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Richard Ramirez' 'Highway to Hell'

By
AURELIO ROJAS, K. MACK SISK

The sickly youth who loved rock music, video games and Pepsi Cola - but little else -- and who police now call the Night Stalker grew up on Ledo Street in El Paso, Texas, a block-long slash of concrete hedged in rusting cars and chain-link fences.

Richard Leyva Ramirez, 25, described by friends as a cocaine addict and satanist, is suspected of as many as 20 gruesome slayings and two dozen sexual attacks in a months' long terror spree in California. He was captured Aug. 31 in Los Angeles, where he is being held by police.

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Lace curtains today adorn the white stucco home where Ramirez spent most of his years, the youngest of Julian and Mercedes Ramirez' five children. A mail-order picture of Jesus giving a blessing for peace is tacked to the door.

But Ramirez' community was anything but peaceful, friends say.

Youth gangs fought for turf and festooned its abandoned lots and businesses with spray paint. Police sirens wailed often. Trains thundered to the railyards nearby where Ramirez' father, a resident alien, worked.

In his early years, Ramirez sought sanctuary in El Calvario Catholic church and regularly attended mass there. The church was demolished to make way for an elevated highway whose vehicles now clatter by day and night.

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By age 9 or 10, Ramirez had withdrawn from family and friends. He was a loner.

'He was pretty much to himself all of the time,' says Ledo Street neighbor and associate Alma Orozco, 25. 'There were only four of us of the same age in the neighborhood and he really didn't socialize with any of us.'

Ramirez stayed in his room, playing the radio. Or he wandered, mostly at night. He often went to video game emporiums.

'The only time we ever saw him was at the arcades and the 7-Eleven where they had the (video game) machines,' said childhood buddy and classmate, Ray Garcia, now living near Oakland, Calif.

Eventually he distanced himself from his parents, both in their 60s. 'When he wanted to do something, he did it,' said Julian, his father. Later when his drug problem became evident, Julian broke off relations. They haven't spoken in three years.

As a teenager, Ramirez avoided his parents, seldom took meals at home and ate mostly junk food.

'All he would ever eat were chocolates and Pepsi,' said Garcia. 'He'd never brush his teeth. I used to tell him to close his mouth or brush his teeth.'

Ramirez never joined the roving bands of delinquents who dominated the Ledo barrio, but he fell into crime nevertheless. At night, he would enter homes through open windows to steal. His friends nicknamed him 'Ricky the Klepto,' for kleptomaniac.

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'He was always up to something,' said one friend. 'We thought he was sick. He had this disease -- everything would stick to his hand.'

Police caught him a few times and sent him to a Texas youth camp for juvenile delinquents. He received some counseling, but was released to attend junior high.

An average student at Lincoln and Cooley Elementary, he came back from reform school a different person. School meant nothing. Work meant nothing. He never held nor seemed to want a job.

Even when he left for California, he shunned steady employment. He seemed to care for nothing but music and drugs.

'He smoked a lot of pot every day,' said Raoul Enriquez, a switchboard operator at a California hotel where Ramirez often stayed in a $14-a-night room with a cassette player blaring heavy-metal music. 'He asked me if I wanted pot, but I don't do that stuff. I told him, 'You're crazy man. This music is crazy.'

'He just smiled and said 'You're crazy, too.'

'He would stay in his room sometimes for a few days. I don't know why he don't go out. I think 'How does he eat?' Sometimes he would be in there for three or four days, and I'd say 'Maybe he died.''

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Ramirez failed after two tries to pass the 9th grade. He left Jefferson High at age 17.

'I knew him in '76 when he was here,' said Cesar Mendoza, longtime assistant principal. 'He was a quiet guy, never got involved in violence, vandalism ... I had to call him in as a truant, cutting classes, being absent from school.

'I remember talking to him and asking him, 'You're a tall kid, why don't you join the basketball team, become famous, do something worthwhile?' He said, no, he didn't like games. He was tall for his age (6-foot-1). We don't have many 6-footers. I even told him he could be an end on the football team and catch passes and get his name in the paper.'

Ramirez' grades hit rock bottom in high school. His transcript, says Charles Hart, spokesman for El Paso public schools, 'really tells the story,' plummeting the last two years of his education.

After he quit school, Ramirez was arrested three times as an adult in El Paso. FBI and police records show Ramirez was picked up on two drug possession charges. There was no indication he ever served time. The third time Ramirez was stopped for reckless driving. He was driving a friend's car. Next to him on the car seat were a toy capgun, a ski mask and a green wallet. The wallet had been stolen. But the owner could not identify her assailant.

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'That one couldn't be proved,' explained Bill Moody, first assistant district attorney. 'Since he was driving someone else's car there was no way to say whether he stole it.'

The marijuana count was dropped after Ramirez completed a 'pre-trial intervention' counseling program. Shortly after release, he packed his bags and headed for California.

During his first year there, 1979, Ramirez lived with his brother Julian Jr. in Los Angeles. He and his brother fought over who should pay for a car repair and Ramirez moved out.

In subsequent years, Ramirez drifted, living alternately with friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He apparently never had a steady girlfriend.

