In late summer 1985, San Francisco Police Department homicide Inspector Frank Falzon was escorting infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez to a holding cell when the man dubbed the Night Stalker turned around and smiled at him.
Ramirez had recently been captured by an angry mob after trying to steal a pregnant woman’s car. Los Angeles police already suspected Ramirez in more than a dozen homicides in that county and Falzon was sure he had committed at least one in San Francisco — the gruesome attack of Peter and Barbara Pan in their Lake Merced home, in which Barbara Pan was raped, shot and left for dead, and her husband was killed.
“Ramirez turned around and gave me that ugly smile of his and said, ‘Hey, Falzon, I bet you’d love to know about those two old ladies, wouldn’t you?’” Falzon said recently. “It didn’t register right away, so I said, ‘What old ladies?’ He said, ‘The two old ladies on Telegraph Hill.’”
As Falzon watched Ramirez walked away, it clicked: Christina and Mary Caldwell, ages 58 and 70, respectively, whose mutilated bodies were found months before in their Telegraph Hill flat. They each were stabbed dozens of times; every surface in the home was sprayed with blood. One of the sisters was found near the window, a knife had pierced her throat, as though the killer had silenced her just as she was trying to scream for help.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he killed those ladies,” Falzon said. “He virtually gave me a confession.”
Police long ago charged Ramirez with the Pan murders — though that crime was never prosecuted. In October, they discovered DNA evidence indicating he was responsible for the death of a 9-year-old girl in the Tenderloin.
Now, police are investigating four more quarter-century-old homicides that they’ve long believed belong on his rap sheet to see if they can find conclusive evidence against him — including the deaths of the Caldwell sisters.
Ramirez is best known for his reign of terror in Los Angeles, where the 13 murders he has been convicted of occurred.
Modern-day technology, however, is allowing police to start unraveling the horrors many believe he simultaneously unleashed on San Francisco.
In October, preliminary DNA tests from a 25-year-old case implicated the satanic serial killer in the May 1984 death of 9-year-old Mei “Linda” Leung, which would make the case his earliest known murder.
After announcing the DNA link in October, The City’s cold case unit — made up of just two detectives and established less than two years ago — examined dozens of other unsolved homicides from that era, searching for other victims who could be linked to Ramirez. Homicide Inspector Holly Pera said she and her partner, Inspector Joseph Toomey, have focused on three cold cases that fit the Night Stalker’s patterns.
Though Pera would not reveal details of any of the cases, she said they are the February 1985 murders of the Caldwell sisters in Telegraph Hill; the November 1984 stabbing death of celebrated chef Masataka Kobayashi in Nob Hill; and the June 1985 shooting death of Edward Wildgans in Cow Hollow. Other cases may be re-examined in the future for a link to Ramirez, Pera said.
She said all the homicides currently being investigated occurred within striking distance of the Tenderloin residency hotels where he lived periodically.
Ramirez is believed to have lived just blocks from Leung at the time of her death. Police are still awaiting the final confirmation that Ramirez’s DNA matches that found at the scene of her homicide. According to reports in The Examiner at the time, Leung was coming home from school with her brother and argued with him about going up the elevator. In the end, he took the elevator and she went up the stairs, but never reached her mother’s apartment. She was found half an hour later with her blouse wrapped around her neck, sexually assaulted and stabbed to death, around in overhead pipes in the basement of the building.
Though the police description of the perpetrator — a Caucasian man in a brown leather jacket with shaggy brown hair parted in the middle — fit Ramirez to the letter, police had never pegged him as a suspect, in part because it preceded the Los Angeles murders Ramirez became famous for.
The next time he’s known to have struck was two months later, in June 1984, when he slashed 79-year-old Jennie Vincow’s throat in her Los Angeles apartment — a crime he was later convicted of.
His next charged murder in Los Angeles didn’t occur for nine more months, but two of the killings being revisited by San Francisco police happened in the interim.
On Nov. 13, 1984, the esteemed chef and founder of French restaurant Masa’s on Bush Street was found dead in a blood-smeared hallway of his home, still dressed in his chef’s coat, according to Examiner reports at the time. A window near a fire escape leading to an alley behind the building was open when Kobayashi was discovered.
According to Pera, this is consistent with Ramirez’s known murders. He is not believed to have picked out particular victims, but rather sought out chances to attack.
“He would pick out a particular place to go inside, rather than picking out his victims in advance,” she said. “He was kind of an
Three months later, in February 1985, the Caldwell sisters were found slain. Though shoe and palm prints were discovered throughout the apartment, police discovered most of them belonged to neighbors.
Shortly after that, the Night Stalker’s famous killing spree in Los Angeles began. He has been convicted of eight murders in Southern California committed between March and August 1985.
Police are investigating whether Ramirez also struck in San Francisco in the middle of that period. On June 2, 1985, 29-year-old Edward Wildgans was shot through the temple with a small-caliber gun, Ramirez’s weapon of choice in several of his Los Angeles killings. His girlfriend fought off the attacker, according to a Los Angeles Times story at the time.
His final known killing occurred in San Francisco’s Park Merced on Aug. 17, 1985, when he allegedly shot Peter and Barbara Pan with a small-caliber gun. Retired Inspector Falzon remembers the incident vividly: The perpetrator raped Barbara Pan, ejaculated on the carpet, ate food in the refrigerator and then vomited in the home. That case was fully investigated and went to the grand jury, but was never prosecuted.
