By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - 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, a corrections official said.
Ramirez, 53, died of natural causes at Marin General Hospital near San Quentin State Prison in Northern California where he had been held, state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison said.
His death appears 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 between June 1984 and 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 breaking into the homes of victims, usually through an open window, late at night.
The lanky, long-haired Ramirez left Satanic symbols at the murder scenes and gouged out the eyes of at least one victim.
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.
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, John Wallace, Leslie Gevirtz and Richard Chang)