The brutal rape, torture, and stabbing death of a 15-year-old girl in California in 1982 had finally been solved thanks to DNA evidence and new technology.
Gary Gene Ramirez, 75, of Maui, has been charged with murder, kidnapping, and rape in the death of Karen Ann Stitt of Palo Alto. Stitt, who had taken a bus to Sunnyvale on Sept. 2, 1982, to visit her boyfriend, was found violently raped and murdered next to a nearby business the next morning. She had been stabbed 59 times in what authorities said was an act of extreme violence.
All those years ago, the boyfriend she was on the way to see, David Woods, was an early suspect. But authorities made no arrests in the brutal slaying having little or no evidence to connect Woods or anyone else with the crime. DNA evidence was collected at the time, but in 1982 the technology just was not available to use it to catch her killer.
As DNA technology advanced over the years, Woods was finally proved completely innocent in the early 2000s when DNA evidence proved he could not have been Stitt’s killer. This left them with very little else to go on and the cold case, grew that much colder.
But then, in 2019, Sunnydale police Detective Matt Hutchinson received a tip that Stitt’s killer was one of four brothers from Fresno. Following an investigation that looked at all four brothers, one of the men, Ramirez, was identified as a suspect.
With the state-of-the-art forensic technology available in that year, cold case detectives linked Ramirez to the girl’s murder through DNA from blood and semen found at the scene.
“The Santa Clara County DA’s Crime Lab confirmed that identification last week,” authorities said in a news release.
Ramirez was arrested quite far from the original crime scene, at his home in the town of Makawao on Maui. The Mercury News reported that authorities said Ramirez appeared shocked when they arrived to arrest him.
“Oh my gosh,” Ramirez said as he was handcuffed.
Ramirez has no prior criminal record, and his older brother told the News that he could not imagine his brother committing such a violent crime.
“I’ve never seen him violent or get angry ever,” Rudy Ramirez said. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Interesting choice of words; as most of my readers would know, they are the same ones uttered by Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates at the end of “Psycho.”
But back to the real world of true crime and cold cases.
The detectives who never gave up on the case allege that the DNA from blood and semen found at the murder scene paints a very different picture of Ramirez than the view held by his brothers. After a tip led investigators to look at Ramirez’s family, DNA from one of Ramirez’s children pointed them further in the right direction, according to authorities.
Stitt’s father and her older sister have died in the four decades since her grisly murder, and, unfortunately, they went to their graves, never knowing who killed her. A surviving aunt in Tampa wept as she thanked law enforcement officers and prosecutors for seeing the case through.
“Thank you,” Robin Stitt Morris said. “Thank you for not giving up.”
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen issued a statement on the long-unsolved case.
“Behind every old murder file in every major police department, there is a person, heartbreak, and a mystery,” Rosen said. “The mystery of Karen Stitt’s death has been solved thanks to advances in forensic science and a detective that would never, ever give up.”
A Bus Ride to a Violent and Undeserved Death
The new, finally solved case all began with a simple 10-mile bus ride from Palo Alto.
According to a criminal complaint, then 15-year-old Stitt left her home the evening of Sept. 2, 1982, to visit Woods, who met her at a 7-11 convenience store near the bus station at the intersection of E. El Camino Real and Wolfe Road. The couple got drinks and walked to a nearby miniature golf course before heading to Ponderosa Elementary School, where they “hung out” for a while.
At around midnight, Woods walked Stitt back to the area of the 7-11 so she could catch a bus home. Woods, then 17, later told police he had to leave so he would not get in trouble with his parents for coming home late.
“David turned and left Karen alone as she walked toward the bus stop at approximately midnight on Friday, Sept. 3, 1982,” the complaint states. “She was last seen south of the intersection, walking toward the bus stop on El Camino Real.”
Later that morning, a truck driver making a delivery to the Woolworth Garden Center, located about 100 yards from the bus stop, discovered Stitt’s nude body lying in the bushes at the base of a cinder block retaining wall along the business’ driveway.
The teen’s wrists were bound behind her back with her own shirt, according to the court document. Her jacket was tied around her left ankle.
The killer had left a bloodstain on the cinder block wall above Stitt’s body.
Stitt’s autopsy showed that she had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 59 times in the neck, chest, abdomen, and back.
“Eighteen of the chest stab wounds perforated the victim’s heart, and 10 perforated the victim’s lungs,” the complaint states.
The case soon went cold and stayed that way for nearly 20 years. In 2000, advances in DNA technology allowed authorities to develop a genetic profile of Stitt’s killer.
They were also able to take Woods’ name off the list of suspects.
The DNA profile from the semen and blood, which was found on the cinder block wall and Stitt’s jacket, were entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, but there was no match.
A Tip Makes All the Difference
In cold cases, very often, it is a tip from out of nowhere that can make all the difference. Such was the case in Stitt’s death.
Detective Hutchinson, who never gave up his hunt for the pretty young teen’s killer, wrote in an affidavit that he received a tip in 2021 that one of the four Ramirez brothers may have killed Stitt. He began looking through public databases for information on the brothers’ mother, who he discovered had lived in Fresno as early as 1950.
Fresno is about 160 miles from Sunnyvale.
Census and birth records showed that Rose Aguilera Ramirez, who died in 2012, and her husband had four sons, including Rudy and Gary Ramirez. Hutchinson also discovered both parents’ obituaries, which listed two of their grandchildren.
Over the course of several months, the cold case detective was able to eliminate as suspects two of the brothers, including Rudy Ramirez. According to the affidavit, he was unable to conclusively eliminate the third brother, so he began trying to eliminate Gary Ramirez.
That process began with one of Rose Ramirez’s grandchildren, who Hutchinson located on social media. That grandchild was fathered by Gary Ramirez.
In April, Hutchinson obtained a DNA sample from Ramirez’s child, who was not named in the affidavit. The crime lab determined that there was “very strong statistical support” that the DNA from the Stitt crime scene matched that of the child’s father.
According to Santa Clara County officials, that DNA match was confirmed last week through a swab sample taken from Gary Ramirez’s mouth.
Detectives learned that Ramirez grew up in Fresno with his brothers. Their father worked as a heavy equipment operator for the county.
Rudy Ramirez told CBS News that he and his brothers grew up in a middle-class “dysfunctional family” in which Gary Ramirez was the “favorite son.”
“He wasn’t like some violent kid or dysfunctional juvenile delinquent,” Rudy Ramirez said.
Rudy Ramirez moved to Maui at 18. His brother, who is four years younger than him, joined the US Air Force. The brothers lost touch for a few years, including the time frame in which Stitt was slain. Gary Ramirez was 35 in 1982.
In the late 1980s, the accused killer was living with his mother in Fresno. Rudy Ramirez suggested his younger brother join him in Hawaii, CBS News reported.
Gary Ramirez has lived there since, marrying twice and fathering two daughters, his brother said. It was DNA from one of those daughters that helped Hutchinson crack the case.
Ramirez has waived extradition and will be moved back to California to await trial.
The arrest has brought a measure of relief to Stitt’s remaining loved ones.
Woods, now in his 50s, told CBS that he has lived all of this time with tremendous guilt for leaving Stitt alone that fateful night.
“For 40 years, I have suffered heartache from the horrific loss of a beautiful girl whom I was falling in love with,” Woods said, “I hope this brings some closure for her family, myself, and her other loved ones.”
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