he also shot and killed Tsai-Lian Yu, 30, the same evening, spurring a media frenzy that saw Ramirez dubbed the “Valley Intruder” by the press.

Just 10 days later, on March 27, Ramirez murdered 64-year-old Vincent Zazzara and Zazzara’s 44-year-old wife, Maxine, using an attack style that would become a pattern for the killer: The husband was shot first, then the wife was brutally assaulted and stabbed to death. In this case, Ramirez also gouged out Maxine’s eyes.

A full-scale police operation yielded no concrete results, and Ramirez repeated his attack pattern on retirees William and Lillian Doi in May 1985. Over the next few months, his murder rate escalated, claiming another dozen victims in a frenzy of burglary, assault, and brutal violence, complete with Satanic rituals. The Los Angeles Police Department responded by putting together a dedicated task force, with the FBI stepping in to assist.

color police drawings show the night stalker murder suspect

Color sketch drawings from 1985 show what police believed the Night Stalker, eventually determined to be Richard Ramirez, looked like.

Getty Images

The relentless media and police pressure, aided with descriptions from his surviving victims, forced Ramirez to leave the L.A. area that August. He journeyed north to San Francisco, where he took two more victims—Peter and Barbara Pan, 66 and 64, respectively—on August 17. His unmistakable M.O., complete with Satanic symbolism, meant that the “Valley Intruder” moniker was no longer applicable. The press quickly coined a new name, the “Night Stalker,” as most of his assaults took place at night in his victims’ homes.


richard ramirez stares at the camera in a police mug shot, he is wearing a blue corduroy button up shirt and his inmate number is in front of his chest on a suspended bar

A mug shot of Richard Ramirez

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Ramirez’s actions on his final night of terror—August 24, 1985, in the Los Angeles area—soon led to his capture. First, he was spotted outside a Mission Viejo home, where he unwittingly left a footprint, before the witness took note of his car and license plate. Later, after Ramirez raped another woman at her home (and shot her fiancé), the victim provided a detailed description of her assailant, who had forced her to swear her love for Satan.

Ramirez’s abandoned car was found a few days later, complete with enough of a fingerprint to make a match, and his criminal record enabled the police to finally put a name to the Night Stalker. National TV and print media coverage featuring his prison photo, along with a series of clues from witnesses and survivors, led to Ramirez’s capture on August 31, after he was badly beaten by east Los Angeles residents while attempting two carjackings.

Trial, Conviction, and Sentencing

Ramirez waited in jail as his trial was continuously pushed off, the delay marked by a series of motions and bickering between the prosecutors and defense attorney. Because the geographical spread of the crimes also complicated the scope of the trial with jurisdictional issues, some of the charges against Ramirez were dropped in order to expedite what was becoming a long journey to justice.

The jury selection process finally moved forward on July 22, 1988, and the trial itself commenced the following January. During this time, Ramirez attracted a cult-like following of supporters, many of whom were black-clad Satan worshipers. Ramirez himself often dressed in black, along with dark shades, for his courtroom appearances.

Yet another delay occurred when one juror was found murdered on August 14, 1989, but rumors that Ramirez had orchestrated her death proved unfounded. On September 20, 1989, the jury finally returned a unanimous guilty verdict on 43 charges, including 13 counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder, 11 sexual assault charges, and 14 burglary charges.

Two weeks later, the same jury recommended the death sentence on 19 counts. Leaving the courtroom, Ramirez responded, “Hey, big deal, death always comes with the territory. I’ll see you in Disneyland.” The convicted murderer was formally sentenced to death by gas chamber on November 7, 1989, and was sent to San Quentin Prison in California to spend the remainder of his days.

Richard Ramirez’s Teeth

Ramirez’s teeth were the most noticeable aspect of his poor hygiene and even contributed to his capture and conviction. According to forensic dentists, nine of his teeth were decayed and several others were missing. This was due to a combination of his poor diet and cocaine addiction. At least two survivors, including Lillian Doi, told police Ramirez had bad teeth following their encounters.

During Ramirez’s trial, his father claimed his son was in El Paso, Texas, in May 1985, when he had allegedly raped three women and murdered one. However, records from a Los Angeles dentist office showed Ramirez had appeared for an appointment on May 30.

According to A&E True Crime, Ramirez’s dental health actually improved after his arrest, as a dentist for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department performed a root canal and made several fillings while he awaited trial.

Final Years, Wife, and Death

While incarcerated, Ramirez married one of his supporters, 41-year-old Doreen Lioy, in 1996. Lioy believed Ramirez was innocent and wrote him dozens of letters before they eventually met at San Quentin. According to the Los Angeles Times, Lioy was loyal to Ramirez and visited him in prison four times a week. However, her family disowned her following their marriage.

Lioy reportedly severed her relationship with Ramirez in 2009 when a DNA sample connected him to the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in San Francisco on April 10, 1984. There is no official record of divorce. The couple had no children, and Ramirez is not known to have fathered any children during his lifetime.

A woman named Christine Lee claimed on Geraldo Rivera’s talk show that she was engaged to Ramirez but didn’t offer any details of their relationship.

Ramirez’s long-awaited appeal finally made it to the California State Supreme Court in 2006, before being rejected. After nearly 24 years on death row, Ramirez died on June 7, 2013, at the age of 53, from complications related to B-cell lymphoma. According to San Quentin corrections officers, Ramirez’s death came within days after he was taken to Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California. He likely died alone, as friends and family would not have been allowed inside his secured room

“American Horror Story” and Netflix Documentary

The Lifetime network aired a fictionalized account of Ramirez’s crimes in 2016 with the made-for-TV film The Night Stalker. The film stars Bellamy Young as an attorney who travels to San Quentin to speak with the serial killer in an attempt to clear a death row inmate in Texas. Lou Diamond Phillips played Ramirez.

Ramirez is a character in the horror anthology TV series American Horror Story. He first appears as a ghost in the fifth season Hotel, then a fictionalized version of him, played by Zach Villa, is a main character in the 2019 season, the show’s ninth, titled 1984. Ramirez is portrayed as a serial killer stalking counselors at a summer camp.

Ramirez’s crimes were the subject of the four-part Netflix documentary Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer in 2021. The series features commentary from the two homicide detectives who broke the case, Gil Carillo and Frank Salerno. The latter was known for his work in solving the Hillside Strangler murders in 1977 and 1978. Multiple victims who survived encounters with Ramirez were also interviewed.

Night Stalker differed from other true crime series and movies in that it mostly focused on victims and investigators instead of Ramirez, which was a point of emphasis for director Tiller Russell. “There was this celebritization of him as a character due to the circus-like nature of the trial, and he became this weird, obscure object of desire,” Russell told Variety. “I didn’t want to glamorize him in any way. That was incredibly important to us not to fall prey to his false and corrupting and dangerous myth.” Still, the docuseries showed gruesome crime scene photos and re-enactments of Ramirez’s attacks, which upset some viewers.

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