People go to work at the office cubicle. Or man the phone banks and receptionist desk. Maybe do automotive or computer repairs or toss around ideas at the start up. For several years of my life, I did something a little bit different. I spent my days and nights with serial killers.
For some unknown reason, Los Angeles has had more than its share of serial killers since Charles Manson.
As a criminal courts reporter in Los Angeles, I covered the killing sprees and trials of the Hillside Strangler, Night Stalker, Sunset Slayer and other horrible people who got their pleasure from brutally murdering others.
Two years of my life was spent in court with Angelo Buono, the Hillside Strangler. Buono, with his big bushy mustache, was cocky with Italian swagger before his arrest. But in court, he slumped cowardly in his seat in his orange jail jumpsuit, not making eye contact with anyone. Buono and crime partner Kenneth Bianchi were accused of killing, raping and torturing ten young women then taunting police by leaving their naked bodies sprawled on hillsides around LA.
I got a little too close to Sunset Slayer Douglas Daniel Clark, who killed six women he picked up along LA's Sunset Strip. Clark, a sex freak, shot some of his victims in the head during oral sex. He kept one of their heads in his refrigerator as a trophy. Clark would turn around and look at me as I entered the courtroom. He often called me from Los Angeles County Jail but my protective male boss refused to let me visit the creep.
How do you quantify evil? How can you determine who's the worst when they're all horrific?
The Night Stalker Richard Ramirez was in a league of his own. I had a gutteral response to the news of his death June 7 at age 53. It was at a hospital, not in his prison cell on California's notorious Death Row at San Quentin. My first reaction was "Gates of Hell open." In 1985, Los Angeles should have been looking back fondly at its successful 1984 Olympics a year earlier. Instead, it was paralyzed by fear for an entire summer.
Ramirez killed couples as they slept in their beds. All over Los Angeles. No one or region was safe. He gouged out their eyes. Dipped his hand in their blood and scrawled pentagrams and the word Satan on their bedroom walls. Ramirez looked the part. Unlike Buono in his jail jumpsuit or Clark, who tried to intimidate his prosecutor by dressing exactly like him down to his three-piece pin stripe suit and pocket watch, Ramirez had wild black hair and squinty, piercing black eyes that seared when I looked into them. So black. Like looking into the eyes of a demon... a possessed demon.
When you cover crime, as I did for The Associated Press in LA, you develop certain instincts just like a homicide investigator. All of a sudden, in the second largest city in America known for its laid back lifestyle, beautiful beaches and endless summers, anyone could be the next murder victim. LA was under siege. People refused to leave their homes. Many armed themselves or turned their homes into fortresses. Doors were bolted and windows tightly closed.
In what became a bizarre nighttime ritual for me, I would leave my house for my overnight shift at AP clutching the leash of our pet Doberman Sasha. My husband and I, Joseph Farah, news editor at the late, great Hearst newspaper the Herald-Examiner, timed it so I would not leave the house until he pulled into the driveway from his night shift editing the newspaper. Once his car lights appeared in the driveway, I'd walk out with the Doberman and hand him off to Joe as I got into my car. I watched as Joe entered the house safely then drove to work. When I arrived back home at 7 a.m. the first thing I did was to check to see if my husband was still alive in bed. That is the warped, extraordinarily odd psychological behavior a serial killer will do to you. But it was my normal.
Joe and I would discuss these serial killers over dinner. I told him I knew a new one was on the loose and why wasn't law enforcement saying anything. When authorities finally held a news conference, because they had to alert Angelenos to the public danger, Joe wrote a banner headline that said: "The Night Stalker's Deadly Trail." And it stuck. He named a serial killer.
Ramirez was finally caught at the end of a brutal summer. He was captured in a proud, family-oriented neighborhood of East Los Angeles by Latinos ashamed one of their own was a killer. They held him till police got there. I was there for the capture.
Ramirez's first court appearance was one of the most profound but nerve rattling moments of my 25-year reporting career. More than 100 news people were on hand, catching their first glimpse of the Night Stalker. The arraignment was routine. The judge informed Ramirez of the charges and banged his gavel to declare the hearing over. The TV pool camera shut off. All those reporters ran out the courtroom to go live or file. I took one of the biggest career risks of my life and stayed behind, with my brilliant AP photographer Nick Ut at my side. (Ut won the Pulitzer Prize for his famous photo of the naked napalm girl during the Vietnam War.) We were not about to leave until Ramirez, the man who terrorized Los Angeles all summer long, entered the lockup.
I kept my eyes fixed on him and Ut had his camera pointed. As Ramirez got to the courtroom door to lockup, he reeled around, held up his palm and flashed a pentagram scrawled on it and yelled "Hail, Satan!" Nick got the shot. TV didn't. I called my AP editor who cursed me out so bad for being last on the story. "Where have you f-in been? It's all over the f-in radio already!" I calmly said to him, "But did anyone report Ramirez flashed a pentagram and yelled Hail, Satan?" "Holy shit, no!" All those reporters who raced out missed it and had to scramble back inside to confirm incident with the court reporter.
So what was it like to cover serial killers? I was very young. It was my job. My career. I just went from one story to the next. Of course the killings bothered me. Maybe more than I'd like to admit. Joe and I took our first trip to Hawaii after the two-year Hillside Strangler trial finally ended. I could finally relax. I looked out from our beachfront Kauai hotel on the ground floor. I held the sliding glass door that looked out to the beautiful beach, ocean and Paradise. And bolted the door each night. The scars of multiple murders remained.
Looking back now it's strange to think that was my routine "normal: life for several years. Buono died in prison. Clark remains on Death Row, his hair now long and gray. Ramirez off Death Row with his death at the early age of 53. But as I wished him into the depths of hell, I also wondered if that's exactly where the Satanic killer and devil worshipper wanted to be all along.