By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Convicted serial killer Richard Ramirez, who earned the nickname "Night Stalker" for his mid-1980s reign of terror in the Los Angeles region, died on Friday at a hospital near the prison where he was held on death row, a corrections official said.
Ramirez, who declared at his 1989 sentencing that he was "beyond good and evil ... beyond your comprehension," died of natural causes at Marin General Hospital near San Quentin State Prison in northern California, said Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
He was 53.
His death appeared to be related to a problem with his liver, said Marin County Sheriff's Office Lieutenant Keith Boyd of the agency's coroner division. A final determination on the cause of death is not expected before next week, he said.
Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders in 1989 following a string of killings from June 1984 to August 1985 that horrified the Los Angeles region. He came to Southern California as a drifter from El Paso, Texas.
He gained the "Night Stalker" nickname for creeping into the homes of his victims late at night, usually through an open window. In the cases of some couples he singled out, Ramirez killed the husbands with a single gunshot to the head, then raped and murdered their wives.
The lanky, long-haired Ramirez gouged out one woman's eyes. He left a pentagram, a symbol of devil worship, scrawled in lipstick on the wall of a bedroom where two elderly women had their heads smashed with a hammer.
As his reign of brutality spread throughout Southern California, people locked themselves in their homes and slept with revolvers under their pillows. Attendance at night schools and cinemas fell. Burglar alarm companies ran out of alarms.
He was found guilty of a total of 43 counts including attempted murder, rape, sodomy and burglary, said Los Angeles prosecutor Alan Yochelson, who assisted in the case against Ramirez.
Some 23 victims suffered in the crimes for which Ramirez was convicted, Yochelson said.
Yochelson called Ramirez's death an abrupt end to a "pretty tragic period in the history of Los Angeles County."
"Richard Ramirez hurt a lot of people and I think our thoughts should be with the next of kin and the survivors, because their lives were forever changed by this man," he said.
Ramirez was caught after police released his photo and he was spotted on a bus. Bystanders followed him to East Los Angeles where local residents held and beat him until police arrived.
While being escorted from the courthouse after a jury recommended in October 1989 that he be executed for his crimes, Ramirez declared, "Big deal. Death always went with the territory. I'll see you in Disneyland."
The following month in a rambling statement he delivered in court before being formally sentenced to death, he said: "I am beyond your experience, I am beyond good and evil.
"I will be avenged. Lucifer dwells within us all," he said. "You don't understand me. You're not expected to. I am beyond your comprehension."
Ramirez was linked to two mid-1980s killings in San Francisco, one of a man and another of a girl, said San Francisco police spokesman Sergeant Dennis Toomer. He was never tried in connection with those killings.
He was one of 59 California death row inmates who died of natural causes since the state reinstated executions in 1978, the state Department of Corrections said in a statement.
Amid court challenges over its method of putting inmates to death, California has not executed an inmate in seven years.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Eric Walsh)