August 2, 2014 - 8:35 pm
They came to the neighborhood on an ordinary summer morning in Las Vegas, before the blistering heat and the traffic jams.
Dads and moms were starting their day. Children, with school still a month away, slept soundly in their beds.
The killers could have picked other homes, other people. But they didn’t.
Now Richard Ramos is dead and a family is without a father and protector. And a woman — their neighbor — lies unconscious in a hospital bed, breathing through a machine.
Almost a week later, it’s clear there was no logic behind the killers’ actions, no reason for the trauma they caused.
They walked a path of pure chaos, and it only led to violence and death.
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Julie Ramos was still in bed when her husband answered a knock on the family’s front door about 6:45 a.m. Tuesday.
Julie, 46, and Richard, 59, bought the four-bedroom, ranch-style home at the corner of Autumn and Penbroke streets in southeast Las Vegas in 2008 after moving from California, where they met two decades ago.
It’s a quiet street without much traffic, and a visitor so early would be unusual. What Richard did next was just as uncommon.
Relatives said Richard, a savvy salesman raised in the Bronx and a cautious father of four, never opened the door for strangers.
But the young couple outside said they needed help. He believed them.
“They need to use the phone,” Julie heard her husband say. Those were his last words.
Richard had no clue that Cody David Winters, 27, and Natasha Galenn Jackson, 35, were petty crooks looking to steal a car for a quick getaway. Their fledgling crime spree was about to erupt into unhinged mayhem.
The episode began just minutes earlier, police said, after Winters and Jackson kidnapped highway maintenance worker Scott Ufert, who pulled over on U.S. Highway 95 about 6:30 a.m. when he spotted the couple’s broken-down Nissan Altima.
But the Altima had been stolen three weeks earlier from a home in the northwest valley and was full of Winters and Jackson’s pilfered items. Ufert, a 26-year-old just doing his job, unwittingly became the couple’s temporary escape plan.
At gunpoint, Winters held Ufert hostage as they loaded their stuff into his vehicle. Despite being under remarkable duress, police said Ufert convinced Winters that his car’s GPS would notify his bosses if he wasn’t driving. It was a lie. But it may have saved his life.
Forcing Ufert to drive, they ordered him to exit the highway on Tropicana Avenue and head west toward Sandhill Road. Winters told Ufert to make a right turn into a seniors’ apartment complex, but Ufert — either panicking or unable to make the turn — took a left onto Rollingwood Drive instead, police said.
The mistake was irrelevant to the couple. They were looking for another car to steal and didn’t care where they found it, police said.
The situation was tense, but hadn’t yet escalated. In a sharp contrast to their later actions, Winters and Jackson decided to be merciful.
They took Ufert’s phone and wallet and let him drive away, unharmed.
“Luckily, they did not shoot him,” Undersheriff Jim Dixon said Friday. “It was very quick thinking on his part.”
The couple started walking, armed with Winters’ gun and Jackson’s screwdriver and bolt cutters. The Ramos home was just a couple doors down, and a car was in the driveway.
KIDS HELP MOM ESCAPE ATTACK
It all happened in a matter of minutes.
Julie heard a gunshot just seconds after Winters and Jackson entered their home and rushed to the living room to find her husband on the floor.
Richard was on his back, wrestling for the gun Winters had pulled from his waist. He wasn’t winning.
Julie tried to help but was quickly met by Jackson, a scrawny but feisty woman. Police said Jackson stabbed and slashed Julie with her screwdriver, forcing her away from Richard.
The Ramos’ teenage children helped their mother break free from Jackson. Julie took all three kids — the youngest just 7 years old — and escaped from their home through a bathroom window.
“It was survival mode,” Julie told the Review-Journal last week.
Richard was not as lucky. Jackson later told detectives how she helped Winters pry Richard’s hands from the gun.
Winters shot him twice, killing him.
Julie spoke during a vigil at her home the night of the killing and again the following day. She was often furious, promising vengeance for her husband, and other times nearly incoherent from grief.
“He was my rock, and now he’s dead,” she said Wednesday. “He saved his family like the lion that he was.”
Winters and Jackson left the Ramos home as Julie called police, although they might have already been notified. Ufert had also called 911 after speeding to a nearby pay phone.
Officers were on the way, but things were about to get even more tense.
The couple ran from door to door in a mad panic to escape. They threatened resident Antonio Amaro with a gun but were unable to get inside his house.
They eventually kicked in the door to a vacant two-story house on Almondwood Drive and prepared to make a last stand.
Metro officers William Moore, 34, and Ryan Rotta, 24, were the first to arrive. They saw Winters break an upstairs bedroom window and place a closet door against the empty frame, apparently to fortify their position.
Moments later, Moore and Winters spotted each other downstairs after Winters broke the glass on a sliding door. Winters pointed his gun at Moore, but the officer was quicker. Moore fired two shots, which missed, and Winters darted back inside.
Jackson was waiting for him. Police later said the two tried a ruse to escape, with Jackson pretending to be a hostage. But on Friday they made it clear that Winters had decided to abandon her. He slipped outside through a window on the western wall of the house and jumped the wall into another backyard.
Then Jackson, for unknown reasons, came outside. The officers weren’t sure whether she was a victim or a suspect until she called out to Winters.
“Cody, shoot them all. Kill them,” police said Jackson yelled before being arrested.
