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One in 24.1 septillion: Prosecutors insist proof they have Sunnyvale cold case killer is in the blood

Mercury News 8/30/2022 Julia Prodis Sulek, Bay Area News Group
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - August 29: Gary Gene Ramirez, 75, appears for his arraignment hearing at the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. Ramirez has been charged with the 1982 brutal killing of Karen Stitt, a 15-year-old Palo Alto girl who was abducted from a Sunnyvale bus stop then raped and stabbed to death. At left is Santa Clara County Deputy Public Defender Lara Wallman who is representing Ramirez. © Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group/TNS SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - August 29: Gary Gene Ramirez, 75, appears for his arraignment hearing at the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. Ramirez has been charged with the 1982 brutal killing of Karen Stitt, a 15-year-old Palo Alto girl who was abducted from a Sunnyvale bus stop then raped and stabbed to death. At left is Santa Clara County Deputy Public Defender Lara Wallman who is representing Ramirez.

One in 24.1 septillion.

After 40 years with no leads, Santa Clara County District Attorney Barbara Cathcart stood outside a courtroom Monday and said the DNA evidence investigators now have from a 75-year-old Hawaii man is such a supreme match to the 1982 murder of a Palo Alto teenager, it would take an incomprehensible number — a septillion has 24 zeroes — to prove otherwise.

“The probability of selecting an unrelated individual from the population at random that has this DNA profile is one in 24.1 septillion,” Cathcart said. “There, of course, are not that many people on the planet Earth nor multiple planet Earths.”

They are confident Gary Gene Ramirez is the one. Now 75, he wobbled on a cane into a Santa Clara County courtroom for the first time on Monday and faced charges of kidnap, rape and murder.

Police were stymied for decades trying to solve the murder of Karen Stitt, a 15-year-old Palo Alto High School student who spent the evening at Sunnyvale Golfland with her boyfriend and was waiting alone for the bus around midnight on Sept. 2, 1982, when she was abducted, raped and stabbed 59 times.

The DNA from the killer’s blood found on Karen’s jacket and on the cinder block wall next to where her body was found the next morning didn’t match any DNA from the criminal database, suggesting her killer had never been arrested before or since.

It wasn’t until 2018, after forensic genealogy techniques helped apprehend and convict the Golden State Killer, that Sunnyvale Police and the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office had new hope they could track down Karen’s killer, even 40 years later.

Teaming up with a forensic genealogist, they matched the DNA from the Sunnyvale crime scene with DNA profile markers – likely of distant relatives – publicly posted on a genealogy website. Following the family tree, police narrowed the suspect to Ramirez, who grew up in Fresno and spent time in the 1980s in the Bay Area. After Ramirez was arrested in Maui, where he had been living close to his brother since the late 1980s, police conducted a mouth swab to obtain his DNA, then compared it to the old blood sample.

“It exactly matched him,” Cathcart said.

On Monday, Ramirez appeared with white hair and glasses, leaning on a cane beside Public Defender Lara Wallman. He isn’t expected to enter a plea until the next hearing scheduled for 9 a.m., Oct. 28. Although the killing is considered a capital crime, Ramirez will not face the death penalty because District Attorney Jeff Rosen announced in 2020 he will no longer seek it in any prosecutions.

Karen’s mother died when she was young, but her father lived until 2018 without justice for his daughter. Karen’s aunt, Robin Stitt Morris, watched Monday’s arraignment online from Florida. She said she is confident the case against Ramirez is “bulletproof.”

“I will be disappointed if he doesn’t take ownership and plead guilty,” Morris said. “Gary Ramirez has lived freely with the knowledge of his unfathomable crimes for nearly 40 years. The time for him to bear the consequences is long overdue.”

Ramirez is being held without bail and his public defender made no attempt Monday to modify that, although she has that option in the future.

Cathcart, the prosecutor, said that while she is confident the killer is in custody, more investigation is under way to confirm Ramirez’s whereabouts in 1982. Authorities are also studying evidence collected at Ramirez’s home – a guest house behind another home – in Maui.

In a brief interview Monday, Ramirez’s older brother, Rudy Ramirez, said he hadn’t spoken to his brother since his arrest.

“I don’t want to comment,” he said. “I’ll just wait and see what happens.”

When he was first contacted after his brother’s arrest, however, Rudy Ramirez told the Bay Area News Group that he was incredulous that his soft-spoken brother could be the killer. Gary Ramirez is one of four brothers, he said, who grew up in what he called a “dysfunctional family” in Fresno.

Gary had spent several years in the Air Force before moving back to Fresno with his mother, he said. He lost track of his brother in the early 1980s, he said, but in the late ‘80s invited him to move to Maui to be close to him. Gary worked a number of odd jobs, including as an exterminator, before retiring with a bad hip. He was married twice and raised two daughters.

Police acquired DNA from one of those daughters that helped them zero in on Gary Ramirez.

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