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ESSAY / Summer Stalking / Roz Weisberg

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News broke in the spring of 1985. In Rosemead, California, twenty-two year old Maria Hernandez raised her hands to protect herself when someone followed her car into the garage with a gun. He shot her in the face, but the bullet ricocheted off her keys. Her roommate, Dayle Okazaki heard the shot. Keeping the lights off, she went to investigate. As she moved through the house to the side door her roommate normally entered, she ducked behind the kitchen counter when the door opened, the assailant entered, and shot her in the head.

Later that same night, in Monterey Park, maybe a ten-minute drive from Rosemead, thirty- year old Tsai-Lian "Veronica" Yuwas driving home when she noticed she was being followed. She pulled over, allowing the car to pass, and decided to follow the tailgater. At a red light, the driver got out of his car and walked back toward Veronica Yu’s car. She rolled down her window. She was dragged out of her car and shot with a .22 caliber handgun. The killer fled the scene and Veronica Yuwas pronounced dead at the hospital. The few late-night witnesses cobbled together a vague description of the perpetrator’s curly dark hair and bulging eyes.

 

Nestled in a Burbank neighborhood twenty-five minutes away in the shadow of the 5 Freeway, my room faced the quiet suburban street of Parish Place. Although not a closed or gated community, it may as well have been–it’s major cross street to the east saw little traffic and the smaller thru road to the west that lead to the elementary school was only used by people who knew it as a short cut through the neighborhood. The traditional house, white with light green shutters, stood at the halfway point of the street, but could have been in almost anywhere. The front door with a picture window to its left and  two bedroom windows to its right. Those bedroom windows belonged to me. They provided a view of a giant maple tree whose trunk grew up and to the side stood watch; half its limbs reached back toward the house using the roof as a resting place for its heavy boughs while the other half shaded the street, a street light across the way and the comings and goings of the neighbors.

Burbank was the kind of place that on weekends and summers kids left their houses on their bikes with the sole instruction of returning home in time for dinner. It required imagination and ingenuity to find things to do. There was no movie theatre as City Council members believed it encouraged juvenile delinquency. The open-air shopping district that ran through downtown known as the “Golden Mall”, was home to small brick and mortar mom and pop shops consisting of a jeweler, a shoe store, a beauty shop, a florist, a Hollywood memorabilia shop­––all appeared to have been there from the moment the mall was created in 1967. It lacked record stores, bookshops and arcades that could occupy a young teen’s time. My best friend Giselle and I shuttled between our houses where Richard Blade of KROQ created the soundtrack of our youth with The Cure, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Billy Idol while we read magazines, watched MTV, and rented movies. We were thirteen and counted the days till one of us could drive.

When I was home, it was my job to set the yellow kidney shaped Formica kitchen table for dinner. The local news played in the background every night. A little over a week after the murders in Rosemead and Monterey Park a double murder was discovered in Whittier, twenty-five minutes from Burbank. Sixty-four year old Vincent Zazzara and his forty-four year old wife Maxine were shot with a .22 caliber handgun. When Maxine Zazzara was found, she had been mutilated with a kitchen knife post mortem; her eyes gouged out and placed in a jewelry box. It was reported that the police had no leads beyond the bullets that matched the other crimes. No patterns or signatures emerged. They asked the public for any information regardless of how insignificant it seemed. There was no predicting when or where the killer might strike again or if he ever would, but the local news proclaimed a serial killer was on the loose and The Nightstalker was christened.

When home my time was spent in my room. The door shut in the throes of teen angst. My room’s white walls, mint green drapes and matching sheers that hung down to the floor felt like it was a room for someone else. It was bright and exposed. It wasn’t a little girl’s room with pink cotton candy walls and eyelet curtains, but its brightness needed to be dimmed. Redecorating my room became my obsession, my new summer project restricted by only two rules: the walls could not be black and the carpet could not be ripped up. 

My mother asked after each doll, book or game that went into a box if I was sure I wanted to get rid of it, but they were things that had lost their appeal years before. The stark white walls became smoky grey. Nagel inspired prints were framed and hung. Without the clutter of big furniture and knickknacks, my room expanded. The matching dresser and bedside tables with carved flower inlays were replaced by pieces found at unfinished furniture stores and garage sales. Handmade “art” of coke cans hot glued together created a bedside table. My stereo rested on top of its speakers at one end of the room, a small TV on top of a three-drawer dresser on the other. My bed, nothing more than a box spring and mattress on the floor was pushed against the wall, underneath the two windows that faced the street; the windowsill was just above my head. 

