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Eastside Story

The summer of 1985 was setting up to be a good, long, lazy one for L.A. The city was still on a sports high from hosting the ’84 Olympics, where Boyle Heights boxer Paul Gonzalez had won a gold medal, and Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers had just beaten the much-hated Celtics to win another NBA championship. And, if Ronald Reagan was turning Central America into a tropical war zone and AIDS was starting to devastate the world, at least Quincy Jones gave us a fleeting sense of unity by producing the all-star artist hit “We are the World: USA for Africa.”

I was a young Mexican growing up across the Los Angeles River in East L.A. and attending school as a seventh-grade scrub at Stevenson Junior High. My family lived on 4048 ½ Princeton Street, a back house on a dead end in the heart of the LiL Valley Gang. During that unbearably hot summer the sounds of Wham! and Punky Brewster reruns would drift through open windows and screen doors.

It looked like I’d be doing the usual summer stuff — hanging out at the corner store, Ken’s Market, chewing on some Now and Later’s while playing Frogger, going to the Boulevard Theater on Whittier Boulevard to watch The Goonies for 99 cents and swimming at Ruben Salazar Park (formerly Laguna Park), also on Whittier.

But the summer of 1985 would also be a season of terror in L.A., thanks to the Night Stalker, a 25-year-old Mexican drifter from El Paso named Richard Ramirez. The Texan had two loves: AC/DC’s “Night Prowler” and crawling into open windows to kill. He began his murder rampage in June 1984, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1985 that the bodies started “making sense” to the cops. There were 13 victims in all, mostly girls and women between the ages of 6 and 83. Some had been beaten and raped, some savagely mutilated. (One woman’s eyes were gouged out.) As mementos, Ramirez would leave behind inked Satanic pentagrams.

Angelenos had seen death before, but this terror was on another level. Sales of guns, guard dogs and burglar alarms seemed to reach an all-time high. Neighborhood watch groups sprung up all over the city and vigilantes began patrolling the streets at night. Doing our part as good East Angelenos, we walked the beat around our street. I, along with my childhood friends Fernando and Efren Torres, and my older brother Rigo, protected our street with bats, pipes and homemade numchucks that we fashioned by taking old broomsticks, cutting off two pieces and then nailing or screwing on a thin chain to each end. We were Mexican ninjas. We also had the backing of the LiL Valley cholos, the older veteranos who hid a greater arsenal on Raspberry Hill, a large brush area with raspberry shrubs on top of the hill beyond our street. It was a place where you could pick berries and pick up hidden knives and guns.

I was not afraid of the Night Stalker — I grew up in a gang war zone. I had seen the casualties of that war up close, including a drive-by where at least 10 LiL Valley cholos got shot up by rivals. I didn’t know it, but I was already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Deep down I wanted a piece of the Night Stalker.

As the killer continued his spree, he got meaner but sloppier and was ID’d through fingerprints, his first mistake. On August 30, an arrest warrant was issued and Ramirez’s mug shot was plastered all over newspapers and broadcast on TV. He fled into, of all places, East L.A., where perhaps he felt he could hide out among the brown. That was his second and costliest mistake. The story goes that Ramirez showed up to the 3700 block of East Hubbard Street, just a few blocks from my house, looking for a car to steal. He found a red Mustang parked in a driveway, but its owner, Faustino Pinon, quickly grabbed Ramirez around the neck, pushed him off his property and began chasing him.

Ramirez then threatened to kill a neighbor unless she surrendered the keys to her Ford Granada. The screaming woman’s husband rushed to her aid with a metal post. He, along with other neighbors who’d quickly armed themselves with steel rods and tools, pursued Ramirez, who now ran for his life. He was hit with fist and metal post like an evil piñata. Finally, a block away from where it all began, the Night Stalker collapsed to the ground and was subdued, while the mob beat him until sheriff’s deputies arrived. Ramirez raised his hands to the deputies, begging for protection. The crowd had to be held back as the lawmen saved the killer’s life!

“They caught the Night Stalker!” Word quickly spread as my friends and I got on our old, beat-up Schwinn bikes (the kind you build and not buy) E.T.-style and rode with our adrenalin pumping to Hubbard a couple blocks away, where the sheriffs were placing a bandaged and demoralized Richard Ramirez into a squad car. As I stood behind the sheriffs and saw Ramirez in person from a few feet away, he didn’t seem like the monster that he was — no modern-day Jack the Ripper, just another hapless soul. (One who’d end up on Death Row, where he sits today.)

Soon every television crew converged here to let the world know that the Night Stalker had not only been caught but almost beaten to death in East L.A. The neighborhood that took great pride in the capture was allowed by Sheriff Sherman Block to have a huge block party with each end of Hubbard cordoned off by the sheriffs. That whole night a DJ played cha-cha disco jams like Tapps’ “Burning with Fire” and Lime’s “Babe We’re Gonna Love Tonight,” while what seemed like all of East L.A. danced their asses off. We had to celebrate — after all it’s not every summer when Satan’s right-hand man gets caught in East L.A.


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