Update: 'Night Stalker' Richard Ramirez dies of natural causes; serial killer terrorized SoCal in '80s (archival photos)

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Convicted serial killer Richard Ramirez, known as the Night Stalker, died early Friday in a hospital.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Ramirez, 53, died of "natural causes." He had been housed on death row for decades and was awaiting execution, even though it has been years since anyone has been put to death in California.

Ramirez had been taken from death row to Marin General Hospital.

Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders that terrorized Southern California in 1984 and '85, and sentenced to death.

View reactions to Richard Ramirez's death on Twitter below.

Satanic symbols were left at murder scenes and some victims were forced to "swear to Satan" by the killer, who entered homes through unlocked windows and doors.

Ramirez was captured and beaten in 1985 by residents of an East Los Angeles neighborhood while attempting a carjacking.

"The death of Richard Ramirez in prison today closes a dark chapter in the history of Los Angeles," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck in his official statement. "Let's not forget the victims who suffered at his hands and the victims' families who are still suffering with the memories of their lost loved ones."

The Biography Channel reports that Ramirez's first victim was a 79-year-old woman whom he first killed and then raped:

"What followed was a spree of brutal murders, rapes and robberies leaving more than 25 victims in its wake. Most of the assaults took place in the victims' homes, earning Ramirez the name The Night Stalker. A series of clues from witnesses and survivors eventually led to his capture in August 1985."

At his first court appearance, Ramirez raised a hand with a pentagram drawn on it and yelled, "Hail, Satan."

After a four-year trial — one of the longest in U.S. history — Ramirez was sentenced to death in 1989. He also was convicted of many sexual assaults and burglaries.

In 2006, the California Supreme Court upheld Ramirez's convictions and death sentence.

In 2009, San Francisco police said DNA linked Ramirez to the April 10, 1984, killing of 9-year-old Mei Leung. She was killed in the basement of a residential hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood where she lived with her family.

Ramirez had been staying at nearby hotels.

Ramirez previously was tied to killings in Northern California. He was charged in the shooting deaths of Peter Pan, 66, and his wife, Barbara, in 1985 just before his arrest in Los Angeles, but he was never tried in that case.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the convictions and sentence.

Pasadena Star-News editor Frank Girardot covered the trial as a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.  He told KPCC's Take Two that he recalls the unease Ramirez's crimes caused.

"From March to June, it became increasingly more horrible as women were turning up dead in apartments, and old people were turning up dead after break-ins and satanic symbols were being left behind at some of these crime scenes," Girardot recalled.

"Initially it was unexplainable," he said. "A coroner's investigator, talking to homicide investigators, who weren't talking to each other, was able to say, 'Hey you know a lot of these crimes have some similarity to them, and perhaps they're related.' At that point the sheriff's department, the LAPD, the coroner, the Glendale PD, put together a task force that was devoted to tracking down Ramirez and putting him behind bars."

By late August, police finally figured out that the guy they were looking for was named Richard Ramirez, Girardot said. "What they did was put out a photograph of him to the newspapers. The  newspapers were on a rack at a liquor store. Ramirez walks in, sees a picture of him, mumbles something about it being him, runs out of the liquor store, goes to steal a car, and everybody in the neighborhood has this idea that there's this guy stealing a car, he's probably the Night Stalker because he looks like this picture I just saw in the newspaper. They grabbed him, beat him and held him for the police."

Girardot recalled that the trial itself was a crazy scene. "It was televised," he said. "It lasted several weeks — I think it went from July until September. It involved a lot of gruesome testimony and a lot of theatrics from the defendant. He would draw pentagrams on his hand and hold it up for the cameras. He would smile at people. At one point, a juror was killed — turns out it was by her boyfriend — but it was certainly a scary time. Ultimately, in October, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Then you have this whole story about the death penalty. Here is this guy who's been on death row since almost 1989, and he dies by natural causes. It's an unusual end to this long saga of terror that really gripped Southern California in 1985."

This story has been updated. Check back for more details as we get them. Do you remember this period in L.A. history? Let us know in the comments.

With contributions from KPCC staff and NPR

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