            

News of The Nightstalker’s next attack broke. Thirty minutes away from Burbank in Monterey Park, sixty-six year old Bill Doi was shot in the face while his fifty-six year old disabled wife Lillian had been raped. She was found wearing thumbcuffs; but she was alive. Two weeks later southeast of Burbank, The Nightstalker struck Monrovia. Mabel “Ma” Bell was eighty-three, her disabled sister Florence “Nettie” Lang was eighty-one. The Nightstalker bludgeoned the sisters with a hammer, an electrical cord was used to shock Mabel Bell; Florence Lang had been raped. He drew a pentagram with lipstick on Florence Lang’s thigh and on the bedroom walls. Although alive when they were found, Mabel Bell died six weeks later while Florence Lang was never able to leave the hospital.

            

With a newly decorated room suited for a teen, Giselle and I continued our horror film binge in an effort to see who could go the longest before one of us had to cover our eyes. Freddie, Michael and Jason were on heavy rotation. My parents never commented on our movie selections, instead, they “loaned” me their VCR for our viewing pleasure. Mostly, they didn’t want to be subjected to our movie choices or the sounds of our girlish giggles, mumbles, and gasps; the family room and my parent’s bedroom were the furthest away from mine. With my door closed, my parents heard nothing.

The gray walls became a cave when the lights were off. The noises from outside were amplified. The buzz of the streetlamp, the rumble of a lone car as it rolled through the neighborhood, the voices of neighbors returning from an evening out. The warm Santa Ana winds caused the branches and leaves to scrape across the shingles above my room announcing their presence. The creaks of the house settling mixed with my father’s footsteps when he left for work at 2am. When our movies were over we told stories of urban legends, haunted houses and the occult that involved Pagan rituals and animal sacrifices. 

The slumber party moved to Giselle’s house when her mother, live-in boyfriend and grandmother planned a garage sale. I brought along the last remaining keepsakes from my old bedroom. As I priced my belongings, I found in a pile of books her mother was selling, a mass market paperback titled The Serpent.It was about a serial killer whose signature was to leave snakes at the crime scene. I sat on the porch and read for the next six hours, ignoring all things around me until I finished the book. The killer, raised on an extreme Pentecostal commune had been thrown into the snake pit as punishment when he was child; the killer’s motive was to save those he thought had sinned. I returned home the next day via the library with the librarian’s suggestion of In Cold Blood.

It was around July 4th, as I immersed myself in Holcomb, Oklahoma. Holcomb was not a big or even mid-sized suburb like Burbank, but it was a town where everyone knew each other with a downtown not unlike Burbank’s. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock shot the Clutters in the comfort of their home, in their own beds, at close range; in the face. Although the Clutters were targeted, rumored to have money, the randomness of the crime, in the middle of nowhere made me wondered when and where The Nightstalker would strike next. 

There was a heat wave that summer and my father refused to allow the air conditioner to stay on all night; he preferred to sleep with the windows open. I had started keeping my windows closed at night. When my mother came to say goodnight, my room, usually the coolest in the house was stuffy and warm. She wanted to know why the windows were closed. I tried explaining, I was alone in the front of the house and open windows seemed like an invitation for The Nightstalker. She stood, staring at me. I gave her the laundry list of what the news and the police had so far deduced: The Nightstaker travelled along the 5 Freeway and stopped at houses with easy freeway access– our house was less than a mile from an off ramp. The houses were white with yellow trim and although the trim to our house was light green, at night who could tell the difference. I knew she thought I was ridiculous when she suggested I might reconsider the kinds of movies I was watching and turn off the eleven o’clock news. She had no idea the kind of books I had been reading.

 

The Nightsalker continued his tour. He drove down Interstate 5, exiting into a neighborhood where he saw lights on in a house. At gunpoint, he bound forty-one year old Carol Kyle and her twelve-year old son Mark. The killer locked Mark Kyle in the closet while he sodomized Carol Kyle demanding to know where the valuables were. She tried to remain calm, refusing to scream knowing her son could hear. This time instead of killing his victims, The Nightstalker took Mark Kyle out of the closet and handcuffed him to his mother. He left them both alive. It was the exit just past my house. 

I invited Giselle over. Our daily trip to the video store became one where we both avoided the horror section. With Giselle there, I opened the windows, and we stayed up all night gossiping and laughing. We snuck into the kitchen for midnight snacks of turkey sandwiches and ice cream. 

That week, The Nightstalker struck Arcadia, Sierra Madre, and Monterey Park... again. The only news reported was that the police had no leads and unlike the patterns of past serial killers, his targets had none. He was fearless. He crossed the threshold to a place everyone found themselves comfortable and at ease.

