California was terrorized in the mid-1980s by a serial killer proclaimed the “Night Stalker” by the media. The over a dozen victims of this killer didn’t understand nor question the underlying criminological underpinnings of these acts and his bizarre courtroom outbursts were fodder for a sensationalizing media that is attracted to gruesome details. The prosecutor Deputy District Attorney Phillip Halpin provided a lay assessment of his mental state by commenting on his latest outburst after receiving a sentence of death, “. . . [Ramirez] is a pathetic human being who is grasping at some structure in his life . . .” (“Court”, 1989, p.1). While albeit Halpin was a skilled prosecutor in maneuvering the legal system and obtaining a satisfactory outcome for the State of California, he certainly is not qualified to make sociological or psychological prognostications.
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The combination of social and behavioral science makes attempts to explain the interaction between criminal and society through criminological theories, numbering more than a dozen (DeMelo, 2001, p.5). The explanation of vicious acts of torture, rape and murder may defy explanation but the question of “why?” persists and some light may be shed by reviewing the life experiences and their manifestations through criminal activity through one of these theories.
Richard Ramirez was born in 1960 in Texas and spent his youth in El Paso (Mayo, 2008, p.281). The childhood of Ramirez was unremarkable but at an early age he began to experiment with drug, mainly marijuana and glue sniffing. His fascination with death began at the hands of his cousin a Viet Nam veteran that related tales of raping, torturing and killing Vietnamese women during his tour of duty by showing the teenage Ramirez Polaroid photographs of the victims and the sadistic results of his actions (Mayo, 2008, p.281). The tales of his exploits in Southeast Asia may have been embellished and the graphical and sadistic acts may or may not have been true, but he did introduce his teenage cousin to truly violent behavior. Ramirez was reported to be only a few feet away from his cousin when he shot and killed his wife, providing a live demonstration of the sadistic and violent behavior he had bragged about (Mayo, 2008, p.281). These anecdotal reports of an early introduction to violent sexual torture killing may or may not be entirely factually accurate, however the witnessing of his cousins murderous act are attributed to whetting his appetite for such acts of unconscionable violence and depravity.
Ramirez became a loaner and a drifter and moved to Los Angeles where he started to build a criminal record. He committed burglary and auto theft to support his drug habit that had progressed include cocaine as well as his use of marijuana and reports of other drugs as well for which is also was arrested for possession (Mayo, 2008, p.281). It was reported by his sister Rosa Flores that he used harder drugs such as PCP and phencyclidine hydrochloride and suffered epileptic seizures periodically (“Satanic”, 1985, p.1). Ramirez had an extensive arrest record for these petty crimes but did not exhibit any personal tendencies toward violence.
This all changed in May of 1984. A young Vietnamese-American girl, Mei Leung, was found murdered and hanging over a pipe in the basement of her apartment and it was later determined that she had been sexually assaulted (Worth, 2009, p.2). She was walking home form school with her brother engaged in an argument as to who would take the elevator and who would take the stairs, Mei elected to take the stairs and was found a half hour later raped and murdered. The suspect was described as a thin Caucasian male with shaggy brown hair parted in the middle wearing a brown leather jacket (Worth, 2009, p.2). This case initially generated publicity but went unsolved.
The first murder for which Ramirez was convicted occurred nine months latter. This was the killing of the 79 year old Jennie Vincow found in her Los Angeles apartment with her throat slashed (Worth, 2009, p.2). Ramirez had entered the apartment at night and burglarized the home before raping and killing the elderly occupant. This pattern of entering at night and raping the female occupants and killing the males took on a macabre aspect when Ramirez began leaving behind satanic symbols either scrawled in the victims’ blood or carved into the victims bodies (“Satanic”, 1985, p.1). After several similar violent murderous incidents the unknown at the time assailant was dubbed “The Night Stalker” by the police and fueled the local media frenzy. Ramirez continued on his nightly exploits amassing more than thirteen murder victims that he would be eventually convicted of killing and numerous other counts of rape, attempted murder, aggravated assault, ninety criminal allegations proven in court (“Court”, 1989, p.1). The city of Los Angeles was truly terrorized by the serial killer and when reports possibly linking the same killer to the Bay Area, the near panic spread statewide.
The police were finally able to link Ramirez to the killings through a finger print left at one of the crime scenes matching those form Ramirez’s extensive arrest record (Chambers, 1985, p.1). The officials promptly released his photograph as a suspect in the “Night Stalker” killings and less than twenty four hours later he was cornered by an angry mob in East Los Angeles. Ramirez was arrested before most likely being beaten to death by the crowd of more than one hundred when he either boasted or spontaneously confessed by stating, “. . .I did it . . . you know . . you guys got me, the Stalker . . .” (Mayo, 2008, p.282). These bizarre and spontaneous outbursts would signify the entire court proceedings and his subsequent encounters with authorities, at his initial hearing he shouted, “Hail Satan” and flashed a pentagram, a satanic symbol, to the gathered media just prior to his lawyers entering a not guilty plea with the court (Chambers, 1985, p.1). A four year trial followed culminating in Ramirez being convicted of thirteen murders and was sentenced to death in the California gas chamber, who reacted with an inaudible statement to the court ending with the exclamation, “. . . Lucifer dwells within us all. . .” (“Court”, 1985, p.1). He concluded with the rant,
You don’t understand. You are not expected to. You are not capable of it. I am beyond your experience. I am beyond good and evil. Legions of the night, night breed. Repeat not the errors of the Night Prowler and show no mercy. I will be avenged. (“Court”, 1985, p.1)
He concluded his courtroom diatribe by answering reporter’s queries as to his impressions of his fate by stating that, “. . . it’s no big deal . . . I’m going to Disneyland . . .” (“Court”, 1985, p.1). His taunting of victims and their families by his cavalier attitude was further exemplified when a San Francisco detective went to interview him regarding several unsolved Bay Area murders that had been more recently linked to him through DNA evidence. San Francisco Police homicide Inspector Frank Falzon was escorting Ramirez to a holding cell when he smiled with his near toothless grin and chided, “Hey Falzon, I bet you’d love to know about those two old ladies wouldn’t you?” (Worth, 2009, p.1). Inspector Falzon later surmised that Ramirez was referring to Christina and Mary Caldwell whose mutilated bodies were discovered in their Telegraph Hill apartment in February of 1985.
