How an El Paso woman's college paper led to becoming pen pals with the Night Stalker
An El Paso woman has an unusual connection to a notorious serial killer from the Borderland; it started with a homework assignment.
Growing up in El Paso had a profound impact on the man who would later become the Night Stalker.
Richard Ramirez committed numerous murders and rapes in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s, but it all began on the streets of El Paso.
In 1997, Heather Shade was a student at El Paso Community College, and what was supposed to be a simple research paper, led her down an unexpected path when she mentioned it to a friend.
“I was doing an assignment where I was going to write specifically about American crimes,” Shade said. “She (Shade’s friend) said, ‘I have a relative who is in San Quentin and maybe you’d like to email him via mail and maybe get some insight on your paper,’”
That relative was the Night Stalker himself.
Shade hesitated at first, but eventually penned her first letter to the murderer.
Soon enough, she got a response.
The letter read, “Hello, Hi, was nice hearing from you. My relative had mentioned someone might write. I have a few people. I write someone in the People’s Republic of China. I put in an ad in a magazine for pen pals, but I don’t have anyone from my hometown so it is good to correspond with you. I went to Cooley Henderson, Jefferson and Irvin schools, do you know them?”
Shade said Ramirez’s lack of education played a role in his life.
“That was something that he did touch on in his correspondence with me was that it was rough on him, and his educational life was being bounced around. He never really got a chance to settling down into any one school,” Shade said.
Ramirez told Shade that he struggled to fit in.
“I know he did mention being embarrassed of his appearance and feeling like he didn’t match up to other kids at school,” she said.
Shade said he expressed a special interest in the educational experience he never got.
For the sake of her college paper, that was important.
“One of the things that he did tell me was that he wished he could go back to those really younger years and do a lot of things differently, so I think through the letters he would envision that,” Shade said.
While growing up in El Paso, one of the things Ramirez would do was go for walks.
In a letter to Shade, he wrote, “Is the community college still on Hunter Street? I used to walk around there. Maybe it’s not there anymore, but that was one of my favorite places to walk.”
“I believe that at one point in time he did used to live in this neighborhood,” Shade said. “Like I said, (walking) was just something he would do to get out of the house and get away from the chaos happening on in the family.”
That chaos also led Ramirez to Concordia Cemetery, where he would sometimes go to sleep.
“He said it gave him a feeling of being safe, quiet, calm, protected. It was a place where no one would hurt him or bother him,” Shade said. “In a way, it's very sad to think about a young child that that was their escape or refugee was a place like that. But it does kind of give a glimpse into his upbringing and his development, I think.”
Shade and Ramirez kept in touch for about a year – even though her paper took three months to write.
In one letter, he wrote, “What subjects you like to draw? And also, just curious, do you have any tattoos? Sorry to be so nosey. Answer only what you wish. Take care, your friend, I hope, Ritchie.”
“There’s always an element to it, or a layer to it, of being creepy, of course,” Shade said. “You can’t get away from knowing what he did and just the terribleness of it.”
Beyond the crimes, Shade said she did find some sympathy for the murderer.
“I did just start to see the glimpse of the bare human being that was in there,” Shade said. “That was disturbing and sad and creepy and enlightening all together in one thing.”
But she never forgot what her pen pal was capable of.
“During my whole time talking to him, as much as I may have found certain points of empathy, I never really did put aside what he did,” Shade said.
Shade eventually stopped writing to Ramirez. Her grandmother had grown increasingly worried about the serial killer having her address. So after a year, she penned her final letter to the Night Stalker.