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The description read like a nightmare: a tall man dressed all in black breaking into random homes, looking for women to rape and kill, all the while barking at his terrified victims through a set of ghastly rotten teeth.
While he was still at-large, Richard Ramirez—then still only known as “the Night Stalker”—sent California into a panic as he terrorized the Greater Los Angeles area (and, briefly, the San Francisco Bay). By the time he was apprehended in August 1985, he had murdered at least 14 people and nearly killed several others in a 16-month binge of violence.
But Ramirez’s terrible teeth were more than just a cringe-inducing detail. They also helped catch and convict him.
Watch: Naomi Ekperigin discusses the life of serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, from his troubled childhood to his jailhouse marriage.
Decay Before the Crime
Ramirez’s dental hygiene was an issue starting at a young age. In his book, The Night Stalker: The Life and Crimes of Richard Ramirez, author Philip Carlo said Ramirez would start the day “drinking Coca-Cola and eating sugar-covered cereal” in his El Paso, Texas home.
According to his childhood friend and classmate Ray Garcia, “He’d never brush his teeth. I used to tell him to close his mouth or brush his teeth.”
His sweet tooth followed him into a life of petty crime; as a teenager, he was shoplifting junk food.
But his personal hygiene really fell off at the age of 18, as he became heavily addicted to cocaine. The lack of hygiene and the love of sweets, combined with the damaging oral effects of drugs, caused him to develop several cavities.
After he was arrested, multiple forensic dentists took casts of his teeth. At trial, they testified that nine of Ramirez’s teeth were decayed and that he was missing several teeth from both his lower and upper gums.
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Teeth as Main Identifier
L.A. resident Ester Petschar describes three separate encounters with Ramirez while he was still on the loose in Satan’s Summer in the City of Angels: The Social Impact of The Night Stalker, by Glynn Martin. One day Ramirez robbed a grocery store, where Petschar was shopping. After getting a good look at him, she managed to hide. On another occasion, she saw him on the road. “I was on the freeway going home and I saw him in my rearview mirror driving closely behind me,” she writes. “Then he pulled alongside and stared intensely at me with a big, really nasty smile. He had hardly any teeth. He really scared me, and then he took off.”
Ramirez’s teeth were also regularly identified by the victims fortunate enough to survive his break-ins. In May 1985, 56-year-old Lillian Doi, who was raped by Ramirez and whose husband, Bill, was murdered during the home invasion, told police the suspect had bad teeth. The same goes for victim, Somkid Khovananth—also raped and beaten by Ramirez and whose husband, Chainarong, was murdered during the break-in.
By July, there’d been enough consistency around the reports for the Los Angeles Police Department to be cross-referencing sex offender databases with a general profile in mind: bad teeth, approximately 6-feet-tall, Hispanic, shaggy black hair and a size 11.5 shoe.
Had the investigation been handled differently, the shoe might well have become the defining evidence that did Ramirez in. Very early on, police noticed Avia Aerobic shoeprints at the murder scenes (including one on the face of victim, Joyce Nelson), giving investigators a decisive clue. It was a relatively uncommon shoe: there’d only been six pairs of the Avia Aerobic shoe sold in Los Angeles, and only one in size 11.5.
As such, long before they had a composite sketch of Ramirez, police across the city were committing pictures of the Avia Aerobic to memory.
According to The Night Stalker, Frank Salerno, the lead detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department during Ramirez’s murderous spree, said, “Our biggest clues were his teeth and feet, and that’s where we focused our energy.”
But when Ramirez went to San Francisco and killed Peter and Barbara Pan, Mayor Dianne Feinstein gave a speech to reassure citizens that police were on the trail of the killer, citing all the evidence police had gathered. In so doing, she mentioned the unique shoe print. Ramirez, after hearing her speech, threw the shoes over the Golden Gate Bridge.
His teeth, however, could not be as easily disposed of, and helped sharpen the police sketch. When a 13-year-old boy, Joseph Romero III, saw a man driving through his neighborhood who matched the description, he took down the car’s license plate number and phoned 911. The car was found, with Ramirez’s fingerprints inside. That led to a mugshot and a name, both of which were made public.
Community members in East Los Angeles made a citizens’ arrest two days later. Four men chased and beat Ramirez after witnessing him attempt to steal a car. After a crowd gathered, some recognized Ramirez as “The Night Stalker” based on the photo of him from the news.
Teeth as Hole in Alibi
Before Ramirez was arrested, that same summer he was also almost arrested during a traffic stop, after being pulled over for running a red light in a stolen vehicle. The officer asked Ramirez if he was the serial killer. Ramirez denied it, then fled on foot. Searching the car for clues, the officer found—among other things—a wallet with a dentist appointment card.
Police attempted to stake out the dentist’s office, but Ramirez never showed. That said, the dentist—Dr. Peter Leung—still proved useful.
During his trial, Ramirez’s defense team called his father—Julian Ramirez—to the stand. Julian claimed his son had been with the family in El Paso on May 29 and 30, the days he raped and killed Florence Lang (81) and brutally raped Mabel Bell (83) and Carol Kyle (42).
But Dr. Leung’s records showed that Ramirez had been getting dental work done in Los Angeles on May 30, not in El Paso.
The jury convicted Ramirez of 13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults and 14 burglaries. He was sentenced to death, but died of natural causes (specifically, liver failure after complications from cancer) at the age of 53 while awaiting execution.
As for the fate of Ramirez’s dental health: things got better for him behind bars. A dentist with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Dr. Alfred Otero, performed a root canal on Ramirez, gave him several fillings and treated the extensive decay while he awaited trial.