Not Your Freak

September 6, 2021   •   By Shawna Kenney

FROM APRIL 1984 through August 1985, Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Night Stalker, terrorized California over a year of murders, rapes, and child abductions. A case of mistaken identity still haunts one Angeleno to this day.


Arturo Robles wanted to dance. Back in 1985, the 25-year-old Angeleno could usually be found at local punk venues like the Starwood, Madame Wong’s, or the Whisky a Go Go, but in early April of that year, after a long day running machines at the print shop, Robles showered in his East L.A. apartment and got ready for a new wave dance night out in the suburbs. He’d been staying with his parents in his childhood home for a few months after his divorce, while seeing his girlfriend, Barbara, and their three-month-old baby, Vanessa, on and off again. His parents owned a duplex down in the nearby city of Bell and were getting it ready for him to eventually live in. Maybe, if things worked out, Barbie and Vanessa would move in, too.


But on this cool Thursday night, Robles considered himself single, alone again. He donned black jeans, a light-colored button-down shirt, a black thrift-store suit jacket bought for $15 at Aardvark’s on Melrose, and maroon leather pointy shoes. His straight black hair hung at that annoying in-between stage where it barely made a ponytail but when worn down, the shoulder-length Bono style sometimes caught in his collars. “It grows fast, I’m Indio,” he says, now with a full head of silver hair. But he brushed it back and tied it up, then jumped into his 1977 emerald green 320I BMW full of cassette tapes bearing songs recorded off KROQ, the famous Los Angeles alternative radio station. New Order, The Talking Heads, and Romeo Void kept him company on the 30-minute drive east to West Covina. His sister had recently told him he looked like Nicolas Cage from the movie Valley Girl. Maybe he’d score with a hot babe in the bathroom like Nic’s character Randy did, while the Plimsouls’ “A Million Miles Away” played in the background.


Calling The Red Onion a club required some stretch of imagination. It was a strip mall chain restaurant during the day turned singles scene by night. The food was what Robles calls “cheesy Mexican,” nothing like that of his parents’ dishes from the ranches of Zacatecas, Mexico, nor that of his Tijuana birthplace. “They just served nachos and drinks at night. There were a lot of these clubs at the time, where they pushed the tables out of the way, added a DJ, and became dance clubs after hours,” he says. “I had been here before with Barbara, so I knew it would be filled with nicely dressed Chicana women.”


Getting out of his parked car, he realized his shoes were untied. After bending down and tying them, things felt off as he lifted his six-foot frame. “I notice my blazer and my ponytail aren’t really working. I worked it in. I worked it out. I worked it in. I worked it out,” he says, shaking his head side to side to show the indecision about his locks. Finally, he straightened up and walked the 100 yards to the club. Inside there were roughly 80 people total, 20 or so bopping around on the small dance floor. “I see a very pretty statuesque girl and her friend. I talk to them. The pretty one says, ‘I’m a model for Lowrider Magazine,’ and some others. I want to focus on Miss 5’8” 120 pounds, but her friend wants to go. I’m trying to talk my ass off into them staying, but finally the one I’m interested in says, ‘We’re going to leave.’” Robles walked them to their car, jogged back to his BMW, and left.


Both cars headed toward the 10 Freeway. Robles wondered if he might see them again either at The Red Onion or another club. “I’m wondering if they’re local girls. I thought, ‘If they go east to Ontario, Chino, forget about it. But they went west,” he says. “I’m going back to L.A. anyway. But when we get to the 710, they take it north, toward Alhambra, Pasadena, and I said, ‘I’m not doing that.’” He stayed on the 10 West until it merged with the 101 Freeway toward Hollywood, thinking he might try Club Lingerie, where the music was more his taste and the drinks were cheap. Then he thought better of it and called it a night. “I had a few drinks in me. The foxhunt was over. I asked myself, ‘What are you doing at 1:00 in the morning?’” Robles turned his car back east and headed home, unaware that he was being followed, too.


