News that Richard Ramirez died in prison today at age 53 will provoke reactions in anyone who lived in Los Angeles in the ’80s. What sort of reaction will vary. Ramirez, a serial killer the Southern California press dubbed the “Night Stalker,” carried off a string of particularly gruesome murders in 1985. The L.A. of that year was a city whose police chief, Daryl Gates, was a deeply controversial figure. Gates had come up through the ranks as a detective on the spectacular Manson Family and Hillside Strangler cases. He had become a fan of overtly military tactics, and, faced with the emergence of L.A.’s crack epidemic, found his metier. Charges of excessive force and racism dogged his administration (the Rodney King beating would happen on his watch).
The feeling that Ramirez was prowling around out there, totally off his head, and only the Gates-era LAPD stood between him and you, didn’t bring much comfort. Ramirez’s methods—hiding in closets, climbing through windows—tapped into deep-seated childhood nightmares. Years after leaving LA I lived in a neighborhood struck by a serial killer and a serial rapist in the space of a few months, both of whom targeted a much smaller area—a few blocks of Washington, D.C. In theory, those two posed a much higher risk to me and people I knew, because they had chosen to vent their impulses toward a tiny swath of the population, in a much more contained space than metro L.A. had been. And yet they scared me less. I was older by then (and am male: the rapist wasn’t a direct threat to me). But I don’t think that explains it. Ramirez had a talent for projecting his presence everywhere, and filling the darkness with terrible possibilities. At the time, I recall people of no particular religious bent grasping for the same word to describe Ramirez: “Satanic.”
Angelenos did strange, panicky things during the long weeks of the Night Stalker killings. Some pushed furniture against the doors at night. Lots stopped taking the trash out after sundown. I was in high school at the time. I recall both students and teachers talking at recess about watching the evening news the night before, which usually began with the police sketch of Ramirez’s hatchet face and long curly hair, and being unable to move from their chairs. Frozen, literally, with fear. This was not rational. We were young then, but not small children—we could drive cars and were only a few years away from eligibility for the armed forces, the voting booth, a marriage license. This guy had gotten into our heads in a more than casual way.
I am describing all of this because I suspect Ramirez couldn’t have scared us so badly today. The average person knows a lot more, and is a lot more comfortable with some basic concepts in psychology. The notion of “community-wide trauma” didn’t exist, or didn’t get talked about outside of medical circles often, in 1985. And while there’s validity in some of the criticisms of the move toward endless talking cures, the greater tendency to acknowledge city-wide traumas is useful. It’s hard to imagine a collective freakout, like the one that took place in L.A. in 1985, occurring today without someone suggesting that, maybe, we were all suffering from a legitimate stress. The conversations we’re reading about from the Oklahoma tornado zone, and read about a decade before in lower Manhattan, post-9/11, present fear and stress as community concerns.
That’s new. They didn’t say that in L.A. in 1985, even though anyone could see we’d all gone slightly nuts.
At the time, L.A., fabulously, resolved the psychological cost of the Stalker’s rampage in its own way. Four dudes from East L.A. beat the hell out of him after he tried to steal one of their cars. In those days, before the words “PTSD” were talked about so often, the fact that citizens had caught the killer served as a kind of community catharsis. It helped that it was East L.A specifically that got to be the hero. L.A. was a deeply segregated place then. Still is. But in 1985 a demographic map of the city looked a lot like one of Pretoria. Ramirez briefly unified everyone that night that he tried to carjack a woman and threatened to kill her. She screamed, her husband and a few of his friends came down the stairs, and the group lit into Ramirez. They beat him with a pipe “like an evil piñata,” in the memorable re-telling of one of the neighborhood kids, Ben Quiñones, who grew up to write for the LA Weekly. Citywide pride emerged: even the Devil doesn’t steal a car in East L.A.
I didn’t know any of Ramirez’s victims. And it was so long ago, I can’t imagine anyone not directly affected by the killings is feeling much of anything today, beyond the sort of perverse nostalgia for a terrible moment, in a mess of a city, that I’m expressing here. But the news of Ramirez’s death does make it clear how far we’ve come since 1985. We do treat each other better. We do, it appears, a better job of noticing that being scared, for months, to the depths of your soul, is a thing worth paying attention to. We didn’t say that out loud at the time. Everyone just went inside and locked the door. As I recall it—and this is a rusty memory, of an adolescent’s experience—even after they caught him, no one slept easily for a very, very, very long time. Today, we might admit that.