Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

All about Fingerprints and Other Impressions

Catching a Killer

In the summer of 1984, a 79-year-old woman was slain in her home in Glassell Park, California, near Los Angeles. Her throat was slashed and she was stabbed several times. Investigators managed to lift some fingerprints off a window screen, but without a suspect, they could go no further.

Within eight months there were two more murders that bore similarities, and then two young girls were abducted, raped, and dropped off in another location. No one linked the crimes until later.

Then police got a description. A man entered a condominium in the Rosemead suburb, shooting the two female occupants. One died but the other survived a day and managed to offer a few details: bulging eyes, a long face, curly hair, and disgusting teeth.

The murders and rapes continued, targeting any female from the young to the elderly, but also including several men. Vincent Zazzara was attacked in his home and killed, while his wife was stabbed to death. The assailant carved out her eyes and took them with him. There were no clues.

In May 1985, two elderly sisters were bludgeoned and their attacker left Satanic symbols in the form of a pentagram on the body of the one who died. He also drew pentagrams on the walls.

Then the killer escalated, killing one person after another over a span of several weeks. Sometimes it was a single female, sometimes a couple. Here and there, he robbed his victims, but not always. In one home, he beat up a young boy. He also went up to San Francisco and shot a couple there. The wife survived to link suspect photos from Los Angeles with her attacker.

Known as the Night Stalker for his penchant for climbing into unlocked windows, by August he was credited with some fourteen murders.

Richard Ramirez (AP)
Richard Ramirez (AP)

Then he killed a man, raped his fiancée and escaped in a stolen car. When he later abandoned the car, police managed to get a good set of fingerprints. Comparing them to a database of known criminals that had just been updated to include those born in 1960, they turned up the name of Richard Ramirez, who'd been arrested numerous times for traffic and drug violations. Asking around, they discovered that Ramirez was a known Satanist whose favorite song was "Night Prowler." Philip Carlo documents Ramirez's long-term affair with darkness in The Night Stalker. There was little doubt that he was a killing machine, full of rage against society.

A picture was widely publicized and when Ramirez tried to steal a car on August 30, he was beaten and held by a group of citizens who recognized him. It was the police who saved his life, although he later told his guard, "I love watching people die." He was ultimately charged with thirteen murders and thirty other criminal counts, including rape and burglary.

At a preliminary hearing, Ramirez flashed a pentagram that he'd had tattooed onto the palm of his hand—-the same hand whose fingerprints had betrayed him. Thanks to fingerprint technology, a savage murder spree had been stopped—-and just by a hair. Had he been born only two months earlier, his name would not yet have been in the database. Ramirez was sentenced to death, and he now sits on California's death row.

Before examining how fingerprinting can identify someone like this from a database, let's look at the first criminal case to successfully use early fingerprint technology in the courtroom. For that, we go to England.

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