¤


A few days before this, Detective Gil Carrillo was working out of the East L.A. County Sheriff’s Station when he received a call about someone harassing women in the eastern suburb of Whittier. Carrillo had been with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau since 1981 and was newly partnered with seasoned detective Frank Salerno, both working the case of a criminal the press dubbed “The Walk-in Killer” or “The Valley Intruder.” Their first known murder had occurred in June 1984 in Glassell Park, when he slashed the throat of a 79-year-old woman. The second attack happened on March 17, 1985, in the suburb of Rosemead, just south of Pasadena, where he shot 22-year-year-old Maria Hernandez, but a bullet ricocheting off of the car keys she held up to her face saved her. Moments later he shot and killed her 34-year-old roommate, Dayle Okazaki. The killer struck again that same night in Monterey Park, dragging a 30-year-old woman from her car and shooting her in the head. Ten days later, a married couple was brutalized and killed in Whittier. Detectives connected the killings through an unusual shoe print left at each scene, a detail the public did not yet know. Newspapers described the perpetrator as “six feet tall, with curly hair and gapped teeth.”


The call to Carrillo’s substation sounded like a good lead. “They [officers] showed me a report where some guy had been following girls,” Carrillo says. “They had a license plate number.” Carrillo got a surveillance team together and told them, “‘Follow this guy. Let’s see what he looks like.’ He was a tall, light-skinned Mexican guy. He had long hair, and as it turns out, he dressed in all black at night,” he recalls. “And the guy was doing some strange things.”


¤


“California in the ’60s and ’70s had been about hitchhiking and getting high,” Robles recollects. “Whittier Boulevard was the place you cruised. ‘Hey baby, I got a joint. You want to get high?’ I always cruised Whittier Boulevard. It had burger places, other people, women in cars, cruising, shopping. I had lived there a few years earlier, when I was married in ’81.”


“I’m sorry to say I ran into a couple of young girls walking this one night [in ’85]. I said ‘Hey, want a ride? Want to smoke a joint?’ And after a while, I know it was annoying, so they called the cops and then the sheriff came, pulled me over, and asked, ‘You harassing a couple of girls?’ I said, ‘I asked them if they wanted a ride.’ Then they did a search of my car, and there was powdery substances and marijuana. They’re like ‘Ah, you’re a doper.’ They asked me where I was going, and I said, ‘Out jogging.’ I had been wearing Nikes but not jogging shoes. They said I was harassing a minor. I said, ‘They aren’t minors.’ They did that little white profile card, the suspect card. Then they release me. I kept going to work. I go to see bands. I kept going to my friend’s house to smoke weed.” A few nights later, he showed up at that dance night at the Red Onion.


Saturday, two days after striking out at the club, Robles drove to The Forum to buy Lakers tickets. On the freeway, he admired a black Corvette — the kind of car he’d always wanted. Once parked at the Forum, he spotted the same Corvette on Prairie Avenue. He got back on the freeway and noticed the Corvette tailing him. “I’m thinking this is because I’ve been in contact with some guys who sell drugs at my job, or my friend I buy weed from on the side. I get off on the East L.A. exit and don’t want to bring whoever this is back to my parents’ house, so I go around a couple blocks and make a U-turn at the intersection near an elementary school on Ronan Avenue, and the Corvette pulls off to the side. I pull up so we’re side by side, and it’s a Black dude driving, and I say, ‘Why are you following me? Are you police or FBI?’ He says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I say, ‘I haven’t done anything. It’s a waste of time. And now I know you’re following me.’ And he’s grunting like, ‘I blew my cover.’ So I take off, and then sure enough, when I’m going to pull into my driveway at my father’s house, I see the Corvette, and then I see a Blazer behind him. I don’t tell anybody.”


¤


Today, some of the timeline is fuzzy for both Carrillo and Robles. Southern California suffered decades of serial murderers. Carrillo rattles off: “The Manson Family. The Hillside Stranglers. The Southside Slayer.”


Robles remembers “The Skid Row Slasher and The Freeway Killer.” The Golden State Killer (also called the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, abbreviated as EARONS) was still active when the man who would become known as the Night Stalker began his year-long reign of terror in 1984.


