The first minutes of Night Stalker: the Hunt for a Serial Killer, a new Netflix true crime mini-series, focus not on the titular killer, real name Richard Ramirez, but on the city he terrorized in the 1980s: Los Angeles, sun-kissed yet long marked by a grisly streak of noir crime both real (the Black Dahlia, the Manson murders) and fictional (the works of Raymond Chandler, an entire genre of films). From its title font to its darkened and foreboding covers of synth hits, Night Stalker evokes the mid-80s – a time of rapid growth for LA’s national profile, especially following the 1984 Olympics, and, in 1985, a summer of stultifying heat and a wave of fear following a rash of brutal home invasions.
Night Stalker incorporates many staples of the true crime genre – extended slo-mo montages, the click-click flitting through crime scene photos, seedy bar aesthetic – for the story of a serial killer with unusual indiscretion. From June 1984 until his arrest in August 1985, Ramirez, then 25 and represented in anxious press coverage by an unsettling police sketch of a slight, tanned man with a block of dark curls and large, disturbingly intense eyes, killed at least 13 people in a spree of violence whose scope would span at least three separate episodes of Law & Order. The victims – some brutally murdered, some left to call for help – ranged in age from six to 82. There was no consistent target of gender, age, race or class; the murder weapons ranged from attempted strangulation with a telephone cord to point-blank gunshot. Sometimes the killer would leave Satanic messages or symbols, other times he paused to eat a piece of fruit from the fridge.
The only commonality seemed to be an unlocked door or window, and as the hits intensified – some on the same night, or within two days of each other – LA residents zipped up their homes in 100F heat, purchased window bars or adopted large dogs. Fear of the “unknown, nameless, faceless, kind of haunting nature” of the Night Stalker boogeyman “gripped the city”, Tiller Russell, the series’ director, told the Guardian.
Russell, a veteran of true crime series interested in the Law & Order-style chase since his days as a local crime reporter, entered the Night Stalker story 30 years on through the recollections of Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, the two Los Angeles police detectives who tracked the crimes over five harrowing months in 1985 and who largely serve as the series’ dual narrators. Russell first met Carrillo through a colleague at an “old-school LA joint” steakhouse bar and was “just absolutely riveted by the precision and specificity of his recollections,” he recalled. Carrillo, in his mid-30s at the time of the murders, remembered exact times and dates, what a victim was wearing, the address of the crime scene.
The clinical tenacity of Carrillo’s memory of the case prompted Russell to wonder, he said, about “the human story of this – what’s it impact on the people who lived it?” For the cops, surviving victims and family members, he asked, “What’s the human soul toll on them?”
Night Stalker is thus four episodes of true crime in which the violent offender thankfully recedes to the offended. The series plays chronologically, assault by assault, granular clue by clue, rather than psychologically, according to either the fearful memories of Los Angeles residents or any interest in what motivated Ramirez, who remains an almost anonymous figure until the final episode. The timeline takes pit stops along the way to check in with the toll of case’s relentless pursuit on Carrillo and Salerno, who powered through on minimal sleep and a justified fear that Ramirez, following press coverage of the investigation, would target their families. Russell also amasses humanizing recollections from the family members of some victims who were long minimized, in press coverage, into the most grisly details of their deaths. (Ramirez, sentenced to death for 13 murders, among other crimes, died of cancer in San Quentin state prison in 2013, at 53).
The focus away from Ramirez was a deliberate attempt, Russell said, to avoid the “very strange and surreal afterlife” of the Night Stalker story in which Ramirez became, to a small group, something of a Satanic sex symbol. Witness statements at the time converged on two anonymous but searing facts about the Night Stalker: his strong, repugnant body odor, and his mouthful of missing or rotted teeth (one failed sting operation to catch Ramirez involved a dentist’s office). But in photos, Ramirez is tall and lanky, with prominent cheekbones and a rock-star flop of black hair; he was known to wear a Members Only jacket and rock band hats. In other words, as evidenced by the strange phenomenon of men on death row receiving a plethora of marriage proposals: a figure ripe for an exploitative recasting by some as a hot, lost icon of darkness.
“It was really important to me not to fall prey to what I felt like was false mythology,” said Tiller of the phenomenon. “This guy is not the Jim Morrison of serial killers. There’s nothing cool about this.” In Night Stalker, Russell paired the detectives’ recollections with family member testimonies to “deliberately not fall prey to the exploitative or sensationalistic nature of the Ramirez myth, by immersing you in the stories of these people whose lives were massively and dramatically and irrevocably impacted by Ramirez.”
Still, the corrective focus on law enforcement, who serve in Night Stalker, as in most crime shows both real and fictional, as the guiding protagonists of the story, has its own limitations. Namely, the persistent centering of police in American crime stories, and the assumption, on TV, that cops are always the main characters – a trope which, inadvertently or not, works to sanitize police work and normalize police as the default good guys, even when America’s grisly record of racist policing, and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer, indicate otherwise.
Asked about any discomfort with Night Stalker’s cop-centric narration – Carrillo and Salerno’s indisputable tenacity and achievements aside – Russell agreed that, in general, “we’re dealing with not just a crisis in policing but a sort of categorical failing in policing, and a moment of cultural reckoning when it’s like, this must change right now, today, and forever.”
“To be telling a law enforcement-based story, it becomes an interesting question,” he said. “At the same time, we’re telling a story of something that is 35 years old, and is very specific to that. So I think it’s important to understand the lens through which to view the story.
“The way we have been approaching these things doesn’t work any more. It’s time for something new,” he later added, pointing specifically to the death of black men at the hands of police. “But at the same time, there are brave people doing an incredibly challenging, impossible job, and you do need law and order and police. So these are the questions of our time that we’re all wrestling with.”
Whether through retracing the police investigation, replaying the ample man-on-the-street local TV interviews, or reliving the feverish summer in cutaways to family members and bit players in the eventual arrest of Ramirez, Night Stalker aims for a tableau of Los Angeles, 1985, rather than a serial killer mystery. The story “became this tapestry of Los Angeles, and a portrait of place and time,” Russell said, the series thus about “the carnival of people … whose lives were affected by it.”