On the night of August 24, 1985, 13-year-old James Romero was up late in the garage after a family road trip, when he heard footsteps crunching along the gravel path outside his house. Thinking it might be a prowler, the teenager took cover behind a car and stealthily made his way back into the house to wake his parents.
After telling his dad about the incident, Romero did the unthinkable – the 13-year-old dashed back into the garage, where he encountered a tall, stooped stranger, dressed mostly in black, ambling towards an Orange Toyota hatchback with a chrome roof rack.
The “weird-looking guy in black” made eye contact with Romero and quickly drove away, but the 13-year-old managed to note a partial license plate number and reported it to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
At the time, the Sheriff’s Department dismissed the incident as a routine prowler call.
Hours later, at 3:30 a.m., the Romero family was awakened by a call from the police, urging them to wake Romero up. When the 13-year-old got on the line, investigator asked him to provide a detailed account of his encounter with the prowler.
What Romero did not know was that he had just encountered one of the most ruthless serial killers in California’s history.
Within the next four days, the police took a serious interest in the case.
At 6 a.m. on the same day, a group of investigators showed up at the teenager’s door and thoroughly questioned him once again.
Over the next few days, investigators took Romero on patrol rides around the neighborhood, hoping that he might be able to recognize the prowler’s car. Unfortunately, both attempts proved unsuccessful.
By the time Romero returned to his house, the area was now a crime scene with cruisers and forensic vans scattered all around.
Romero guided the investigators to the sliding glass door of his parents’ room, where the prowler might have been standing. The curious 13-year-old immediately pointed out an unfamiliar footprint, which happened to be the only piece of evidence recovered from the scene.
Back at a neighbor’s house, Romero’s parents finally told the teenager what was going on. On the night of the eerie encounter, a serial killer had attacked a Mission Viejo couple, Bill Carns and his fiancée, Inez Erickson, a mile and a half away from their home.
That night, the shaken Romero family followed the news together.
“We were pretty freaked out, my whole family. We didn’t know if he was staking out the house. If he was going to come back. I think my dad even brought out a gun he used to keep locked up,” said Romero.
Four days after the incident, on August 28, the police finally located the Orange Toyota station wagon they had been searching for when the owner of a strip mall reported an abandoned vehicle in his parking lot. The license plate closely matched the partial number the teenager managed to recall.
Authorities staked out the car, hoping the driver might return. After nearly a day of fruitless, round-the-clock surveillance, the vehicle was loaded onto a flatbed tow truck and taken in for forensic testing.
On the day of the discovery, investigators brought James Romero to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department garage to show him the car they had found in the parking lot. The teenager immediately told the investigators, ‘That’s the one.’
It was the right color, it had the chrome roof rack, and it had a license plate number very similar to the one he had jotted down: 482 RTS.
Although the killer thoroughly wiped down the car to remove his fingerprints, Orange County forensic investigators decided to test a new method for revealing otherwise invisible prints using Superglue fumes. A technician was able to find a single, readable fingerprint on the back of the Toyota’s rearview mirror.
When the fingerprint was submitted for comparison with the digital fingerprint database, investigators initially obtained 100 possible matches.
It took hours of tedious, painstaking comparisons to exclude the extraneous 99 results, but within a few days, investigators made a conclusive match. The driver of the stolen Orange Toyota was a 25-year-old drifter named Richard Ramirez.
Following Ramirez’s arrest, James Romero was invited to a televised press conference, where he was hailed as a hero and showered with plaques and awards. He received checks from various city groups and box-seat tickets to LA Rams games.
At the press conference finale, the Sherrif’s Department presented the 13-year-old with a brand new Yamaha ATV.
After the ceremony, investigators flew Romero to Los Angeles to participate in a police lineup. Investigators introduced the 13-year-old to Inez Erickson, a woman who was attacked by Ramirez on the night of Romero’s eerie encounter with the killer. Both Erickson and Romero identified Ramirez as the perpetrator.
However, this wasn’t the last time James Romero and Richard Ramirez would meet face-to-face. Years later, at the age of 17, Romero was called as a witness in Ramirez’s preliminary hearing and had to stand just a few feet away from the killer. Fearing that Ramirez might try to intimidate Romero, a deputy stood nearby with a hand on his gun.
Romero testified for eight hours over two days of hearings, directly facing one of the most notorious serial killers in history. On multiple occasions, Ramirez attempted to intimidate the teenager by locking eyes with him and even winking.
Over hours and hours of cross-examination, the 17-year-old kept his story consistent.
“They asked the same things over and over. I just told them what I knew and what I remembered. Nothing ever changed.”
Although the defense subpoenaed Romero for Ramirez’s final trial, his testimony date kept getting postponed.
The defense ultimately rested its case without calling him to the stand.
Eventually, Ramirez was sentenced to death and cynically told reporters, “Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”