Crime

06.14.13

My Uncle the Serial Killer: ‘Night Stalker’ Richard Ramirez’s Niece on His Death

Shelly Ramirez’s uncle murdered 13 people—and masturbated in front of her when she visited him in prison. In the wake of his death, she talks to Christine Pelisek about growing up in his shadow.

When Shelly Ramirez heard last week that her uncle Richard had died, she felt a huge sense of relief.

“I felt free,” she said. “What he did was sick. I’m sorry about what happened to the families.”

Ramirez, now 31, grew up in the shadow of her father’s brother, an infamous serial killer better known as the “Night Stalker” who brutally raped, killed, and mutilated 13 people in southern California during a two-year spree from 1984 to 1985. She was just 7 years old when he was convicted.

Ramirez says she didn’t really understand how truly sick her uncle was until she went to visit him at San Quentin and he masturbated in front of her. “He said if I wasn’t his niece he would fuck me any day,” she said. During the same visit, he got mad at her for wearing a gold necklace with a cross: “He said Satanists don’t wear gold and he wanted me to take it off.”

The incident affected her deeply, and she later sought counseling. “I felt really, really dirty and gross,” Ramirez said. “I never had contact with him again.”

Scott Robinson, a spokesperson for San Quentin State Prison, says the 53-year-old Ramirez was discovered ill in his cell several weeks ago. San Quentin’s most notorious inmate died on June 7 of natural causes after 24 years on Death Row.

At the time of his death, Ramirez’s lawyers had multiple appeals pending. None alleged that he wasn’t guilty—rather, that their client was incompetent at his 1989 trial and that it should never have taken place in Los Angeles because he couldn’t get a fair shake there.

Currently, Ramirez’s body has not been claimed, but there has been conversation with his next of kin. “There is some interest in taking the body,” says Robinson. If no one claims his body, Robinson says, he will be cremated and his remains disposed of by the state.

Shelly, a notary public and property manager in Arizona, believes her uncle will be cremated: “That’s what he wanted.”

The killer Ramirez was a devil-worshiping, crack-smoking drifter who entered homes at night through unlocked windows and doors, shooting, strangling, and stabbing sleeping strangers. In some cases, he raped, mutilated, and tortured his victims and left Satanic symbols spray-painted on walls or on his victims’ body parts. One victim had her eyes removed.

The El Paso, Texas, native was finally caught in 1985 after residents of a Los Angeles neighborhood chased him down and beat him badly after he tried to steal a car. By that point, his face was all over the news.

Shelly Ramirez says she started to write her uncle while he was in county jail. He sent her a drawing of Homer Simpson.  “He was very interested in people,” she said. “He liked to see what scared them. I caught that at an early age reading his letters. His letters were like a survey. He didn’t ask me how I was. I think he wanted to see what someone’s weaknesses were. He was real particular in the way he answered questions.”

“I didn’t know it was so bad,” she said. “I didn’t know he killed anyone. The television made it look like he was a celebrity.”

Others were fooled, too. During Ramirez’s trial, women flocked to the courthouse to see the defendant. Letters poured into the jail. One woman wrote that she dreamed of having sex with him in a coffin. Another woman threatened to complain to the police after she visited him and gave him a nude photo of herself—she was upset because Ramirez shared the photo with other inmates.

“He had Playboy models that would write him,” says Shelly.

The Night Stalker was sentenced to death in 1989 after a year-long trial. When he heard the verdict, he reportedly shrugged and said: "Big deal. Death always went with the territory." While in San Quentin in 1996, Ramirez married one of his groupies, Doreen Lioy, a freelance magazine editor, in the prison’s main visiting room.

Growing up as a relative of Ramirez was difficult, Shelly says. “People looked at me and saw I resembled Richie in the cheekbones and the skinniness,” she says. “I wanted to change my last name and forget about all of it. This has affected me my whole life. Anyone who knows about him … it just doesn’t go away.” Once, she said, a college classmate who was writing a paper about Ramirez confronted her in class. “In front of the class she said, ‘Are you related to the Night Stalker? I totally tried to play it off. ‘Who’s that? What is he?’ It was so awful.”

According to Robinson, the elder Ramirez had a habit of masturbating in front of prison staff, attorneys, and young girls. “Ramirez was a disruptful individual,” he said. “There were several incidents of masturbation in front of staff and indecent exposure. He exposed himself to children. All of his visits were behind a partition. He wasn’t allowed to touch someone or hug them. The first time he exposed himself was during a legal visit. He would also expose himself inside the housing unit to guards. We put signs in front of the cell saying he has the propensity to that.”

“He was very interested in people,” she said. “He liked to see what scared them.”

He wasn’t allowed any personal visits starting in 2004 after he masturbated in front of a young girl who was visiting a relative in the visitor’s room. He lost his privileges again in 2007 when he was caught doing the same thing in front of another girl.

Robinson said the prison implemented security measures so he wouldn’t expose himself to others again. “He really hasn’t had any visitors since 2007,” said Robinson. “He wasn’t allowed to have personal visits all of 2010 and the last few years he has refused to visit with everyone.”

Robinson said Ramirez spent most of his time alone in his cell in the dark watching television. He wasn’t allowed to have contact with any inmates after he started a fight in the yard 13 years ago. “One of our officers observed it and there were punches that were thrown and they were able to get people separated and get him off the yard,” says Robinson. “He never went back to the yard with any other individual.”

Regardless of his heinous crimes, Robinson says Ramirez remained the most popular inmate at San Quentin. “He has always attracted a lot of interest,” he said. “Even in recent times. He is known to receive more mail than anyone. He used to get bags full of mail.”

Shelly is not surprised by the sick fascination, and hopes his death will bring peace to his victims’ families even though she knows it will be hard. “I am sorry for the victims,” says Shelly. “I have a little girl. What he did to me when I was little it bothers me to this very day.”