Editor's note: Descriptions of crime in this article may be disturbing to some readers.
Karen Stitt was just 15 years old when the Palo Alto High School student was brutally raped and murdered in 1982. Her body was found with 59 stab wounds, yards from the Sunnyvale bus stop where she was awaiting a ride home after visiting with her boyfriend, according to police.
Her alleged killer, Gary Ramirez, now 75, was arrested on Aug. 2, 40 years after her death, which had baffled investigators for years. Ramirez will be transported from Maui, Hawaii, where he lived, to Santa Clara County to face murder, rape and kidnapping charges. He could appear in court as soon as Monday.
The sudden but long-awaited break in Karen's decades-old murder brought surprise and relief to her friends and family. But Ramirez's arrest also has opened old wounds, long locked away, they said.
Karen hadn't lived in Palo Alto for very long before her death. A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania transplant, she had moved to the Bay Area just a few months before with her brother and father. Still, she had a big impact on her classmates.
"Karen was not like any other girl I had met before. When she transferred from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Palo Alto, California, to live with her father during the second half of my sophomore year in high school, the first time I set eyes on her, I knew she was special — someone I wanted to get to know," Michael Calhoun, a former boyfriend, said in an Aug. 10 email. "Her smile could light up the darkest of rooms; her beautiful feathered blonde hair, and the way she spoke. I won't say it was an accent per se, but it was different than any other girl I knew."
Calhoun was not the boyfriend who police said walked Karen toward the bus stop the night she died. Calhoun said he lived around the corner from her in Palo Alto. She had been dating one of his best friends, so he initially stayed clear of dating her, he recalled. But he was smitten.
"(It was) kind of like that Rick Springfield song 'Jessie's girl,' except I was singing, 'I want Jimmy's girl.' When they broke up, I did the cardinal sin amongst friends. I started dating her myself, but I did ask my friend first if it was okay. He didn't have a problem with it. I really fell hard for her. I'd say she was my first 'true' love," he said.
Karen and Calhoun took a break from their relationship during the summer, but she did want to explore getting back together once they returned to school.
"As a token of this, she let me keep a ring of hers she gave me when we were together — a copper ring with her name on it, which I still have to this day," he said.
Getting back together never happened, however.
"She was violently stolen from everyone. My first day back to school as a junior was the day of her funeral," he said.
Calhoun never gave up hope that Karen's killer would be identified and captured.
"It was because of losing her that I became interested in becoming a police officer — not that I thought I could actually help in her case — but to be able to help someone else," Calhoun said. "I even stayed in contact with the cold-case detective in Sunnyvale after I moved to Las Vegas. He told me he was fairly new on the force when this happened. He even told me he was on the scene that fateful night, so he was very familiar with the case."
Since Calhoun had been in law enforcement, the detective was a bit more open discussing the case with him, but when the detective retired and the new investigator took over, Calhoun wasn't met with the same level of openness. He was shut down from getting any information, he said.
Still, he didn't forget Karen.
"When Facebook became a thing, I would post in her memory every September to keep her memory alive and (in) the hope that somehow her killer would be found and brought to justice," he said.
On Aug. 9, he learned that Ramirez had been arrested.
"Scrolling through Facebook, seeing her picture next to some guy and reading the headline that an arrest had been made, the wave of emotions that ran through me was overwhelming. Chills, tears, joy to know they have a named suspect, anger at the perpetrator. Just about any emotion you can think of, I felt it. I couldn't believe what I was seeing ... 39 years and 11 months later, FINALLY, a named suspect," he wrote.
Identifying Ramirez also rekindled strong emotions for other friends and for Karen's family.
Maureen Larsson, a friend, said when she saw the headline about the arrest of the cold-case-murder suspect she knew it was about Karen.
"As I read the story it was hard to believe an arrest had been made, and then a wave of relief washed over me, and memories of her, her school friends, her funeral, all came rushing back," Larsson said.
"Karen was a friendly, upbeat girl with a big smile who quickly got to know her new schoolmates and was quite social. I was impressed with how this East Coast transplant was adjusting to her new life here."
But Larsson said she is now thinking of the impact Karen's murder and wondering about the history of her friend's alleged killer.
"I'm thinking of her family and other loved ones as they navigate these legal proceedings. One person can do a tremendous amount of damage. Aside from my concern about Karen, I'm looking forward to knowing more about Ramirez and his life," she said.
Robin Stitt Morris, Karen's aunt, said she was "absolutely floored" when Detective Matt Hutchison told her Karen's killer had been found.
"Forty years melted away, and the emotions that had been buried all came back. A wound was reopened, but somehow I felt relief and peace. Soon, we will be able to write the end to this painful chapter of our lives," she said in a text message shortly after the arrest was announced.
Morris and Calhoun said they plan to be at court during the trial or when the verdict is read.
"He stole so much from my family. Karen's death left an indelible scar on our hearts," Morris said.
Calhoun said he knows the journey to a conviction and sentence — if Ramirez is found guilty — could be long. There's his extradition from Hawaii (which Ramirez has waived), his return to Santa Clara County, an arraignment, the plea, a preliminary hearing, a long period of back-and-forth hearings and motions between prosecutors and defense attorneys, jury selection, a trial, a verdict — and a sentencing if Ramirez is convicted. It's not quite closure yet, he said.
"The finish line is in sight, but we're still in the final turn from the backstretch. I just hope there's no plea deal and he is sentenced with the maximum penalty allowed by California law. Though nothing will bring Karen back to us, he doesn't deserve to have the sun shine on his face, hear birds sing, or the fresh air in his lungs," Calhoun said.
"I've carried Karen in my heart and soul for over 40 years," he said. "I will continue to carry Karen in my heart and soul until my last breath on this earth. I'm just glad we (her family and friends) can now breathe a sigh of relief that her killer has been named and caught. I hope Karen is resting in peace now."