It’s been more than 30 years since Richard Ramirez’s killing spree took place across Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s. The “Night Stalker,” as he was dubbed by the media, targeted random people and instilled an atmosphere of fear in California as his appetite for violence set him apart from some of the state’s most notorious killers.
The new Netflix true crime documentary Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer attempts to recreate the climate of panic and mistrust that permeated the state while Ramirez was still on the loose. But how exactly did the police finally manage to catch this notorious serial killer?
As it turns out, Richard Ramirez’s teeth played a big role in helping the authorities catch and convict him.
How did Richard Ramirez’s teeth land him in prison?
In the 1980s, California saw its fair share of infamous killers, from the Golden State Killer to the Grim Sleeper. But few instilled fear like Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, who managed to kill 14 people and attempted to kill five others, all within the span of 14 months.
Ramirez started his rampage in June 1984. His MO was to break into homes and assault the residents, often raping women before killing them, or kidnapping children to molest them before setting them free.
In most of the cases, Ramirez entered the homes of his victims in the early hours of the morning, usually through an open window or door. Some of Ramirez's victims were strangled, some were shot, and some were stabbed — and the victim’s profiles varied in age, gender, and race.
The seemingly haphazard nature of Ramirez's victim profiles and his methods of killing first led the authorities to assume that they were random and unconnected violent crimes. But there was one detail that became so consistent in witness descriptions that the police soon deduced that they were looking for one man.
In Night Stalker, Ester Petschar recounts the time she encountered Ramirez on the freeway while driving. She says, “He had this horrible big grin and he’s missing all these teeth,” which made him look like a killer clown.
While Ramirez’s teeth weren’t ultimately the reason he was caught, the detail was recounted by so many other witnesses — adults and children included — that they also played a big part in his trial once he was finally caught.
A 1989 Los Angeles Times article reported that three dentists gave testimony during Ramirez's trial, and one dentist’s testimony helped refute an alibi that placed Ramirez out of the state during three of the many attacks for which he was on trial.
Ramirez's father had claimed that his son was in El Paso, Texas, during the week of the attacks but the dentist’s testimony proved that Ramirez was actually in California, getting his teeth treated at that dentist’s office during that same time.
The jury found Ramirez guilty and he was sentenced to death. Ramirez died in 2013 of lymphoma while on death row, but not before he had his teeth fixed by prison dentists. Talk about a killer smile.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is available to stream on Netflix.