For a suburban kid like me who grew up in a safe neighborhood surrounded by predictable events, evil occasionally seems so intangible. It feels like something that happens somewhere far away, and the only access I have to studying it are books, films and documentaries, flickering images on a screen or printed words on a page.
At one point around 2009, I was overcome with an almost obsessive need to have something “tangibly evil” in my hand. I suddenly understood fan girls who will rip the shirts off of their favorite singers just to get a piece of canvas, something physical to hold and touch. I sometimes wonder if they don’t go to such extremes in a desperate effort to somehow explain their obsession to themselves: “This piece of shirt/this autograph will help me explain what’s going on in my mind if I just meditate on it hard enough!”
One thing is for certain, though: those were my thoughts in the Summer of 2009, when I picked up a pen and wrote a letter to serial killer Richard Ramirez.
For those of you who don’t know who he was, Ramirez was a brutal serial killer who murdered 14 people in California in the early 1980s. His modus operandi included breaking into his victims’ homes in the middle of the night and killing them – hence his famous nickname “The Night Stalker”. He was caught in 1985 and sentenced to death, but due to a long delay of some sort ended up dying of natural causes in prison in 2013.
Looking up his address on the internet was relatively easy – the guy had actually placed an ad for a pen pal on a site called lostvault.com. His ad was easy-going and to-the-point, as though written by a surfer dude looking for other cool dudes and dames to hang out with over summer. If you had only read the ad without looking up the name of the person who had placed it, you may have believed the guy was in prison for some minor crime, like stealing a car maybe, or getting caught with marijuana in his pockets.
The first letter I wrote to him was a long, rambling biography of myself. I wasn’t particularly careful in relaying details of my personal life, but then again, if Ramirez would have managed to bust out of prison, it’s pretty unlikely he would have ended up in Finland… The letter was a fairly typical one for someone who hadn’t written too many letters before: a long monologue where one feels as though every single thing about everything needs to be told in that one letter; since then, I have grown much more patient, and more cognizant of the fact that the point of correspondence is longevity – everything doesn’t need to be written onto one letter. The back-and-forth nature of correspondence is part of the enjoyment.
Anyways, I put the letter in the mail, expecting homicidal psychopath Ramirez to be so enchanted by the details of my suburban student life that he would no doubt reply to my letter immediately.
Didn’t happen. A response didn’t arrive at all.
I’m generally not the kind of person who tries once and gives up. Quite the opposite, in fact: for me, a “No” is just a step on the way to a “Yes”. So I decided to do some research and write again.
I read Philip Carlo’s excellent book The Night Stalker with the mindset of looking for clues as to what might get a response from Ramirez. My initial plan after reading the book was to pretend to be a Satanist (which Ramirez himself was) and write a letter praising the Lord of the Underworld, and recounting all kinds of made-up evil deeds I had done. I sketched just such a letter, complete with inverted crosses and references to Milton’s Paradise Lost.
When I read the letter out loud to myself, I burst into laughter. It was hilarious. Hilariously stupid.
Though I had wasted my time drafting it (anybody with half a brain would be able to smell the phoniness from a mile away), it lead me to a pivotal realization: if you’re sitting in a cell 23 hours a day, surrounded by white tile walls, maybe it’s not text and talk you’re looking for from a friendly stranger in the outside world – maybe it’s pictures! As Hannibal Lecter says in that scene in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) where he dreams of a cell with a view:
I’ve been in this room for eight years now Clarice, and I know they’ll never let me out, not while I’m alive. What I want is a view where I can see a tree, or even water.
So I borrowed my wife’s camera and went to work photographing essentially anything and everything there was to see in my hometown. Parks, the river, trees, panoramic views, street scenes, etc. I also enclosed a photo of myself. Once I was done, I wrote a short introductory letter with greetings from Finland, and dropped the whole package in the mail.
A reply from Ramirez came within a few weeks.
As I said at the beginning, I had set out on a quest for something “tangibly evil”. and had believed I would be able to obtain something of the sort from a serial killer. I expected Ramirez’s letter to be filled with obscene talk (“I liked the photos of nature but can U send me photos of naked chicks covered in blood HAHAHAHHA?????”).
Not even close. The tone of the letter is chatty, cordial and polite. Instead of receiving a physical token testifying to the overt nature of evil, I had received a reminder of the very banality of it. Ramirez thanked me for the photos, told me about his favorite music and cars (and asked me about mine), and ended the letter with a polite request for more pictures.
“That’s it?!” I thought to myself. I may as well have written my f**king grandmother! What a brilliant disguise, and what a waste of my time. Apparently, I was looking for evidence of evil under circumstances where it’s relatively easy to pretend to be something you’re not – in a letter.
But then I noticed something upon re-reading the letter. A strange question that, upon further reflection, stuck out like a sore thumb from the menial chit-chat:
“So… any nieces or nephews in your life?”
This was a strange question, especially following questions about cars, music etc.
I went to the Internet to research Ramirez’s letters to his other pen-pals, and contacted people who had received replies from him. That’s when I learned of a creepy pattern: Ramirez had, on several occasions, asked his pen pals for photos of children, particularly little boys – had I answered that question with a “Yes”, his next letter would have asked me for photos of those “nieces or nephews”…
I realized I was a hypocrite indeed: somehow, it had been “acceptable” in my mind that he had murdered and tortured people, but now I was outraged and disgusted by his pedo habits. That was the last letter I ever wrote to him.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this, I suppose it could be verbalized like this: don’t expect to know the extent of evil, and to thus be able to control your reaction to it. You think you “know”, for example, a serial killer because you’ve read about all his crimes, but you probably have no idea how deep the darkness goes.
None of us, not me or Philip Carlo or anyone, ever really knew Ramirez, despite our letters, our books and our late-night Internet browsing sessions.
Sometimes it’s better not to go digging. If you don’t believe me, ask Jason Moss.