BISMARCK - At least once a week for the past nearly 28 years, an increasingly frail woman here has pressed her hands together in prayer and thanked the man who shot her son three times in the head.
"Thank you, Richard Ramirez," she has said thousands of times, "for using a small gun. Thank you, Richard Ramirez, for sparing the life of my son."
Anne Carns, in her mid-80s, decided during the terrible summer of 1985 that hating the man newspapers called the "Night Stalker" could consume her, so she began thanking Ramirez instead.
"The Bible says, 'Love thy neighbor,' " she said. "What does hate get you?"
Billy Carns, her 58-year-old son, has a different approach to Ramirez, who died Friday while awaiting execution on Death Row.
"I would like to torture him with a chain saw or a belt sander," Billy Carns said last fall, his left arm and foot paralyzed, his short-term memory sapped, his girlfriend long gone, his brain consistently malfunctioning.
On Aug. 25, 1985, Billy was asleep in his Mission Viejo, Calif., home when Ramirez climbed through an open window, shot Carns with a. 25-caliber handgun and raped his girlfriend - part of a Southern California crime rampage that still conjures terror in the minds of many state residents who lived through it.
Ramirez, the devil-worshipping serial killer, was convicted of 13 murders and 11 sexual assaults among 43 felony counts. He was sentenced to the death penalty in 1989.
The demonic serial killer who left satanic signs at murder scenes and mutilated victims' bodies during a reign of terror in the 1980s had been taken from San Quentin's death row to a hospital where authorities said he died of liver failure at age 53.
"It should have been 28 years ago," Anne Carns said Saturday.
She expressed sympathy for the family members of his victims who, unlike her son, didn't survive.
Carns says she didn't often think about the man who stunted her son's future, except an admittedly irrational fear the death-row inmate would somehow be released.
"I was concerned if he got out, if he was released, would he try to find Bill?"
While Ramirez's death brings closure, her son will never be able to move past Aug. 25, 1985.
"It hasn't been an easy survival. He took a part of Bill's life," she said.
Sleeps in the same bed
A bullet still lodged between his skull and brain, Billy Carns has been serving a far worse, unstable, bizarre life term in Bismarck.
He lives next door to his mother in a small house filled with evidence of frontal-lobe brain trauma - his collections of pens (all red pens are kept in the bathroom while black and blue pens congregate throughout the house), small batteries, house plants ordered from mesmerizing television ads, 1970s stereo components, soldering guns, bars of soap, rotting food (he forgets when he bought it) and medication containers.
Billy sleeps next to the same headboard - dark, routed wood with an oval mirror in the middle - from his 1985 bedroom where the shooting took place.
On the wall above the headboard is a drawing of him and his former girlfriend from 1985.
In the basement, on the guest bed, rests the pillowcase with the bullet hole made by Ramirez's gun. Billy sticks his finger through the bullet hole and shows the outline of a patch that once covered the hole but fell off after so many washings.
Billy lives surrounded by 1985, blurting constantly to anyone who will listen that he was shot three times in the head.
"Wanna see my scar?" he says, cheerfully, pulling up his hair to reveal the remnant of an exit wound ... while his mother cringes.
Nearly 28 years later, Billy Carns still cannot escape the Night Stalker.
"The injury," as his mother calls it, continues to steal everything he ever had.
'He was a bright star'
Billy Carns was a North Dakota kid with a ticket out - his brain.
He was raised in Williston. He started piano lessons when he was 5. He wanted to play in the marching band, so he took up saxophone. Anne Carns said her son was such a gentleman, he gave up his role as first-chair saxophonist to a girl he liked.
"No," Billy said. "She was better than me."
He studied engineering at North Dakota State University, joined fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and hosted "The Wild Bill Show" on a local radio station ("1360 on radio row," he says in his radio announcer voice). He played country music, but he loved Elton John, Steely Dan, Bob Seger and Paul McCartney. His favorite song: "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me."
Billy got a job at Burroughs Corp. in Fargo, and he became a computer technician. Burroughs sent him all over the United States to help companies with their computer problems. He once went to Belgium as a tech troubleshooter, but he extended his trip to drink a few beers at Oktoberfest in Germany. He was a fun-loving, popular guy.
