Stalking the Serial Killer

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The temperature reached a stifling 108 degrees in parts of Los Angeles last week, but there was still a noticeable chill in the area. All along the California coast, doors and windows were bolted shut. Hardware stores experienced a run on security items, and weapons dealers reported a booming business. The pervasive fear had been aroused by the latest foray of the so-called Night Stalker, the serial killer who entered houses stealthily and seemingly at random, attacking and sometimes killing the occupants. Anxiety subsided Saturday when police at last arrested a suspect.

Most of the 16 murders and eight attacks that have been linked to the killer since February occurred in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys of Los Angeles, but in mid-August the Night Stalker moved north to San Francisco, entering a house in the Lakeside district and killing a 66-year-old accountant. Last week he struck in Mission Viejo, an Orange County community 50 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. "My wife said maybe we shouldn't leave all the doors and windows open because of that stalker," recalled Charles Prather of Chrisanta Drive. "I said, 'How many houses are there between here and San Francisco?' " Early the following morning, the Night Stalker slipped into a ranch-style house just down the street from the Prathers'. Apparently entering through a backyard window, he shot Computer Engineer Bill Carns in the head, raped his girlfriend and ransacked the house. Carns, 29, was in critical condition at week's end.

In the aftermath, police discovered an orange Toyota station wagon, stolen earlier, that they believe was used by the killer on the night of the attack. By tracing a fingerprint found in the car, authorities announced a "positive identification" of the suspected killer: Richard Ramirez, a native of El Paso, Texas, who has been drifting around Los Angeles and San Francisco for several years. The following day, Ramirez was seized in East Los Angeles. Police said he was chased and beaten by a crowd, apparently after trying to steal a car from a woman.

Ramirez, 25, resembles victims' descriptions of the Night Stalker. Like the attacker, he is tall and thin, with black hair and bulging eyes. Most significant, he has badly decayed teeth. Victims had said the serial killer's teeth are markedly yellowed and gapped; police identification artists had even composed a separate sketch of his mouth.

Before finding Ramirez's fingerprint, investigators had been baffled by the lack of a discernible pattern in the attacks. Serial murderers usually seek out a particular kind of victim, but the Night Stalker assaulted people ranging in age from 16 to 84. He had killed men and women, Asians as well as whites. In two cases he reportedly left behind written messages. Police confirmed that the killer had a distinctive trademark, but to avoid copycat assaults, they were tight-lipped about what it was.

Authorities said that Ramirez has a criminal record for auto theft, drugs and other, "relatively minor," charges, but that none of his past offenses resembled the violent nature of the recent assaults. Psychologists who have studied serial killings suspect that the Night Stalker shared at least one trait common to mass murderers. "Once they start to murder, the act becomes habitual," says J. Reid Meloy, a San Diego forensic psychologist. "As it becomes habitual, it becomes easier."