During Carrillo’s tenure in the Homicide Bureau, there were “anywhere from 90 to 100 investigators there at the time,” all working separate cases. And this criminal seemed to have no modus operandi. “All the other serial killers had a specific type of person or individual they were looking for as victims. This guy wasn’t. This guy was different.”


Carrillo gives a detailed account of the entire manhunt in Netflix’s docu-series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. Arturo Robles had no idea he played a part in the show until he started fielding calls and Facebook messages shortly after its release on January 13, 2021. The first call came from his friend, the actor Daniel Villarreal, who portrayed the character Little Puppet in American Me, among other roles. He told him not to worry about it. “Don’t nobody want to answer for their lives 35 years ago,” Villarreal assured him.


Robles is not an actor, yet a mug shot taken of his 25-year-old self in 1985 now appears on IMDb. A cousin sent him a screengrab of it, from the show. “I looked at it for a few minutes, asking, ‘Is that me?’” Soon came questions from other extended family members and old acquaintances, several per week. One childhood friend deleted him and when he texted to ask her about it, she blocked him from her phone.


The now 62-year-old Robles watched the first episode, shocked to see the lowest point of his tumultuous 20s — when he was suspected of being one of the world’s most notorious serial killers — reflected up on the screen.


Director Tiller Russell has been lauded for centering the victims in the story as well as criticized for over-glorifying law enforcement. Detective Carrillo shines as the star, a decided shift away from treatments like the 2016 feature The Night Stalker, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, or American Horror Story’s take in seasons five and nine, both focusing on the personal narrative and celebrity status of the notorious murderer.


Carrillo runs down the Red Onion stakeout in the documentary. He says the officers surveilling Robles “said he drove around the parking lot and just kept skulking around, and finally saw a lone female, and he started following her. They conclude with, ‘This guy’s a freak.’ If he sees any female, it doesn’t matter, guy went through all kinds of traffic to get to ’em.” Carrillo sums it up saying they take Robles into custody, something Robles says happened later — not that night.


Looking back now, Carrillo explains that at some point his surveillance team lost Robles. “We had to act, we had to do something, we didn’t know where he was. So I took a six pack [six photos of faces] — I don’t know if it was his mug shot from a previous incident or his driver’s license — and showed it to one of our surviving victims.” This was Maria Hernandez. “Right away she said, ‘Hey, this could be the guy right here,’ and pointed to the picture depicting Arturo.”


On April 10, Robles was at work, printing checks for a local bank, when his supervisor asked him to come with him. As he shut off the machine, a co-worker leaned in to say, “Without even knowing the cop, I know he’s an asshole.” Robles asked why. The colleague answered, “He could have busted you at the house, on the street, but no, he comes to your work.” Robles walked to the supervisor’s office where Gil Carrillo stood at the door. From there they walked together to a conference room. “There must have been about seven or eight detectives there. Someone later told me they were saying I was a coke dealer. Then they arrest me, saying it’s an ‘annoying a minor’ charge. ‘You’re coming with us.’”


“He wasn’t charged with anything,” Carrillo says. “We picked him up, did a search warrant on his house.”


As Robles was being arrested, officers confiscated a box full of belongings from his parents’ home. The documentary shows Carrillo relaying that they find “all kinds of magazines and photographs of women. He’s got dark clothing on.” As menacing music crescendos in the background, he states: “He’s got ladies’ underwear, all sliced in the crotch.” Underwear are not shown, but the voice-over plays over a close-up image of what Robles explains were Halloween makeup kits.


Robles maintains the aforementioned underwear were fabricated, though they did confiscate his Black Flag My War and Slip It In albums along with a bunch of others.


“Carrillo’s happy. He’s got his man,” says Robles, thinking back to that day of his arrest. “They walked me out of the printing plant. There was the sheriff’s car. I get thrown in the back, and it’s only one deputy sheriff that’s driving me and I asked, ‘What’s the charge about?’ He says, ‘I don’t know, buddy. I’m just here to transport you to the East L.A. sheriff’s station. The detective will talk to you later.’”


