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Growing Up in L.A. During the Reign of the Night Stalker

The summer of 1985 was the end of my innocence

Photo: pastorscott/Getty Images

For most people living in the San Fernando Valley in 1985, life was idyllic.

Sure, the region was rife with the usual side effects of rapid growth: sprawl, traffic, and maybe a few too many strip malls. But by the mid-1980s, “the Valley,” or the 260-square-mile swath of land stretching from the Simi Hills on the west to the Verdugo Mountains on the east, had not only carved out a place for itself in the geographical identity of Southern California, but it was starting to develop a personality and appeal of its own, too.

This appeal was enough to motivate my parents to put down roots in Canoga Park (or what would become West Hills a few years later). They purchased a four-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom stucco home built on what had been a fully functioning orange grove just a few years before. Now it was a cul-de-sac of about 20 or so well-appointed homes.

This was the place where, by the time I had any sense of my surroundings, I found myself. In my first real memories, I was an undersized, nine-year-old Jewish boy with glasses attending fourth grade at Pomelo Drive Elementary.

My life, for all intents and purposes, was good. Los Angeles had served as the host city for the 1984 Olympics, widely considered to be the most financially successful modern Olympics, and the games had gone off without a hitch despite the Eastern Bloc boycott. L.A.’s mayor, Tom Bradley, was reelected in 1985 and became a larger-than-life hero, soon to have an international terminal at one of the world’s busiest airports named after him.

That year we watched The Goonies, Back to the Future, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Rocky IV, and The Breakfast Club on the big screen. We listened to Rick Dees and the weekly top 40 list on the radio. A-ha’s “Take on Me,” Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” were big hits. Some kids played with Transformers and some of us got our first Cabbage Patch Kid. We ate food that today would give most health-conscious mothers shpilkes, like Ralston-brand Ghostbusters cereal (which came with a piece of Bazooka gum in each box) and plenty of Happy Meals.

We collected Topps baseball cards. We laughed at the exploits of Michael J. Fox, who, as the Regan-esque Alex P. Keaton on the popular TV sitcom Family Ties, challenged his ultra-liberal parents with right-leaning politics. We explored the shifting roles of men and women in the home in Growing Pains (filmed before a live studio audience). We cheered as Magic, Kareem, and the Showtime Lakers shut down Larry Bird in game six to beat the Celtics in the finals and further cement their status as one of the all-time great NBA teams.

Nobody could have imagined what was coming around the corner.

It would be safe to say that at the time, I felt immune to the ills and evils of the world. That’s not to say I didn’t know bad stuff happened; rather, it just didn’t happen to me. I knew about crime and I’d heard stories from the kids who were being bused into the public schools in the Valley from the tougher parts of L.A., back when school desegregation was in full swing. My friends and I had been exposed to violence in the media, we watched kids get beat up at school, we heard rumblings of a robbery here or there, and some of us even knew about the weird hippie cult that used to live on the abandoned movie ranch in Chatsworth. But nobody could have imagined what was coming around the corner.

Most avid readers of the Los Angeles Times would have, by June 1985, certainly taken notice of the headlines regarding a seemingly unrelated string of random home invasion murders and attempted murders that occurred that spring in Rosemead, Monterey Park, Whittier, and Monrovia. In all cases, the victims were seemingly targeted at random and attacked in or near their own homes late at night by an assailant, either as part of (or independent of) a robbery. The only information police had at the time came from the survivors of two different attacks who described the perpetrator as a Hispanic man with bad teeth.

Of course, I knew nothing of the murders; they were merely anonymous crimes occurring in a giant ocean of activity far from where I lived. But by June, police from different jurisdictions in the L.A. area had started to connect the dots. They believed the crimes were, in fact, related and almost certainly committed by the same man: a Hispanic, gangly, bad tooth-ed, size 11.5 Avia shoe-wearing man. They decided this after discovering matching footprints at multiple crime scenes and learning that only six pairs of that exact shoe had been circulated around the L.A. area at the time.

Meanwhile, I was doing all the things a soon-to-be fifth grade boy would be expected to do during a hot summer day: swimming in backyard pools, riding my bike from our house on Bobbyboyer Avenue up Woodlake to the drugstore on Cohasset (next to what used to be an Alpha Beta grocery store), getting lost in Choose Your Own Adventure books, listening to Vin Scully call the game on the radio on our way to Zuma Beach, or, if I was lucky, eating a Farmer John Dodger Dog slathered with mustard and watching the game live at Dodger Stadium.

