A Killer’s Mind: The Mental Pathology of the Nightstalker

A Killer's Mind: The Mental Pathology of the Nightstalker

Commonly known as the Nightstalker, Richard Ramirez terrorized the Southern California area for over 14 months between 1984 and 1985. He would habitually break into his victims’ homes, rob them and brutally murder them. Those who were spared had to go through a lifetime of trauma and even permanent physical injury following their attack.

Over the years, the Nightstalker case has been the subject of many books and documentaries. It even inspired several fictional accounts. In the realm of psychology, many experts analyzed Ramirez and tried to understand the mind of one of America’s most prolific serial killers.

Richard Ramirez’s Early Life and Signs of Psychopathy

Richard Leyva Muñoz Ramirez was born on February 28, 1960, in the Texan border city of El Paso to Julian and Mercedes Ramirez. His early years were marked by poverty and childhood trauma. His father, a former police officer, was physically abusive towards Ramirez and his mother. Growing up, he was a loner who would frequently get into fights at school and spent time in cemeteries, showing an early interest in the macabre.

Ramirez was only 10 years old when his older cousin Miguel, a Vietnam war veteran, introduced him to smoking marijuana. Miguel would recount and show the impressionable child pictures of women he’d allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered while in Vietnam. During that time, the boy developed a fascination with murder and an affinity for Satanism and the occult. In 1977, a 13-year-old Ramirez watched his cousin kill his wife.

As a high school student, Ramirez briefly worked at a Holiday Inn before being fired for breaking into a room and assaulting a guest while her husband was away. By the age of 16, he had dropped out of high school and would habitually rob houses and commit other petty crimes to feed his drug habit.

Shortly after his first arrest for drug possession, 22-year-old Ramirez permanently moved to Los Angeles in 1982. His substance abuse problem escalated after he became addicted to cocaine and heroin. During the first 2 years of living in Los Angeles, Ramirez was homeless and would buy drugs with the money he made from robbing houses. It didn’t take long before he began his horrific murder spree.

The Nightstalker’s Murders and Capture

After his highly publicized trial, Richard Ramirez was found guilty of 13 murders, five attempted murders and 25 other felonies. Up until recently, his first victim was believed to be 79-year-old Jennie Vincow. But in 2009, DNA evidence confirmed his first victim was a 9-year-old child named Mei Leung in April 1984.

During the murder spree, the Nightstalker would break into people’s homes, shoot the husbands, assault the wives and steal the family’s valuables. Unlike other prolific serial killers, Ramirez didn’t have a preferred gender or age group, as victims ranged from young children to older adults. During the attacks, he would make his victims “swear to Satan” that they weren’t hiding any valuables from him. He would also leave signs of Satanic worship at his crime, such as drawing a pentagram in lipstick on a victim’s skin.

Police were desperate to capture the so-called Nightstalker. A Los Angeles special task force was put in place, and experts in forensic psychology were called. Even the FBI’s criminal profiling department offered its assistance. Witness testimony and a single fingerprint Ramirez left behind ultimately identified him.

Ramirez was eventually caught in August 1985 after a group of passersby recognized him from a recently released mugshot. He unsuccessfully tried to flee. Following his trial and death sentence, Ramirez spent the rest of his life on death row at San Quentin State Prison, where he died of cancer in 2013.

Psychological Assessment of Richard Ramirez

Experts in criminal psychology have spent decades studying Ramirez and the pathology behind his crimes. One criminologist named Dr. Scott Bonn described the Nightstalker as a “thrill killer” who rarely planned his actions aside from wanting to commit violence. This explains why his victims varied in gender, age and physical attributes.

His traumatic childhood may have contributed to his violent tendencies, particularly the beatings he suffered at the hands of his father and the influence his cousin had on him. As a toddler, Richard suffered two serious head injuries and was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy in the ninth grade, which may have caused his hypersexuality, his strong Satanic belief and aggressive tendencies.

It’s hard to understand the mind of someone like Ramirez, but some experts think he was a made psychopath rather than a born psychopath. Ramirez’s belief in Satan was so strong that he thought he could carry on killing indefinitely because he was somehow protected by the devil. While he was never formally diagnosed with a mental illness, some attribute his deranged beliefs about having a relationship with Satan to a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia.

During psychological evaluations, Ramirez scored a 31 out of 40 on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist for his traits such as lack of remorse, lack of empathy, impulsiveness and inability to take responsibility for his actions. He also showed signs of narcissistic personality disorder by closely following the press coverage of his murders, and he allegedly enjoyed being called the Nightstalker.

Ramirez’s Drug Abuse

Richard Ramirez started taking drugs at a very young age. By the time he started his killing spree, he was heavily addicted to cocaine and heroin. He was also known to take PCP (phenyl cyclohexyl piperidine), a drug known for causing hallucinations, paranoia and aggression.

Following his arrest, Ramirez’s father gave press interviews and fully blamed drug use for his son’s actions. While the Nightstalker’s addiction likely contributed to him becoming a serial killer, we can’t blame drugs alone.

Final Years on Death Row

In 1989, after a highly publicized trial, Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death by the state of California. His response to his death sentence was superficial: “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.” In the decades he spent on death row, Ramirez never showed any remorse for his crimes, but he did agree to a multitude of interviews with writers and psychologists.

From the moment of his capture, the killer managed to attract several fans. He married one of them, and after she divorced him, he was engaged again to a 23-year-old writer. At the time of his death in 2013 from cancer, Ramirez was still trying to appeal his sentence.