Robles wondered if this was about drugs. He no longer thought it could be harassment charges. He saw his BMW being towed behind them. The driver made a joke: “They’re sending your car to jail, too, huh?”


They took him to the Sheriff’s station and into a small interrogation room. Detective Carrillo started questioning him. “He says, ‘Spill it, I know what you did.’ He brings up the two girls. I relaxed. I tell him I just talked to them, asked them if they wanted some weed.” Robles never thought to call a lawyer or his parents. “I thought like a pendejo. If I didn’t do anything and I tell the truth, I’m going to be in the clear.” Carrillo continued with the questioning, then asked about Dayle Okazaki, a woman who had been shot in March. “He brought up names of the clubs: Pink Panther — in Spanish, La Pantera Rosa. It’s on Garfield by the 60 Freeway, next to the golf course of the Montebello country club. Then there’s The Red Onion. Luminarias. They’re Chicano clubs. Everybody knows them,” says Robles. Unbeknownst to him, Okazaki had frequented La Pantera Rosa. Thinking himself more a Whisky or Roxy type of guy, Robles tries to distance himself from them at first. “Then I realize I’ve been to a couple, with Barbara and by myself. I’ve never been to La Pantera Rosa. I didn’t fess up to The Red Onion at first. I said, ‘I like women. Nothing wrong with that.’”


Carrillo finally got him to confess to being at the Red Onion that night and asked why he ducked down behind a car. Robles explained that his shoes were untied. Carrillo states in the show, “He had an answer for everything. He was good.”


As they let him go and he got his car back, they ordered him to come back to do a lineup “not even a week or so” later. They told him to meet at the L.A. County Sheriff’s department and to park in the visitor’s section.


“Carrillo pulls up in the county sheriff black and white. Says, ‘We’re going to go down to the county jail to do the lineup.’ And he showed me the front seat. I jumped in. No handcuffs. I put on my seatbelt, and we’re off. Right away, as a former cop, as a guy who chased AWOL-ers in Korea, I’m thinking I’m sure as hell not going to be put into a suspected murderer lineup.”


Robles says Carrillo talked about his Vietnam experience all the way there, about his days as a gunner. “He tells me what a badass he was on a helicopter. Now he wants to tell me the life story of his career.” No sense of brotherhood was felt. “He was infantry. They called us MPs ‘monkey punks.’ I was the guy that would arrest GIs.”


Soon the conversation turned to lifestyle. Carrillo asked him what was with the magazines. “Carrillo tells me, ‘I’d rather buy me a red chili burrito than a Playboy.’ I thought ‘Of course, you’re a fat sonofabitch,’ though I didn’t say that. I was 180 pounds at the time. He asked me about the cut-up magazines. I tell him I do collage art. We get to the county jail and he explains how the lineup is going to go: ‘We’re going to get five guys with you, you’re going to walk, you’re going to have witnesses in there.’” The words “serial killer” hung in the air. Robles thought, “I have been a mujeriego — a womanizer — but not a murderer!”


In ’77, at the age of 18, Robles was stationed in South Korea. As an MP, he patrolled the village of Dongducheon, 11 miles south of the DMZ, where he says there were 3,000 sex workers and 5,000 GIs. At first, when he wasn’t breaking up bar fights or tracking down deserters, he solicited the women, some of whom he got to know over movies and eating bags of fried potato slices, sometimes falling asleep together back at his apartment to the sounds of The Floaters’ “Float On.”


“The Korean Council gave us a legal agreement that said they were to be referred to as ‘businesswomen,’ not hookers,” he says. “I learned many of them came from smaller villages. They see an ad in their small town. ‘Go to the big city, work at a restaurant, be a waitress, win money.’ Then when they get there, they ask for the job. The Mamasan says, ‘Okay, first I have to set you up in a small wood shack, a little apartment. I’ll get you a TV, a bed, a stereo. Now you owe me $450. Now you got to get to work.’ Every bar had 15 or 20 girls working. You saw how the whole system worked. It got into my mind. Part of my duty was keeping the peace and protecting the gals from brutality from drunk GIs. Eight years later, I am being accused of harming ladies. It upset me.”