"He had such a bright future," said Ken Knodel, Billy's brother-in-law. "I think of what he could have been quite often.
"We miss that Billy. He was such a nice guy."
Billy didn't like being a troubleshooter. He wanted to be a systems designer. So he told Burroughs he was leaving. In a last-ditch effort to keep him in the company, Burroughs - which would later become Unisys - offered him a transfer to Southern California. Billy took the transfer happily.
In 1984, he moved to Chrisanta Drive in Mission Viejo. He was 28 years old.
"I thought someday he would have his own company," Knodel said. "He was a bright star."
'There's a sick man ...'
The little yellow house on Chrisanta Drive needed work, which was perfect for Billy. He was a tinkerer. He made one of the bedrooms into a workshop, where he could modify speakers, amps and stereo systems. He converted a sunroom into a music room, where he could play his vinyl albums and enjoy the incredible sound.
Within a couple of months, his girlfriend from Fargo-Moorhead moved in with him. (She is not named in this article because The Forum generally does not publish the names of rape victims. The Forum believes it found her, but she did not return a call for this story.)
Billy drove an Audi Coupe GT, and she drove a 1974 Barracuda. They kept their North Dakota license plates to avoid paying higher fees in California.
The move-in was a bit scandalous back home. Billy had given his girlfriend a promise ring, but they were not married or engaged.
"You don't do that, Billy," Anne Carns told him.
"Mother, I have my bedroom, and she has hers," he assured her.
The girlfriend's bedroom, he says now with a laugh, was a lie to appease the people back home.
Billy and his mother kept a regular phone-calling schedule in 1985.
Every Thursday at 9:30 p.m., Billy's phone would ring. He would tell his mother about his adventures in Orange County. The weather was great. The job was great (his salary was about $40,000 per year). His girlfriend was great. Life seemed to be as good as it could get for Billy Carns.
On Thursday, Aug. 22, 1985, Anne Carns ended her conversation with her son this way:
"Billy, keep your doors locked and your windows closed. There's a sick man killing people up and down the coast of California."
Billy didn't heed her advice.
On Saturday night, Aug. 24, 1985, Billy was up late in the garage. He had found storage space in the attic, and he was attaching a swinging ladder for easy access. It was a hot night and Billy stopped working just before midnight.
The Billy Carns who went to bed that night no longer exists.
An open window
The Night Stalker's rampage is well documented. He struck randomly, usually attacking people in their homes while they slept. Most of the murders were near Los Angeles. But he extended as far north as the Bay Area. He targeted two homes in Orange County. The first was on Via Zaragosa in Mission Viejo. The Night Stalker was scared off by a 13-year-old boy, James Romero III, who was working on his minibike in his garage.
The second home was about a mile and a half away from Romero.
The second home had two cars with North Dakota license plates in the driveway. And an open living-room window.
While Billy was sleeping, Richard Ramirez shot five times - three hit Billy in the head. One glanced off his thumb and another popped his water bed.
With Billy unconscious and bleeding, Ramirez bound Billy's girlfriend with the ties Billy wore to work. Ramirez raped her, forced her to pray to Satan and ransacked the house.
Ramirez stole Billy's watch, his college ring, the girlfriend's promise ring, her earrings, two videocassette recorders, a compact disc player and a camera. He put the loot in a laundry basket and carried it out of the house. Ramirez even stole the dirty clothes in the basket.
When Ramirez fled, the girlfriend was able to untie herself and run across the street to the home of Roger and Sandy Bradshaw.
Billy was rushed to Mission Hospital. Police listed his condition as brain-dead. His most serious injury was a gaping gunshot wound over his left eye that went through his brain.
The Night Stalker was caught a week later by an angry mob in East Los Angeles.
Impulsive and irritating
It was a couple of weeks before Billy knew what hit him. He has no recollection of the attack. He said he remembers climbing out of his hospital bed a couple of times and falling flat to the floor.
One of his first communications with his mother was a strange note: "I want to swim by myself," he wrote on Sept. 9, 1985.
The frontal lobe makes humans human. It is the center of goal-directed behavior, decision making, recognition of consequences, memory and mood.