“We did not have DNA tests or any of the scientific tools we have today, but at the time, we identified Ramirez as a suspect in four or five cases,” Falzon said. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if cases continue to come in showing that he was active in the Bay Area at that time.”
Retired SFPD Lt. George Kowalski led the homicide unit in that era, and said there is great value in solving the cases.
“All police departments would like to close cases because first of all, it’s the worst crime there is. You’re taking somebody’s life and, also, it makes everybody feel a bit better — especially survivors,” Kowalski said. “I would love to see Mr. Ramirez be indicted for another couple murders.”
SF robbery, killing helped lead police to Ramirez
Most people don’t know the San Francisco Police Department’s crucial role in the capture of the Night Stalker.
After Peter and Barbara Pan were brutally attacked in their Lake Merced home in August 1985, police found a pentagram and other satanic symbols in the home, and they realized they must be dealing with a victim of the Night Stalker, now-retired Inspector Frank Falzon said.
The perpetrator had stolen jewelry from the Pans, so the newly formed Night Stalker task force decided to publish pictures and descriptions of the jewelry. Sure enough, a man in Lompoc called the SFPD, saying a man of the Night Stalker’s description was a friend of his mother-in-law’s and regularly gave her jewelry to hold onto that he had stolen.
After being contacted by police, his mother-in-law, Donna Meyer, cooperated, but only knew the man as “Rick” from El Paso, Texas. She led San Francisco detectives to another man, Armando Rodriguez, who, after a lot of heat, told investigators that Rick’s last name was Ramirez.
With a full name and a place of birth, in combination with finger prints lifted from crime scenes, police were able to find the suspect in the state’s files and come up with a mug shot from a previous arrest for a petty crime. Police released the photo, and within hours, Richard Ramirez was caught, Falzon said.
Among the jewelry police found at Meyer’s house was a bracelet stolen from the home of a prominent Marina district dentist, Jack Saroyan, Falzon said. In fact, the dentist’s teenage niece was at home when Ramirez entered the house, but she heard the intruder and hid in a closet until he left.
“That girl didn’t know how lucky she was,” Falzon said.
Cold case unit has had some success with old investigations
The San Francisco district attorney has yet to file charges in a 1984 homicide linked to Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, but every week, the cold case unit meets to take on new cases with a lot less fanfare.
In the roughly two years since the group — which consists of police, medical examiner, crime lab and District Attorney’s Office representatives — has met, the unit has reviewed about 200 cases, according to Assistant District Attorney Braden Woods, head prosecutor of the task force.
About 90 cases have been charged, with more than half the charges being sexual assault, Woods said. Twelve of the cases are homicides and the rest are burglaries, robberies and attempted murders.
Two of the murder suspects, John Puckett and William Speer, have since been tried and convicted. Two cases, for alleged killers James Mayfield and Otis Hughes, are currently in trial.
The unit makes decisions about cases every Monday when the team meets at the Hall of Justice. Attention is focused on cases that have biological evidence, evidence that can be matched to the state Department of Justice’s databank. As of January, anyone arrested in California is required to provide swabs of DNA to the database.
Then, the group sets to finding witnesses to build a better case — something of a challenge considering how much time has passed. It’s difficult, Woods said, but with gruesome events, the memory lasts.
“You’d be surprised what people remember,” he said. “Something traumatic happens, and it tends to stick with some people. It’s almost haunting.”
— Brent Begin
Timeline of terror
Police are investigating whether the Night Stalker was committing murders in San Francisco as he was unleashing the horrors he is famous for in Los Angeles.
April 10, 1984: 9-year-old Mei Leung is found hanging over a pipe in the basement of her apartment building at 765 O’Farrell St.
June 1984: Jennie Vincow’s throat is slashed in her Los Angeles apartment.
Nov. 13, 1984: Famed San Francisco chef Masataka Kobayashi is found dead in his Nob Hill apartment at 1111 Pine St.
Feb. 20, 1985: Mary and Christina Caldwell, ages 70 and 58, respectively, are stabbed dozens of times in their Telegraph Hill apartment.
March 17, 1985: Dale Okazaki and Tsai-Lian Yu are shot.
March 28, 1985: Vincent and Maxine Zazzara are shot.
May 14, 1985: William and Lillian Doi are attacked while sleeping. Lillian survives.
May 29, 1985: Mabel Bell, 84, is violently beaten.
June 2, 1985: Edward Wildgans, 29, is shot through the right temple by a late-night intruder. His girlfriend fights off the attacker.
July 2, 1985: Mary Louise Canno is found beaten and with her throat slit.
July 7, 1985: Joyce Nelson is beaten with a blunt object.
July 20, 1985: Lela and Max Kneiding are shot. Chainarong Khovananth is shot minutes later.
Aug. 8, 1985: Elyas Abowath is shot in the head while sleeping.
Aug. 17, 1985: Peter and Barbara Pan are attacked in their Lake Merced home. Peter Pan is killed and his wife is shot but survives.
Aug. 30, 1985: Police release a photo of Ramirez to the media. Within 12 hours, he is captured by citizens.