Before Carrillo handed Robles to a jailer for the lineup, Robles says Carrillo had some words for him. “He says, ‘I bet my partner, Detective Salerno, a steak dinner that you’re the guy.’ We all get in matching jumpsuits. I look at the four others. One guy is 5-feet-4, one guy is 5-feet-6. One is like a cholo. One is a longhaired Indio. I go, ‘Fuck, man. This isn’t going to be fair.’ I’m six foot even. Then I’m thinking, ‘Be cool. You didn’t do anything.’”


Robles had been busted twice with DUIs, the first in 1980, where they let him sleep it off in the East L.A. station; in the second, in September ’84, the judge ordered him to spend 48 hours in the county jail. He remembers it as a “war dungeon” full of “gladiators, Blacks versus Mexicans, Mexicans versus Blacks, whites scared, trying to hide.” This is not as bad as that, he thought. He stood and stared straight ahead for a few minutes, as instructed.


Carrillo says Hernandez could not pick Robles out of the lineup. “She was pretty sharp. She said, ‘Nobody there.’”


Robles says they pulled him back out and told him to go talk to Carrillo, who looked him in the eye and pointed at him, saying, “They all picked you.”


Robles’s heart dropped.


Carrillo continued, “…as the guy not being the serial killer.”


“I just gave him the eye,” Robles says.


As stated in the documentary, Detective Salerno told his partner, “He’s a freak but he’s not your freak.” Carrillo says the Robles investigation lasted no more than a week. He can’t be sure because his old case files are no longer accessible to him, in retirement. In Robles’s memory, the surveillance-to-lineup experience lasted a month.


“So that was it. We let him go,” says Carrillo.


Carrillo drove Robles back to the station. “I pick up my BMW. We ain’t talking too much,” says Robles. He took a little pleasure in knowing Carrillo would be paying for Salerno’s dinner that night.


¤


The manhunt continued as the killer struck again in Monterey Park on May 14, shooting one victim and raping another.


Robles moved out of his parents’ house into the renovated duplex that month. The police called to say he could come retrieve his confiscated items. “I threw away that box of pornos and Playboys to show that I was clean. I took my Sports Illustrated and my L.A. Rams mags. I was trying to keep it together with Barbara.” He invited her and their daughter over for Father’s Day but at the last minute, she canceled.


By August, the killer-at-large was dubbed the Night Stalker by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Later that month, fingerprint evidence identified 25-year-old Richard Ramirez as the man behind the murders. When the San Francisco Police Department revealed his name and photo, he was chased and beaten by a mob in East L.A. before his arrest on August 31, commanding headlines across the country.


Robles was kicking back watching the news at his place on the Saturday morning Ramirez’s capture was announced. “Thank God,” he said, for himself and for the city.


Carrillo says the citizens who caught Ramirez didn’t know who they had at first. “The wife is screaming, because he’s trying to carjack her. The husband comes out, finds a piece of pipe, hits him in the head, and he’s fighting with them. The neighbors see their neighbor fighting. They see what’s going on. Richard tries running. Richard’s been on about a two-mile trek himself. He’s been running, he’s tired. They just jumped him and held him down.” Carrillo has told the story over and over again in talks at police seminars, conferences, and colleges. “It was a lower economic area. And if the gang members would’ve caught him, they’d have killed him because he was doing something in their neighborhood. But these were good people. And he was fortunate that it was good people that got him.”


Maria Hernandez identified Richard Ramirez in a police lineup September 5, 1985. Robles and his girlfriend were still fighting about all that happened back in April. “Tell me more. What else have you done? I know about the cocaine,” Barbara pleaded. He had cut his hair and started spiking it up. She hated this, too. “You used to look like John Travolta. Now you think you’re Johnny Rebel.”


“And I’m not telling her nothing about women,” he admits. “She’s already pissed off.” When she told her mother’s ex-boyfriend, a patrolman, that Robles had been under surveillance, he cited the department’s lack of budget, adding if anyone was being surveilled, “it was something serious.” The shadow of suspicion had been cast. Barbara broke up with Robles for good.


