It could be said that I got a phone call from Satan on a sunny Easter Sunday in 2013. I was cleaning out the car when my cell phone rang. I recognized the prison number but not the voice on the other end of the line. It wasn’t the inmate I had been corresponding with. The soft but deep voice that called my name from the other end of the phone line belonged to Mr. Richard Ramirez, AKA; The Night Stalker.
Those words, The Night Stalker, do not bring the instant terror they once did in the 80’s Los Angeles area. People all over the country knew the horror he was reigning down on that southern California neighborhood and his name stood in infamy with his professed devotion to Satan for decades to come. The passage of time has brought with it more horrifying serial killers with even more heinous deeds to bear witness to. Not everyone knows the name Richard Ramirez anymore, or has heard the wicked tale of the Night Stalker, but I was vividly aware of who I was speaking to when he told me his name.
Richard had first written to me about four years before that phone call. I had spent the last 15 years working with women on death row providing free resources such as correspondence classes, religious study, books etc. My information circulates the prison system and I get a lot of inmate mail and mail from family asking for help. This is how I was to receive a letter from Richard for the first time.
Strangely, Richard didn’t want anything from me. He wasn’t interested in classes or religious study. He just wanted to talk. So, for almost five years, I exchanged letters with Richard Ramirez, California’s Night Stalker.
In the first few months, the letters he sent made little sense and were very messy. I had to sit and contemplate the pen strokes, deciphering each swoop and stab like a secret code. It was as if he wrote every letter in a really big hurry. Those early letters were more like lists of questions. He would ask me about my personal life and who I am. I was taken off guard at first but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was doing the same thing everyone else does when they write a letter. Trying to get to know me. He was just doing it in his own particular way.
Did you graduate? What was your first car? What was your favorite subject in school? What is your favorite book/movie/song?
I went through each letter and answered every question thoroughly. Eventually he would ask really personal stuff, such as when I lost my virginity and how many men I’d bedded in my lifetime. He asked me to take pictures of inside my refrigerator and my underwear drawer. He was curious about what my house looked like and how my bathroom was decorated. We talked about the kind of weeds that grow in my yard and the vegetable garden I plant every year…..
After about a year of correspondence, he asked me if I would visit. He told me he didn’t have many visitors anymore, but I found that hard to believe. California is a long way from Tennessee, so I begged him off saying we should get to know each other better. He agreed and said I could ask him anything I wanted to, and he would answer. He never, however, promised to give me a truthful answer.
Our letters got more personal at that point and I noticed a change from the long list format he’d started with to a more traditional letter format.
We discussed our days and television shows we liked. He asked about my family and work life. I asked about his activities and hobbies. I asked about his childhood and his crimes. His answers were vague and confusing, like all notorious killers, but I read them with interest. Always hoping beyond hope that I’d be the writer he decided to spill it all to. I knew he was stringing me along, but I couldn’t tear myself away from those insanely fascinating weekly missives.
Each letter had hand-drawn artwork and sometimes things ripped out of newspapers he found interesting. We’d talked about old relationships and childhood traumas. He told me he liked church when he was small and missed the neighborhood he grew up in. I told him I’d been assaulted as a teen and asked him if I would have fit the bill for one of his victims. That was one question he never answered in a letter, although he did acknowledge it.
The Easter Sunday he called my cell phone, he told me more than he had in any letter throughout the years. “No way!” I said when he told me who he was. We exchanged pleasantries and he told me I sounded just like he thought I would. He’d imagined my southern accent perfectly, he said.
I will never forget how soft his voice was, but it had a strength behind it that made me forget he was an old man now and not the young, virile, madman that got him where he was. I thought it as good a time as any to bring up the questions he’d answered so vaguely. I asked him if he had any regrets about the murders and he bellowed with laughter. Saying, “I thought you knew me better than that.” I asked if he would do it again if he had the chance. He said “of course” with no hesitation but admonished me for asking stupid questions. He said he thought a phone call with me would be more interesting.
I asked him again, if I would have fit the bill for his murder spree. He was quiet for a moment. When he spoke again, I hardly recognized the voice. I thought someone else had taken the phone. In almost a whisper, he said “if the circumstances were right”. This time it was my time to be silent. “Did you expect me to say anything else?” he laughed at me. “Of course, I would have. You aren’t special.” He laughed again in this new dark voice Id never heard. “Do you think we’re friends, Kelly?” We are not.” More laughter. He was clearly enjoying himself.
A little shocked but trying to save face I managed to stammer out, “No, were not friends. Just a teacher and a student.” He liked that answer and lightened up the mood. His voice resumed its soft cadence. We only talked for a few more minutes. He knew he freaked me out and I guess that was the goal of the call. I shook when I ended that call. My nerves danced around, and my stomach churned. I got several more letters from him before he died a few months later. He had never told me he was ill or close to death. I was as surprised as anyone when I heard the news.
In my life experience with inmates, I have always been able to connect on some level. I have enough empathy to try to see the humanity in those we’ve labeled monsters. They tell me things they don’t tell police or therapists. Richard Ramirez gave me the clearest picture I have ever had of what a real monster is. I thought I had built a relationship with him and while I probably did, it would not have saved my life. Had the circumstances been right, I would have been his victim.
I’ve carried this experience with me throughout the rest of my career with inmates. Each interview, letter, phone call, is tainted with his bellowing laughter. I still like to think that everyone has good in them and deserves a kind word, but it’s harder than it used to be.
The Night Stalker: An untold Truth “It could have been ME” – To read more about Kelly and her life and experiences, visit: http://sinfullyvin.com/kelly-banaski-a-woman-condemned/
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