But Winters had already gained access to the house next door, where he met a terrified homeowner and his girlfriend.
Officer Moore, whose rifle shots narrowly missed Winters — almost ending the spree — was heartbroken, police said, because of what happened next.
GUNMAN ATTEMPTS TO TAKE A HOSTAGE
There was no reason for Winters to shoot the woman. Her boyfriend handed over his car keys without a fight, and Winters started to leave. But he paused.
By then Metro had surrounded the area and Winters’ chance of a clean escape were slim. He needed a hostage.
Unprompted, Winters shot the woman in the stomach as her boyfriend ran from the home. That was fine with Winters — he only needed one of them.
He dragged the woman out the front door at gunpoint, where several officers waited. Winters threatened to kill her.
But the woman was stunned from the gunshot wound, and Winters was unable to hold her. As she slipped from his grasp, Officer Rotta fired three shots from his AR-15 rifle. Winters stumbled backward, then regained his balance. Rotta fired three more shots.
Winters collapsed and died, his body slumping over a decorative rock near the front of the house.
The woman, who has yet to be named by authorities, was taken to a hospital. She is not expected to survive.
As the rest of the neighborhood stirred to the sounds of gunshots and sirens, some realized how lucky they’d been.
“I kept thinking, all day, it could have been any of us,” neighbor Sandra Rodriguez said.
Although the horrific crime shocked many people in Las Vegas, experts say home invasion killings are rare.
Professor Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago’s crime lab, studied home invasion killings in Chicago. Of the 433 murders in the city in 2011, just one was motivated by burglary. Most home invasions aren’t random and often are incited by other factors, such as drugs.
But random killings receive more attention from the media because the details are so chilling, he said.
“There’s nothing more terrifying then the prospect of a lethal home invasion,” Pollack said. “They’re so rare, but they’re so scary.”
Pollack said it’s hard to rationalize a random killing. Other aspects of Tuesday’s home invasions are more common, however.
“We have looked at homicide cases where someone’s acting impulsively, trying to get out of a situation in a crazy way,” he said. “That element of the story is not so rare.”
Most burglars, thankfully, are “less homicidal” than Jackson and Winters, he said.
“People who are a combination of being that violent and stupid, what are they trying to accomplish?” he asked. “What did they think was going to happen?”
Little in Winters and Jackson’s criminal backgrounds could have predicted such violence.
Winters was arrested at least 13 times in Idaho since 2006, but for various drug, alcohol, theft and other low-level offenses. He’d been popped four times for drunken driving.
Winters was born and raised in Ririe, a small farm town near Idaho Falls. But the slow-paced lifestyle bored him. After high school he joined a crowd of burnouts that sold and used drugs, according to his family.
He spent much of his adult life in jail and in prison, which literally left a mark on him. His eyelids were tattooed: “F—- Idaho” on one, a reference to the state prison system on the other.
Despite fathering a son about five years ago, Winters rarely spent time with him.
No one in his family knew Winters was in Las Vegas before he died; he’d been in Idaho as recently as a month ago, they said. It’s still unclear exactly when Winters and Jackson met or where in the valley they lived, but they seemed to be a perfect fit.
JACKSON ‘WAS ALWAYS BAD NEWS’
Winters preferred the “bad boy” lifestyle, his family said, and so did Jackson. She also enjoyed the company of younger men.
Three years ago, while in Manchester, N.H., Jackson was arrested for striking her 23-year-old boyfriend, Francis DeFabio, in the head with a hammer while he slept.
DeFabio’s sister, Tanya Cadiz, said her brother was bleeding and dazed when he came to her house later that night.
“He was just covered in blood,” Cadiz said. “I was so angry.”
Cadiz and Jackson knew each other from childhood. Jackson was “always in trouble” as a kid, Cadiz said, and wasn’t any better as an adult.
But DeFabio was smitten, even if Jackson was nearly a decade older and a bad influence.
Jackson was the one who introduced DeFabio to hard drugs, his sister recalled, including heroin. Cadiz didn’t like Jackson, anyway, but was furious about the attack.
“I said, ‘I’m going over there,’ ” Cadiz recalled. “He begged me not to go. So I called the police.”
Jackson was arrested on assault charges and remained in jail for several months.
Then tragedy struck. DeFabio died in March 2012 from a drug overdose.
“Two days later (Jackson) was out of jail,” Cadiz said. “The prosecutors lost their only witness.”
Cadiz said Jackson had the gall to attend DeFabio’s funeral, but she wouldn’t remain in New Hampshire much longer. According to Cadiz, Jackson stuck around for six months after DeFabio’s death before she slipped away on a last-minute flight to Las Vegas.
Jackson had apparently taken a few thousand dollars from a new boyfriend and bolted for the airport, Cadiz said.
“I didn’t hear about her again until this week,” Cadiz said. “I can’t believe it, but I can, if that makes sense. I grew up with her, and she was always bad news.”
A quick getaway seemed to fit her personality. In addition to at least two stints in Las Vegas, she also lived in Florida, New Hampshire, Alabama, California and New Jersey, jumping from place to place without much notice.
In a different life, maybe Jackson would have settled on another city, and maybe Winters would have never left Idaho. But fate brought them together in Las Vegas, and chance took them to the neighborhood in southeast Las Vegas.
And that’s where they left their mark.
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @blasky on Twitter.