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During the course of the trial it was uncovered that Ramirez was infatuated with satanic worship and imagery. It was uncovered that his favorite music was from the 1979 AC/DC album “Highway to Hell” and fancied himself the “Night Prowler” from the song of the same name on the album (Mayo, 2008, p.282). There are reports of attending satanic services in East Los Angeles but these are unsubstantiated (“Satanic”, 1985, p.1). What can be garnered from the reported facts and evidence presented that Ramirez was highly sociopathic and his propensity for sadistic cruelty, sexual deviation, and murderous tendencies almost defy explanation. There begins the difficult task of trying to assess the “why?” and fit this into a relevant criminological theorem to attempt to explain this abhorrent behavior.
The beginning of the study of psychology followed the advent of modern criminal theory by nearly a century. Regarding criminal behavior prior to the latter part of the eighteenth century the actions of an individual was deemed as the totality where harsh punishment was meted out to deter others from following in the ill-advised ways (Hollin, 2002, p.145). The Classical School of criminological theory originates with the writing of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham following the human rights and free will movements that coincided with the advent of the Declaration of Independence reflecting the contemporary progressive thought of the era (DeMelo, 2001, p.7). The free will approach was supplanted in the later part of the nineteenth century with the Positive School of thought, were Positivists saw behavior determined by biological, psychological and social traits, meaning that certain individuals were just “born bad” (DeMelo, 2001, p.8). This was also reflected in the growing field of experimental psychology that was in its infancy describing all human behavior in much the same manner (Hollin, 2002, p.146). The behaviorist led by Skinner in the 1930’s felt that human interactions were governed by environmental setting and consequences (Hollin, 2002, p.146). This is similar to the Chicago School that sees the surroundings and “social disorganization” as the precursors to criminal behavior and as byproducts of an individual’s upbringing and social environment (DeMelo, 2001, p.9). This nature versus nurture argument is seen throughout the evolving criminological theories, seeing crime as a manifestation of greater societal ills or socioeconomic inequalities, and modern feminist theory is interjected into the fray. These competing theories often fall short of exactly determining the precise “why?’ for the high degree of violence exhibited by Ramirez.
The Positive Theory would expound that Ramirez was just born bad, wired wrong and almost preordained for a life of crime. The influence of drugs in his life may have contributed to this and using the Chicago school with the social ills may be used to explain the influence of his cousin to develop a new “norm” within the mindset of Ramirez. The criminal history of Ramirez is signified by a disjointed leap from petty thief and drug abuser to serial killer. Unlike the need for a triggering event that sets off the mass killer to embark on a rampage leaving scores of dead in their wake, the serial murder begin a slow progression of amassing victims in a methodical and systematic approach (Dietz, 1986, p.483). This is contrasted with the Sensational Homicide theory where news reports of the killings begin to influence the turn of events, like the Manson Family killings of the late 1960’s were the perpetrators achieve a cult hero status (Dietz, 1986, p.489).
The progression of the criminal history of Ramirez would follow the Sensational Homicide theory, but also have elements of the serial killer as well. But where the typical serial killer such as John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy kept within the social norms during their “non-killing” activities, Ramirez remained a social outcast living as a transient on the fringes of society (Dietz, 1986, p.483). Ramirez is believed to have not begun his murderous ways until he first raped, murdered and mutilated Mei Leung in 1984 almost a decade after witnessing his cousin’s murderous act at the culmination of his tutelage of his young cousin in sexual violence. The criminological theory needs to fit the sudden “flip of the switch” that begat Ramirez’s murderous undertaking with no prior violent incidents.
Many of the criminological theories involve isolation from society and the economic benefits, seeing society as stratified between the haves and the have nots driving youths to delinquency and into the criminal justice system. This may be used to explain why a young Hispanic in El Paso with middle class parents may devolve into drug abuse and petty crimes associated with supporting his habit. However there is little foundation in the criminological theories that can be used to explain the veering into the fascination with the occult and basing one’s criminal actions on perceived satanic content of rock music. This is abhorrent behavior far beyond the norm that is used to explain most crimes. Ramirez was demonstrable self delusional seeing himself as an outsider aligned with Satan embarking on near religious undertaking. Serial killers and mass murderers defy normal explanations, it would be akin to finding a universal theory that could explain the exploits of Hitler or Stalin whose rise to power was based upon the systematic extermination of an entire race of people. These are extreme examples of criminal behavior that is a very, very rare occurrence and as in all mass, serial or spree killers can only be viewed as a perfect storm of internal ill will, missed opportunities by society to deter them from their aspirations, and a progression of murderous behavior that was only stopped through fortunate turns of events that lead to their police apprehension.
Richard Ramirez has managed to gain a near mythic reputation from his sadistic murderous activities. He is viewed as a cult anti-hero along with Charles Manson succeeding in gaining notoriety. While no criminological theory reflects the need for attention and fame through criminal activity, perhaps a limited theory could be developed to explain these rare instances. Deputy Prosecutor Halpin may have made the correct off the cuff assessment, maybe Ramirez is just a “pathetic human being . . . grasping for some structure in his life . . .” defying all other explanation.
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