Billy went to therapeutic centers in Long Beach, Texas, Wisconsin and Minnesota, searching for what the bullet took away. He made some progress but not enough. He has such a difficult time with completing tasks that he can't hold a job. He has no sense of time and tremendous difficulty remembering which day it is.
But the strangest thing about the new Billy is his sense of humor.
"My injury made everything funny," he said.
He used to tell people he could fit a golf ball in the wound above his left eye. "I'm a human tee," he would say with a laugh.
When you meet Billy Carns, after you get past the introductions - "I was shot in the head, wanna see my scar?" - you hear the barrage of jokes. Sometimes, they're cute.
"What does an astronaut put in his sandwich? ... Launch meat." And then a loud guffaw.
"What do you call Batman and Robin after they get hit by a car? ... Flatman and Ribbon."
They keep coming, and they get weird. He's telling jokes about "dumb women," minorities and penises.
He'll meet someone and say, "When did you get so fat?" And then he'll laugh. "I can see why you're ugly. Your mother is ugly, too."
After about two years of making his food, giving him medication, driving him to appointments and enduring his mouth, his girlfriend left him.
"She did the right thing," said Billy's sister, Linda. "We were really grateful to her for what she did for Billy."
The bullets seem to have inserted some meanness into his persona. If his girlfriend made him food that he didn't like, he would say, "How am I supposed to eat this (expletive)?"
"He gets bitchy sometimes," his mother said. "You can't get along with him."
Billy knows he isn't right.
"I have trouble with impulsiveness," he said.
Social workers and psychologists, over the years, have told him to keep his mouth shut - especially when he is around children. But he seems incapable.
Last summer, he went to the bowling alley in Mandan. He loves to bowl, and he's pretty good. He bowled a 118 despite his leg brace and poor balance. When he barely missed a spare, he yelled, "CALL THE POLICE, I GOT ROBBED!"
Then he told the people in the next lane that he was a victim of the Night Stalker. Inexplicably, they asked him for an autograph. As they tried to remember details of the horrific crimes, another bowler asked Billy if the Night Stalker had an accomplice.
"Satan," Billy said with a belly laugh.
As he was leaving, he saw a group of elementary schoolchildren.
"Hey, who's the smart one here?" he asked. "Who can tell me what year was the War of 1812?"
Sometimes, the children think he's funny. Many times, the parents smile politely and lead their children away.
"They think I'm a child molester," Billy said with a laugh.
"It's a blessing," said Ken Knodel, the brother-in-law, "that he doesn't remember everything he says."
A new kind of life
The trouble with Billy is that he believes he can exist on his own. He believes he has life under control. He says he doesn't need the help that his mother, his sisters, his brother-in-law or others are trying to give him.
"I don't like being told what to do," Billy said.
In 2007, Billy got a driver's license, adding to his feeling of independence.
Driving with Billy Carns is like being on a roller coaster on a track made of ice. His concentration suddenly slips to a sign by the side of the road, and he isn't watching the lane in front of him. He sometimes takes his one good hand off the wheel. He never knows if he is truly making the correct turns.
He's been in two minor accidents. He said one was his fault, and the other wasn't.
When he got home after the second accident, he couldn't tell his mother what happened.
He is most careful about one thing: He locks every door behind him. At night, he circles his house to make sure all the doors and windows are locked tight.
His mother ties his shoes. She makes sure he takes his medications. She helps him pay his bills. She cleans the rotten food out of the refrigerator. Her life, since Billy's father died several years ago, has been devoted to Billy.
"I don't think anything of it," she said. "I don't want him to end up being a street person."
And she worries about the batteries. She thinks he's going to mishandle them and they're going to blow up.
When you walk into Billy's house, it's hard not to notice the batteries. They are lined up along the floorboards in the living room. They are overflowing in cups in the basement.
Billy spends a lot of time and money at a batteries store. He buys new batteries or he takes the batteries out of the recycled bin. Some people have television or Facebook to eat their time. Billy has batteries.
He takes them home and tests them to see if they have any life left.
"They make me feel good," Billy said of his batteries. "Some people throw batteries away, and they're not ready to be thrown away yet."
Neither is he.
Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author's name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send a letter to the editor.
Forum reporter Cali Owings contributed to this report. Reach her at (701) 241-5599