BISMARCK — William "Billy" Carns doesn’t remember the attack at the hands of the notorious serial killer known as the "Night Stalker" 35 years ago, but he asks himself daily what he did to deserve it.
The answer is: nothing.
Carns and his then-girlfriend were attacked in the early morning darkness of Aug. 25, 1985, in their home in Mission Viejo, Calif., one of dozens of random, unprovoked crimes committed in the state by Richard Ramirez that included murder, attempted murder, sexual assault and burglary.
It was the final attack by Ramirez before his arrest a week later.
Both North Dakota natives, the couple had lived in California for only a few months before it happened.
The attack is detailed in the new documentary series “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” which premiered Jan. 13 on Netflix.
The series unfolds primarily through the eyes of the two men most responsible for tracking Ramirez and bringing him to justice — a young detective named Gil Carrillo and well-known investigator Frank Salerno.
Carns, now 65 and living in Bismarck, still suffers from left side paralysis in his body and the effects of a traumatic brain injury from three gunshots to the head by Ramirez. A bullet remains lodged between his brain and skull.
While Carns was unconscious that early morning, his girlfriend was sexually assaulted and beaten by Ramirez.
She is not named in this article because Forum News Service generally does not publish the names of rape victims.
Carns has relied on her past recollections to recount what happened to them.
“It haunts me every day,” he said.
A false sense of safety
The Netflix documentary, divided into four episodes, has drawn criticism for its use of graphic crime scene photos and other explicit details.
The attack involving the North Dakota couple is part of Episode 3, titled “Lock. Your. Doors.”
The portrayal does not show crime scene photos, but does include video from outside the home and of two cars in the driveway with North Dakota license plates, a photo of Carns, then 29, with curly hair, a mustache and broad smile, and video of the hospital, where inside, he was fighting for his life at the time.
Carns, a radio announcer who went on to study engineering at North Dakota State University and later, worked as a computer technician for Burroughs Corp. in Fargo, now known as Unisys, landed in California via a job transfer.
His fiancée, who he’d met at a local radio station, joined him there a few months later.
By then, Ramirez was already months into his deadly crime spree.
Carns had heard about the killings and rapes that had occurred, mostly in Los Angeles County, by a man later dubbed by local media as the “Night Stalker.”
But Carns said he and his girlfriend felt safe in neighboring Orange County, partly because of distance and a 5-foot high fence surrounding the backyard of the home.
It seemed no one was completely safe that summer, however, because the killer was unpredictable when it came to how he chose his victims, the weapon he used, or where his crimes occurred.
A hot August night
Hours before the attack that August evening, Carns was out in the garage, setting up attic space for storage.
He went to bed, and around 3 a.m., Ramirez slinked into the house through a window left open due to the late summer heat.
In the bedroom where Carns and his fiancée were sleeping, Ramirez fired five shots from a .25-caliber handgun, three of which struck Carns in the head.
With Carns incapacitated, Ramirez raped and pistol-whipped the woman and pointed the gun at her, demanding that she pray to Satan.
He used Carns' neckties to restrain the woman before tearing phone lines out of the wall and gathering up valuables, including audio equipment, a camera and jewelry.
The woman was able to free herself and get help from a neighbor, who called the police and summoned an ambulance.
According to investigator Frank Salerno in the docuseries, the attacker had said several things to his female victim; among them, “I am the Night Stalker.”
Carns has no firsthand recollection of what happened.
“I went to bed that night and woke up in the hospital,” he said.
An unfulfilled wish: ‘Flip the switch’ at execution
Carns underwent many years of therapy to help heal his injuries, both physical and emotional.
After using a wheelchair and then a cane, he did learn to walk and drive again.
He still does not have use of his left arm but has many devices and adaptive equipment to help him function.
“I stick out like a sore thumb, with my bad leg and arm in a sling,” he said.
The effects of the brain injury, which altered his personality, his emotions and his memory, will always be there.
He gets moody or upset easily, and is unable to work, he said.
“A lot of people felt bad that this happened to a good guy like me. I had a lot going for me and out of the blue, somebody breaks in and steals my life away from me,” he said.
Carns never married, and he doesn’t stay in touch with his former fiancée, with whom he split a few years after the attack, although he did see her a few years ago at a funeral, he said.
He survives mostly on long term disability payments; his mother, who lives next door, takes care of his financial affairs.
Carns said he’ll probably watch the new Netflix series on the Night Stalker to check it for accuracy, although when he’s seen similar programs before, they’ve upset him.
Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders, along with multiple attempted murders and sexual assaults, and was captured by bystanders while trying to carjack a vehicle in Los Angeles, just days after the Mission Viejo attack.
He was sentenced to death in 1989. Instead, complications of lymphatic cancer took his life in 2013 at age 53, before he could be executed.
Carns said he wishes he’d been able to “flip the switch” leading to Ramirez’ death.
“It would just be closure to this stuff I’m going through,” he said.