Alone once more, it was a quiet night like any other. The sounds of the branches from the maple tree scraped the roof. The only light in my room came from the TV as it played in the background while I stared out the window. The sodium glow of the street light created shadows of the maple tree across the street and front yard. The more I stared at that tree, the more alive it looked and flashes of that scene in Poltergeist where the tree reaches into the house and takes the young boy from his bed in an effort to devour him played over and over again in my mind. Past the tree leaning on the streetlamp there stood a figure as if waiting for a ride in the middle of the night, but he disappeared in a flash. I told myself it was my imagination, a symptom from not getting enough sleep. I took the receiver from the phone and I lay on my back holding it close to my chest. With the wall to my left, the open window above, I heard what sounded like taut metal springs snap. Before I could react, a twelve-inch kitchen knife came through the screen window and plunged down toward me.

I hit my head on the windowsill when I bolted up, my heart racing. There was no kitchen knife; the screen window was intact, but the nightmares had begun. From then on every night, a kitchen knife sliced through the screen window and plunged down toward me, but I could never see a face. Knowing what waited for me if I fell asleep, I took to staying awake night after night, on high alert. I saw neighbors arrive home from their evenings out, I saw my father leave for work by 2a.m. I saw paperboys make their early morning deliveries. If I could stay awake as close to dawn as possible I’d be safe and then sleep the days away. 

The violence of The Nightstalker continued and by the end of July it was believed that there were at least nine more victims. He invaded other towns connected to Burbank, including Glendale to the south and Sun Valley to the north. These home invasions were less than five minutes from the 5 Freeway. These homes were the same distance from the off ramps as my home was from ours. They were areas I knew well. 

 

Whitney Bennett, a sixteen-year old girl in Sierra Madre, was the most recent survivor. The Nightstalker crawled in through her open bedroom window. He had bludgeoned her with a tire iron until she was unconscious. When sparks emanated from the telephone cord he used to try to strangle her, he ran off. She required 478 stitches. 

       

In August, the heat wave continued, the manhunt grew, but the leads were few. As the dog days of summer rolled on, I slept through the mornings and early afternoons and spent my nights watching old movies and sat up to watch over Parish Place. Soon, Northridge and Diamond Bar, areas on opposite sides of the valley from each other, about twenty-five minutes from Burbank were added to the list. More of his victims survived. I moved onto to Helter Skelter.

Although my parents never acknowledged concern over The Nightstalker, there was a palpable sense of relief at the dinner table when breaking news announced that The Nightstalker was in the bay area. Against the wishes of the police, Dianne Feinstein announced that the police connected a footprint from a murder in San Francisco with the murders in Los Angeles. As far as my parents were concerned, at least he had finally left the San Fernando Valley, it brought me little comfort.

By late August, there was one of three expectations for the nightly news. It was expected the news would report on a new victim or two. The newspapers showed maps that tracked his movements based on the last victim. When there were no further leads and no new developments, newscasters would repeat what they already knew. The police seemed no closer to catching him as autumn came than they had been when summer began. 

School would begin in a matter of weeks. Soon, daylight savings would cause the night to arrive earlier. The Nightstalker would have more time to hunt. My mind reeled as I tried to come up with a plan as to how I would go to school, join the swim team, keep my grades up and most importantly stay up all night to keep watch.

         

Around one in the morning in Mission Viejo, an hour away from Burbank, thirteen-year-old, James Romero III couldn’t sleep. He and his family had just returned from a camping trip and he forgot his pillow in the car. As he wandered through the house to the garage, he saw something move past the screen door. He ran through the house as his father yelled out for him to go back to bed. James yelled for his father to call the police as he ran out of the house. He chased the person from the yard who jumped into his waiting truck and sped off. 

As James told the police what happened, a few blocks away the police arrived to answer another emergency call who was another survivor. James remembered part of the license plate. The license plate led to a stolen car found abandoned on a street in Los Angeles. A single fingerprint was lifted; The Nightstalker’s identity was revealed. 

The face and name of Richard Ramirez flashed across the screen. He was young with a square jaw and high cheek bones. His eyes were not nearly as bulging as the sketches had made them out to be. He was remarkably average, but his image had a sinister sheen, a dark deadness in his eyes. I continued my nightly routine, his picture burned into my mind. He stared out from the front pages of all the newspapers. It was difficult to not see him in the faces of strangers. He could appear anywhere, anytime. 

On August 31st, a group of elderly women in East LA stood outside of a store chatting about neighborhood gossip when Richard Ramirez walked past them on the street. “El Diablo” saw his face staring back at him from the news stand, the women called attention under their breaths, loud enough so that not only did Ramirez hear them, but a group of men did as well. Ramirez ran, the men gave chase. The mob pursued him through the neighborhood and across the freeway on foot. The caught up to him, declaring they were making a citizen’s arrest and pummeled him until the police arrived. 

 

The Nightstalker was captured; the following Monday school began.

Upon returning to school, the anxiety shifted, paranoia faded to the background, homework and new crushes took center stage. Everything we did was deemed to be “the last” as we anticipated our last year in junior high before we crossed the threshold to high school. Sleep returned, a normal routine resumed, the suburban bubble re-formed.