His sister, Rosa Flores, said he once worked as a street sweeper in Los Angeles, but there is no evidence he was ever gainfully employed.

He turned to burglary to nurture his growing cocaine habit, which, in turn, helped mollify the periodic seizures and convulsions he'd suffered since childhood.

Although his sister said he had epilepsy, authorities aren't sure. He also turned increasingly to Satan, cults of death and devil worship. Two years ago, he had a tatoo artist carve a pentagram, a five-cornered symbol of the devil and witchcraft, into his hand.

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'It's often the function of a psychopathic mind to see things in absolute values -- either in good or evil,' explained J. Reid Meloy, a San Diego forensic psychologist. 'There is no perspective. When the church fails him, he goes to the opposite extreme.'

Earl Gregg Jr. swears Ramirez today is 'not the same person I knew' when the two men lived together for four months in 1980. But he knew his friend, even then, held to some pretty bizarre beliefs. Donna Louise Myers, Gregg's mother-in-law, recalled Ramirez often spoke warmly of the devil.

'It was like Satan was his friend. It was like he watched over him.'

It was Gregg, reading about the victims and the methods of the killer in the newspaper, who tipped police his friend might be the Night Stalker. 'The drugs and maybe the satanic cult made him snap,' Gregg said.

Court records showed that Ramirez -- under the alias Richard Munoz - had hypodermic needle marks in both arms when he was arrested Dec. 12 for driving a stolen car.

Ramirez pleaded no contest to a related misdemeanor violation and was released from jail Jan. 23. That was shortly before the spate of killings began -- at least 20 murders and eight attacks in Los Angeles and its suburbs and the Lakeside district of San Francisco.

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The murders were grisly. Throats and faces were slashed. Women of all ages were often raped, sometimes as they lay dying, police said. There was an intimacy between the killer and his victim, as if the killer enjoyed feeling the pain of his victim. At several of the murder and assault sites, fingerprints were recovered from window frames and doors. Police said one set of fingerprints -- at a murder site -- matched those of Ramirez.

At one point, Gregg's wife purchased jewelry from Ramirez. Police said the jewelry was stolen from a home in San Francisco several nights before a murder at another home linked to the Night Stalker.

'I'd like to see Rick again and ask him if he did this (the killings),' Gregg said. 'The first (slaying) was probably an accident. It was easier to do it again.'

Associates of Ramirez in San Francisco's East Bay said he was fascinated with the Australian rock group AC-DC and its 1979 album 'Highway to Hell.' The record contains a 6-minute song 'Night Prowler.' The lyrics say in part: 'Was that a noise outside your window? What's that shadow on the blind? As you lie there naked like a body in a tomb, suspended animation as I slip into your room.'

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The words 'Jack the Knife,' quoted from a song by another heavy-metal group, Judas Priest, were scrawled in lipstick on the walls of a home in San Francisco after a Night Stalker attack. Also inscribed at murder scenes were the initials AC-DC and the five-cornered star of the devil.

Donna Myers recalls playing a strange game with the thin, tussle-haired friend of her son.

She and Ramirez were watching television several weeks ago and they saw a composite of the Stalker on the news. Ramirez asked her, 'Do you think that's me?'

Myers was startled. 'I told him he fit the description, but that he didn't have the guts to kill anybody,' she recalled saying. 'He said he came up here because he was worried that everybody in L.A. would (mistakenly) think it was im.'

'I never saw a gun and never saw a knife ... he just never presented himself as that kind of person.

Then she began to think about the fact that Ramirez matched the description of the man police were seeking as the stalker -- a tall, thin drifter with yellow gap-spaced teeth.

'We weren't sure. When you've had a friend like that for years, you don't just get up and call (the police).' Eventually her son-in-law did.

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That tip helped place Ramirez in San Francisco at the time of the killing of a 66-year-old accountant. Ramirez was captured a week later when police traced a fingerprint found in an orange Toyota station wagon believed used by the killer.

Ramirez was seized in East Los Angeles, chased and beaten by a crowd who identified him from police pictures after trying to steal a car from a woman.

Ramirez spent much of the last two years living in skid row hotels in that section of Los Angeles.

Merchants in the area were unanimous in describing him as an extremely nervous person who kept to himself, wore dark clothes, dark glasses and a baseall cap with the initials AC-DC inscribed on the brim.

Ramirez stayed at least six weeks at the Hotel Cecil. Investigators said he also stayed at the Hotel Huntington.

Ramirez frequented a fast food restaurant called Fat Brat for breakfast and always came alone and would order to go, said owner Dennis Benetatos. 'He always acted real nervous,' Benetatos said, 'and he had money. He spent a little more than the average customer.'

A cook at Margarita's Place, a Mexican restaurant next to the Hotel Cecil, said Ramirez often came in for lunch and sometime late at night. 'When I looked him in the eyes, he seemed worried about something,' said Alfredo Leyba.

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'He was very odd,' confirmed Larry Gaj, a clerk at Mike's Market. 'I would see him walking by at night with those dark glasses on and a black jacket.'

Gaj said Ramirez came in only to purchase a soda, candy and occasional beer.

'He was quiet, a loner,' Gaj said. 'He had the look in his eyes. A popped up look.'

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