Even in his death row cell, satanic serial killer and rapist Richard Ramirez — the “Night Stalker” — receives bags of mail. And of the dozens of people who try to contact him each year, officials say, about 90 per cent are women.
It’s not just Ramirez who gets the attention, nor is Scott Peterson alone in the way he attracted admiring women even after he was sentenced to die for killing his wife and unborn child.
Death row prisoners often join the horde of grooms married in group ceremonies such as the one planned on Saturday at San Quentin State Prison.
It’s a phenomenon that’s little understood and seldom studied: Women who fall hopelessly in love — or at the least become wildly infatuated — with the most feared killers.
“Our high notoriety inmates get the most interest,” said Lieut. Sam Robinson, a San Quentin spokesman. “I have tried to figure this out, but I don’t have an answer.”
Ramirez was convicted in 1988 of 13 murders and 30 other felonies, among them rape and sodomy. He had terrified Southern California in the mid-1980s and was called “the Night Stalker” because he killed his victims in their beds.
After he was caught and arrested, he met freelance editor Doreen Lioy. In 1988, the year he was convicted, he proposed. They married in the San Quentin visitor waiting room in 1996.
Ramirez had a choice. Other women had proposed to him, and today there are a handful of women who regularly maintain contact.
Some of them write to him or visit him, including a 30-year-old woman from Washington. The woman, who did not want to be identified, said most relatives don’t know about her relationship with Ramirez, although her disapproving husband does.
She said she started writing to the Night Stalker — a habit that sometimes exceeded 20 letters a week and frequent visits — because she was fascinated with his case.
“He is good looking and I loved his big hands,” she said of Ramirez. “The thrill of danger of going up to a state penitentiary made it all worth it because to me it was like a dream come true to face one of the world’s most feared men.
“Like my mom used to say, you can love someone but you don’t have to like them,” she says.
And Ramirez, despite being her “best friend,” deserves to die for his crimes, she said.
Sheila Isenberg, who wrote Women Who Love Men Who Kill in 1991, still hears from women who are mesmerized with murderers. Some meet the killers through their work as nurses, teachers or social workers. Others have never met the men.
“We Americans romanticize the guy with the gun, whether he’s good or bad,” Isenberg said. “Their relationships are predicated on the lack of contact. The intensity comes from the fact that the men behind bars have all the time to respond to those letters.”
Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, said there is little scientific research on the phenomenon of so-called killer groupies. Some have low self-esteem and get a boost from writing to notorious criminals.
“If they had written to a rock star, they would have been lucky if they had gotten a computer-written postcard,” Levin said. “Now they even get proposals.”
Others are smart, intelligent and good-looking, he said.
That the groupies even exist may say more about the inmates, Levin explained. In many cases they are “manipulative, socially screwed sociopaths” who take advantage of the women falling for them.
Another group of women is driven more by charity than fascination. They befriend death row inmates because they oppose capital punishment and feel that even convicted murderers should have someone with whom to communicate. A handful of organizations aim to establish pen pal contacts for death row inmates.
Gabi Uhl is a member of the German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and has had several contacts with U.S. death row inmates. “I think some of the women writing to prisoners are indeed naive or strange, but that’s the exception rather than the rule,” said Uhl.
“You have to be aware of the fact that there are no choirboys in there,” she said.
Stefan Tomik writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.