His name was Richard Ramirez, but at the time of his August 1985 capture, most knew him only as the “Night Stalker,” the rapist and murderer who’d been terrorizing California for two years. When a fingerprint outed his identity, his photograph was widely circulated—and his days of killing became perilously numbered.
He was caught on Hubbard Street in East Los Angeles, which turned out to be exactly the wrong place for him to try and steal a car. That desperate act, according to a report in Ramirez’s hometown paper, the El Paso Times, was a direct result of his mug shot’s sudden publicity push; he’d literally glimpsed his own face on the cover of a newspaper at a corner store. His instinct was to flee, by any means necessary, but the crowd in pursuit had other ideas.
“It seemed like alert citizens were reporting the suspect every step of the way,” Police Cmdr. William Booth said.
At one point, Ramirez ran through back yards, where at least one man struck him with barbecue utensils, Booth said.
As Ramirez ran, neighbors emerged from their homes and joined in the fight, police said.
As the crowd beat Ramirez, witnesses said, he shouted, in Spanish: “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me! I’m lucky the cops caught me.”
Deputy Sam Jones of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said Ramirez was not hurt badly, although he did suffer head wounds and was treated by a fire department paramedic at the scene.
In 2013, when Ramirez died of cancer after spending years on death row, the Los Angeles Times published a look back at the neighborhood that tapped into a sort of Wild West sense of justice to nab one of America’s most feared criminals.
The residents were alerted to trouble by the screams of a woman whom Ramirez was attempting to carjack; once they realized who the would-be thief was, anger turned to fury:
“I ran to defend her and he told me, ‘Don’t get closer or I’ll shoot you.’ I didn’t see a gun so I opened the door and pulled him out of the car,” [Jose Burgoin] recalled. Manuel De La Torre, showed up with a steel rod to defend his wife; he smashed Ramirez on the head, sending him running. Burgoin yelled for his two sons, who had come out of the home after hearing the commotion, to not let him escape.
Julio Burgoin, 45, said he remembered chasing Ramirez and with his brother bringing him down and making him sit on the curb. The neighbors made sure Ramirez didn’t get up, though he begged them to let him go, claiming that some “guys” were chasing him.
“He was saying, ‘Hey, let me go, c’mon, let me go,’” Julio Burgoin said. “I said, ‘No, you’re not going anywhere.’”
It was only moments later that they realized who they had captured. “People started coming out and saying that’s the killer, but in Spanish. ‘El maton, el maton!’”
Ramirez survived that major beatdown (ironically, he was rescued by police officers) to stand trial, where he was sentenced to death after being convicted of a string of brutal offenses, including 13 murders. As the New York Times reported in his June 2013 obituary:
Most of the killings were committed before dawn during residential burglaries in Los Angeles County, and all were markedly coldblooded, involving savage beatings, mutilations and sexual assaults.
His weapons included guns, knives and hammers, and his victims were both men and women, ranging from a 6-year-old to octogenarians.
During his trial, he famously flashed a pentagram he’d drawn on his palm, echoing the Satanic symbols he’d scrawled at some of his crime scenes and only adding to his notoriety. According to the Los Angeles Times, Hubbard Street’s longtime residents who’d witnessed (or participated in) his capture decades prior greeted the news of his death with mixed feelings:
“I shouldn’t say I’m happy, which would be bad. But he caused a lot of harm to a lot of people, and he was not tried for all the murders he committed,” [Reyna Pinon] said. “To me, he had a better death than all those people whose lives he took.”
Top image: Richard Ramirez is taken from Hollenbeck police station in Los Angeles Saturday, Aug. 31, 1985, following his arrest. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)