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Was a Bad Childhood to Blame for 'Night Stalker' Richard Ramirez Becoming a Serial Killer?

In this file photo taken Oct. 24, 1985, "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez displays a pentagram symbol on his hand inside a Los Angeles courtroom. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

Beginning in June 1984 Richard Ramirez, the ill-famed “Night Stalker,” went on a killing spree in California, mutilating and murdering at least 13 people. For over a year, Ramirez crept into houses in the wee morning hours and raped and tortured his randomly selected victims.

Born on February 29, 1960 in El Paso, Texas, Ricardo Leyva Muñoz Ramirez  was the fifth child of Mexican immigrants Mercedes and Julian Ramirez. His mother worked at a boot factory, where she was exposed to chemical fumes when she was pregnant with him. All his siblings had birth defects, ranging from respiratory difficulty to bone deformities. At age two, a dresser fell on Richard’s head, causing a large forehead laceration. At five he was knocked unconscious from a swing and started experiencing epileptic seizures.

In the definitive book about Ramirez’s life, The Night Stalker: The Life and Crimes of Richard Ramirez, Philip Carlo, who spent over 100 hours with the killer at San Quentin Prison’s Death Row, says Ramirez claims his father was physically abusive to his entire family. At 12, he was exposed to photos of raped and dismembered Vietnamese women by his older cousin, veteran Miguel Ramirez, who later shot his wife in front of “little Richie.” Ramirez eventually became addicted to drugs and dropped out of high school.

A&E Real Crime spoke with Dr. Scott Bonn, criminologist and author of “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World”s Most Savage Murderers,” about what he thinks were the powerful catalysts for the makings of a serial killer.

Ramirez’s early years were marked by childhood trauma, abuse and addictions but he also suffered from medical conditions. Do you think he was born or made into a serial killer?
There’s always a question of whether serial killers are born or made. I believe Richard Ramirez was a sociopath as opposed to a psychopath. A psychopath is absolutely incapable of feeling any normal range of emotions, and that was the case with Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, the killer clown. Ramirez, on the other hand, was prone to emotional outbursts, very spontaneous and volatile. A sociopath is developed through life experiences and manufactured in society. Also, unlike Bundy or Gacy, who planned their murders meticulously, Ramirez randomly picked homes to break into. A psychopath wouldn’t do that. A psychopath needs control.

So, yes, all these factors I believe contribute. But what seems to happen with some serial killers—and it happened with Jeffrey Dahmer, the BTK strangler and Bundy—is that right around puberty, sex and violence fuse in their minds and they become aroused by violence. When his cousin showed him those photographs, Ramirez became sexually aroused. And it was right around the age of 13.

Why was Ramirez so ‘random’ in who he killed (from young couples to children to elderly women)?
There is this tendency to think that serial killers are one-size-fits-all and that’s absolutely not true. There’s a typology of serial killers. Ramirez was a “thrill killer” (like the Zodiac in San Francisco in the 1960s).

When he broke into someone’s home, he didn’t know what he would find. He made up his mind on the spot: Would he rape the woman, strangle the man or shoot the man? There are no absolutes in criminology, but sociopaths are more likely to commit what we call disorganized crimes.

He mutilated and savagely beat his victims, and performed acts of sodomy on many of his female victims. What drove him to become such a sadistic killer and rapist?
It was all about this need for stimulation and satisfaction and the thrill. Why did he rob? Partially for the money, but also for excitement. Sex and violence were all a grand adventure for him.

In one of his incomplete murders, Ramirez attempted to strangle a girl with a phone cord but saw sparks emanating from the cord and realized she was still breathing. Immediately, he fled the house believing that Jesus had intervened to save her. Did he have delusions? Was that a subtle epiphany of guilt?
To the extent that he believed Satan was his benefactor, then it would make sense that something symbolic like that was consistent with his belief system. But Ramirez was not insane from either a clinical or a legal perspective in the U.S., [which would] mean you don’t know it was wrong to kill at the time of the crime. Ramirez knew it was wrong. He simply didn’t care and had an appetite for killing. A sociopath is not medically ill according to the American Medical Association.

Why was he such an avowed Satanist?
He was very disturbed, but also a complete narcissist. He loved notoriety. He had groupies who flocked to his trials. He had dark good looks and, dressed only in black with sunglasses on in the courtroom like a movie star. He basked in that attention. He absolutely loved being the enigma people couldn’t understand.

When Ramirez first heard that the court had sentenced him to death he snarled, ‘Big deal. Death always comes with the territory. See you in Disneyland.’ Why did he never show any remorse over his bloodshed?
Because he was a sociopath. Sociopaths can form bonds with certain individuals and circumstances—unlike psychopaths—but generally speaking they have no remorse. And he fit that profile.

—Stav Dimitropoulos

 

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