On the night of August 24, 1985, 13-year-old James Romero was up late in the garage after a family road trip, when he heard footsteps crunching along the gravel path outside his house. Thinking it might be a prowler, the teenager immediately ducked behind a car and slowly sneaked into the house to wake his parents.
After telling his dad about the incident, Romero did the unthinkable – the 13-year-old bravely bolted back into the garage, where he saw a tall, stooped stranger, dressed mostly in black, ambling towards an Orange Toyota hatchback with a chrome roof rack.
The “weird-looking guy in black” looked Romero right in the eyes and sped off, but the 13-year-old was able to jot down a partial plate number and report it to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, who, at the time, did not think much of it, and filed the incident as a routine prowler call.
However, hours later, at 3:30 a.m., the Romero family received a call from the police, who insisted that someone wake Romero up. When he got on the line, the 13-year-old told an investigator a detailed story about his encounter with the prowler.
What the teenager did not know was that he had just encountered one of the most ruthless serial killers in California’s history.
Within the next four days, the police took a serious interest in the case.
At 6 a.m. the same day, a group of investigators and policemen showed up at the teenager’s door and thoroughly questioned him once again.
But the 13-year-old still wasn’t sure why this prowler report attracted so much attention.
Within the next few days, investigators took Romero on the patrol rides around the neighborhood in hopes that he might be able to recognize the prowler’s car. Unfortunately, both attempts were unsuccessful.
By the time the 13-year-old returned to his house, the area was now a crime scene with cruisers and forensic vans all over the place. Romero led the investigators to the sliding glass door to his parents’ room, where the prowler might have been standing. The curious 13-year-old immediately pointed out an unfamiliar footprint, the only piece of evidence recovered from the scene.
Back at a neighbor’s house, Romero’s parents finally told the teenager what was going on. On the night of the eerie encounter, a serial killer attacked a Mission Viejo couple Bill Carns, and his fiancée, Inez Ericksonmile, mile and a half away from their home.
That night, the shaken Romero family followed the news together.
“We were pretty freaked out, my whole family. We didn’t know if he was staking out the house. If he was going to come back. I think my dad even brought out a gun he used to keep locked up.”
Four days after the incident, on August 28, police were finally able to locate the car they’ve been looking for, after an owner of a strip mall called in a vehicle abandoned in his parking lot. It was an Orange Toyota station wagon, and the license plate was a close match the partial number Romero had reported.
Authorities staked the car out, hoping the driver might return. After nearly a day of fruitless round-the-clock surveillance, the car was hoisted onto a flatbed tow truck and taken in for forensic testing.
The same day, investigators brought James Romero to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department garage to show him the car they’ve found in the parking lot. The teenager immediately told the investigators, “That’s the one.” It was the right color. It had the chrome roof rack. It had a license plate number very similar to the one he jotted down: 482 RTS.
Although the killer had thoroughly wiped down the car to get rid of his fingerprints, Orange County forensic technicians decided to put a new method that allowed to fix otherwise invisible prints with Superglue fumes, to the test. The technician was able to find a single, readable fingerprint on the back of Toyota’s rearview mirror.
The digital fingerprint database came up with 100 possible matches. It took hours of tedious, painstaking comparisons to exclude the extraneous 99 results, but within a few days, a conclusive match was made. The driver of the stolen Orange Toyota was a 25-year-old drifter Richard Ramirez.
After the killer’s real identity was out, it didn’t take long for him to make a silly mistake, leading to his arrest. On August 31, Ramirez entered a convenience store, where a group of elderly Mexican women fearfully identified him as “El Matador” (“The Killer”). Ramirez bolted out of the store and ran across the Santa Ana Freeway, where he attempted to carjack a woman but was chased away by bystanders, who pursued him. After attempting two more carjackings, Ramirez was subdued by a group of residents, one of whom had struck him over the head with a metal bar in the pursuit. The group held Ramirez down, relentlessly beating him until police arrived and took him into custody.
Following Ramirez’s arrest, the 13-year-old James Romero was invited to a televised press conference, where he was hailed as a hero and showered with plaques and awards. He got checks from various city groups and box-seat tickets to LA Rams games. At the press conference finale, the Sherrif’s Department presented him with a brand new Yamaha ATV.
After the ceremony, investigators flew the teenager to Los Angeles to participate in a police lineup. Police introduced the 13-year-old to Inez Erickson, a woman who was attacked by Ramirez on the night of Romero’s eerie encounter with the killer. Both witnesses identified Ramirez as the perpetrator.
However, this wasn’t the last time James Romero and Richard Ramirez met face-to-face. Years later, then 17-year-old Romero was called as a witness in Ramirez’s preliminary hearing and was forced to stand just a few feet away from the killer. Fearing that the killer might try to intimidate Romero, a deputy ran up next to him and put a hand on his gun.
Romero testified for eight hours over two days of hearings, directly facing one of the most notorious serial killers. On multiple occasions, Ramirez tried to stare the teenager down and winked at him.
Over hours and hours of cross-examination, the 17-year-old kept his story consistent.
“They asked the same things over and over. I just told them what I knew and what I remembered. Nothing ever changed.”
Though the defense subpoenaed Romero for Ramirez’s final trial, his testimony date kept getting postponed. The defense rested without calling him to the stand.
Eventually, Ramirez was sentenced to death and told reporters:
“Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”