But on a fateful night in July, my life would be forever changed. It was most likely a Saturday, the night my parents would go out with friends and leave my sisters and I home with our babysitter. She was an attractive teenage girl who, as I recall, had a near-obsession with Duran Duran. The image of me sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the TV as the babysitter walked out of the room to put my younger sister to sleep, is as clear to me today as it was when it happened.

Thinking back on that moment now, 34 years later, I get pretty much the same emotional feelings I did when I first saw it: a news report with a police composite sketch of a man’s expressionless face, curly hair, dark and hollow eyes, and menacing face. I remember the newscaster’s voice describing someone he referred to as the “Valley Intruder,” a man responsible for a number of random, horribly violent murders in and around the L.A. area.

LAPD Composite Sketch

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. “Did he just say, Valley Intruder?” I remember thinking to myself, knowing full well that I was in the Valley, too, though at the time I didn’t realize the crimes were being committed for the most part in the San Gabriel, not San Fernando Valley. (Attacks did occur later in Burbank and as far northwest as Northridge, only a few miles from where I lived.) More details were provided in the news report: The killings were totally random and the victim descriptions were all over the place (elderly, young, men, and women). The most frightening aspect of all was that the man in the sketch was armed, dangerous, in a murderous frenzy, and coming after one of us next.

I attempted to process this news with my fragile nine-year old mind. These kinds of things didn’t happen in our community, I reasoned with myself. Sure, they made movies about this stuff (I’d caught my Dad watching Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street a year prior), but that was made-up. This was real life. Even at that age, I knew the difference between the two.

I very likely asked the babysitter about the news when she returned to the room. I probably wanted her to fill me in on the details of this creepy character and she, either by choice or by default, didn’t give me much to work with. Odds are she tried to brush it off. But nothing she could have said would have reversed the effects of what I’d just seen.

The details of what happened next are fuzzy. I know I asked my parents about the man in the sketch I’d seen on TV, as the image was seared into my brain. They, like so many Los Angelenos at the time, weren’t adequately prepared to provide any meaningful answers. How does a parent prepare for such a thing?

The murders continued and we couldn’t avoid hearing about them. By the end of July, the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area was in what could best be described as a state of emergency, on high alert, and unsure of where this menacing force would rear its ugly head next. The police sketch was everywhere and every time I saw it, the same panic came flooding back.

I remember playing a game on my street with the other young boys: In the morning, we’d dare each other to flip over the newspaper in one of our neighbor’s driveways. We knew we’d find his face staring back up at us. None of us wanted to see the stark reminder that we could be his next victim.

My bed saw very little action that summer. At night, the carpeted floor of my parent’s room became my only refuge. (Fortunately for me, they let me take up residence there for a few months.) Even when I was close to my parents, I’d lie awake some nights listening for noise outside and jumping up to peer out the window at even the smallest of sounds, sure the prowler had found his way into our backyard.

The panic continued throughout the summer as more and more people in the L.A. area began buying firearms and guard dogs to keep themselves safe. To make matters worse, the summer of 1985 was proving to be one of the hottest on record in the L.A. area, with temperatures soaring to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and above. To rectify this, those without air conditioning would often leave their windows open at night; but knowing that the killer would gain access to his victim’s homes by exploiting this loophole, many opted for hot, sleepless nights instead. Word also spread that the killer preferred to target yellow homes situated near freeway on and off ramps (which later proved to be nothing more than speculation); our home fit neither description, which gave me only a small sigh of relief.

Then, they gave him a new name. Apparently the case reminded one of the LAPD detectives of a popular 1970s TV series about a serial killer set in, of all places, Seattle. The press ran with it and a flashy new moniker for a fully-realized monster emerged: “The Night Stalker.”

Nobody had ever seen anything like this. Sure, Ted Bundy grabbed headlines with his string of kidnappings and murders. But like most “serial” killers, his victims all fit a specific profile: attractive young women. Serial murder wasn’t new to L.A., either; the Hillside Stranglers had terrorized the area in the late 1970s. But, like Bundy, they had remained exclusively focused on victims of the young female persuasion, and their crimes had been sexually motivated.