¤


Robles worked at the printing plant until it closed at the end of the Reagan years. He tried putting the events of ’85 behind him, but the punishing glare of the searchlight followed.


Thanks to his closing the case of the Night Stalker, Carrillo was promoted to lieutenant of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau. Though he retired on November 30, 2009, certain things haunt him, too. He admits to having a couple of nightmares over the years involving Ramirez, but understands Ramirez is no longer a threat. “I have one case which still bothers me to this date,” he says. “A case wherein I believe a wife murdered her husband and I just never had enough evidence to prove it.” It remains an open investigation and he hopes that one day the “Unsolved Crew” in the Homicide bureau will be able to close it.


Ramirez was sentenced to death by gas chamber in November 1989, then later died of cancer.


Robles became a bus driver and found love again when he met a woman named Isabel on his route to Pacific Palisades. He describes her as “a Salvadoreña with long hair and beautiful caramel skin that stood out against her white uniform.” The two bonded over their love for Halloween, poetry, cinema, and, most of all, the band X, which they saw 18 times in their 20 years together. Robles describes them as “a true Bohemian couple.”


Barbara died of Hepatitis C complications in 1994. After an ugly custody battle, Robles won visitation rights to see his daughter, but says he took the judge’s advice to leave his then 12-year-old alone.


“Passenger Dies in One-Car Crash.” An L.A. Times story dated November 19, 2012, sums up the worst day of Robles’s life. On that drizzly Saturday morning, he and Isabel were going to watch a USC versus UCLA game at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. From the passenger seat, his wife, dressed in the Trojans’ classic cardinal and gold colors, asked, “What kind of people are we, going to a football game in the rain?” Robles answered, “Real football fans.” She laughed. And that was the last sound he heard from her after hydroplaning where Interstate 5 meets Route 134, their truck hitting a guardrail and tumbling over an embankment. Firefighters pronounced Isabel dead at the scene, and Robles refused medical attention, later learning he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He weeps when reliving the accident, saying “That’s where the sadness comes in.” But he is quick to smile, adding “There was a lot of happiness, too.”


¤


“I plead the fifth,” has become his standard answer to the curious, often adding that, “Those crotchless panties were never there.”


There was another suspect. One old L.A. Times headline proclaims, “Man Wasn’t Valley Intruder.” Carrillo confirms, “There was another guy that we followed for a while. We ultimately did a search warrant on his house, but we knew right away it wasn’t him.”


Robles wonders why his own face and name made it into the documentary. “Maybe they thought I was dead,” he says. “But I guess I move the story along.”


“He may be a deacon in a church right now,” Carrillo says at the mention of Robles. “I have no idea. Because once we let it go, that was it.”


In retirement, Robles would rather not be reminded of that time he was suspected of being a serial killer. “This cost me my daughter,” he laments. “It was my fault I was a womanizer, but I never reunited with Vanessa or Barbara. I think my daughter got a whiff of what the case was about. They just didn’t trust me.” He wishes that part of his life could be erased and says being a widower has made him a changed man.


Today he walks with a cane due to a knee injury, his arms tattooed with portraits of the loves of his life — Isabel, Barbara, and Exene Cervenka, singer of the band X.


“I’m looking for peace of mind,” he says. “I’ve lived and loved. I have some regrets, but I’ve had a life I’ve enjoyed.” He keeps the condo in Hollywood he and Isabel once shared as “a shrine” to their love. He spends time watching classic films and tending their balcony garden. He no longer drives.


But on the right kind of night, he puts on one of Isabel’s beloved cumbias, something like La Sonora Santanera’s “De México a la Habana,” throws down his cane, and dances with ghosts.


¤


Shawna Kenney is the author of four books, her latest being Live at the Safari Club: A History of HarDCore Punk in the Nation’s Capital (Rare Bird Books). She is a contributing editor at Narratively, and her nonfiction work has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, Creative Nonfiction, Vice, and more.