Courtesy of OC Register

The Night Stalker was different. Sure, sexual torture and mutilation were par for the course. But by August, his crimes had escalated, crossing the threshold of anything even the most twisted Hollywood script writer could conjure up. Now he was authenticating each new murder with a signature, often using his victim’s blood to draw a pentagram or scribble an ominous message on the wall of the home where the attack had taken place, leaving no question about who had been there.

In one case, he left behind a baseball cap with an AC/DC logo, another small detail that helped to frame his personality. At least to me, the image of a bloodthirsty Hispanic man with bad teeth driving around the L.A. freeways late at night, listening to loud, heavy metal music while stalking and killing his victims at random, was nearly impossible to comprehend. It was something out of my worst nightmares, only this was real.

Eventually, the killer’s run of good luck ran out on August 24, 1985. A 13-year-old boy noticed a suspicious car driving around his neighborhood in the Orange County suburb of Mission Viejo and promptly jotted down the license plate number. The next day, after learning of a murder the previous evening near his home, the boy, James Romero III, called the police and gave them the license plate and vehicle information. They used this information to track the (stolen) car to a parking lot in Wilshire Center. The investigators swabbed the car for fingerprints and came up with one on the rearview mirror, compared it with prints they had on file and soon the Night Stalker had an identity: He was Richard Ramirez, a drifter from Texas with a rap sheet that included arrests for traffic and illegal drug violations.

Soon, Ramirez’s mugshot would be everywhere. It was a black and white image of a gaunt man with jet black eyes, hollow cheekbones, and a mop of black hair.

Only a week later, Ramirez tried to flee from a downtown Greyhound bus station on foot. In a cinematic victory, he was eventually apprehended by residents of an East L.A. neighborhood who chased after him yelling out “El Matador!” (the killer), beat him over the head with a tire iron, and turned him over to the police. Many of us watched the events unfold live on TV and cheered when we saw Ramirez in the back of the police car with bandages around his head, telling the police officers in a deep, gravelly voice: “It’s me, man, it’s me.”

Ramirez capture

Just like that, the nightmare was over.

I remember feeling ecstatic, as if our team had won the championship. We were victorious, good had triumphed over evil, and we got our guy. Even though I knew deep down that I personally would have been an unlikely target of the killing spree, there was a great sense of relief that the killer had been taken off the streets. The fact that regular people, not cops, had captured him gave Angelenos a sense of pride and peace of mind; despite our socioeconomic differences, we had each other’s backs in the face of adversity.

Then, life went back to normal, sort of.

Summer wound down and by September we were back at school. I was a fifth grader at Pomelo Drive Elementary worrying about the things fifth graders worry about. A few months later, with Richard Ramirez awaiting trial and his crime spree a thing of the past, we’d experience a new kind of tragedy on the morning of January 28, 1986, when we watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explode on live TV shortly after liftoff, killing seven astronauts and forcing us to grapple with the loss of one of our own, the high school teacher who’d been awarded a trip on the fated expedition, Christa McAuliffe.

The Night Stalker unearthed fears we’d not yet had to encounter and realities that we’d up until that point never really considered.

I never really let go of that summer and I probably never will. Over the years, I’ve encountered others who are also both fascinated and repelled by that time. The Night Stalker unearthed fears we’d not yet had to encounter and realities that we’d up until that point never really considered. In an instant, the world became a place where bad things could happen for no apparent reason, where one person could inflict harm on another to fulfill their own sick desires, and where communities could be held in the grip of fear by a madman hellbent on unleashing chaos to an unsuspecting, unassuming population of people. This was not a reality that parents at the time were equipped to teach their kids about. But like most things in life, the world did the teaching for us.

Even though a very small percentage of us suffered the ultimate fate, we were all victims of the Night Stalker, all traumatized by his reign of terror and forever changed by the new reality his siege brought to light. While I’m sure he’d revel in the knowledge that his murderous rampage inspired others, let us not lose sight of how easily this could happen again.

Today, I’m a sucker for a good true crime book or documentary. Perhaps exploring the darker side of human nature as a form of entertainment triggers something in me that brings me back to my childhood, the trauma I experienced as a kid that summer, and the sheer horror and bewilderment of discovering the terrible things human beings are capable of. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.

Or maybe I’m still trying to scare myself, the way I was when my friends dared me to flip over the newspaper and look at the creepy police sketch so many years ago.

Equal parts Seattle and Los Angeles

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