Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer may be Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, but it’s hardly the Richard Ramirez series I thought we were getting. While there was some initial disappointment in that discovery, I soon realized that the four-part series is meant to mirror the investigation itself. Ramirez remains a mystery to the audience up until the point that the police learn his identity, a moment that doesn’t arrive until the very end of the third episode. As such, there isn’t much exploration into who “Richie” was before he became “the Night Stalker” who terrorized Los Angeles for a time in the mid-’80s.
Though I may have been frustrated that Ramirez’s difficult childhood was given short shrift here, it’s no doubt for the best that the series focuses on this many victims as well as the two men who speak for them — LA County Sheriff’s Department detectives Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo, who ran the Night Stalker Task Force back in the day and still know the case as well as anyone. What this series lacks in insight regarding Ramirez’s crimes, it makes up for as a story of the dogged detectives who brought him down and ended his killing spree.
Night Stalker hails from director Tiller Russell, who recently impressed me with his four-part Amazon docuseries The Last Narc. Russell also directed the 2014 documentary The Seven Five, so he knows a thing or two about cops and what drives them. Though America is in the middle of a serious and long overdue reckoning with law enforcement, it’s safe to say that legendary homicide detective Salerno and his wide-eyed but talented young partner Carrillo are two of the good ones — cops who took their oath to serve and protect quite seriously, and made countless personal sacrifices for the sake of the Night Stalker investigation. They also happen to be fantastic storytellers.
Though Salerno and Carrillo are interviewed separately, the dynamic they shared in the past still shines through. You can tell how honored Carrillo was that Salerno hand-picked him to be his partner, and there seems to be a mutual affection for the other’s work. Neither tries to hog the glory or take more credit than the other. It was a joint effort, aided by the public, which is one of the most fascinating elements of the whole case — Ramirez was ultimately captured by East LA citizens while trying to carjack a woman after he saw his face splashed across every newspaper in Los Angeles. The footage from his arrest is rather incredible, as you see how it truly does take a village to catch a killer.
What is also endlessly fascinating to me, and is given considerable screentime by Russell, is the focus on Ramirez’s infamous Avia shoe, which in an incredible stroke of luck, was completely unique within southern California. No one else had that shoe in the same size, and the way that lead was eventually blown will no doubt be infuriating for viewers — who knows how much sooner the police could’ve gotten Ramirez off the streets back then?
When they finally do arrest him in the climactic finale, Russell glides over some troubling aspects of Ramirez’s childhood that would be enough to fill their own episode, and I would’ve liked some attention paid to Ramirez’s relationship with his sister, though I don’t think Russell was too eager to humanize Ramirez, who’s depicted as an unrepentant monster — which, of course, he was. However, you are left to wonder whether Ramirez was born evil, or whether he became evil, as there’s no mention of how he grew up the son of a police officer, or suffered from epilepsy as a kid, when he also witnessed a murder. He’s presented solely as the Night Stalker — a man with crooked teeth, black eyes, and evil coursing through his veins.
The series features quotes from Ramirez courtesy of his death row interview with author Philip Carlo, whose book I read last year. It was difficult to shake, even for a true crime junkie such as myself, which speaks to the brutality with which Ramirez committed his vicious crimes. While these quotes, presented onscreen in hot pink font, do offer a glimpse inside Ramirez’s warped mind, the series doesn’t delve too deeply into Ramirez’s penchant for pentagrams and Satanism — perhaps wisely so, since that stuff was never what made Ramirez interesting to me. No, the reason Ramirez stands out among murderers is that he killed indiscriminately, and his victims didn’t fit a pattern. He killed people young and old, black and white, male and female. Richard Ramirez decided the world would be his victim, and now he has been immortalized as one of the most evil men of all time.
It’s a sad, pathetic legacy, and one that comes in stark contrast to the legacy that Carrillo will surely leave behind when his day comes. He’s the one who made me emotionally invested in this story, as there’s a moment in the fourth episode when Carrillo talks about his father that made me burst into tears. It just hit me hard for some reason, knowing how hard Carrillo worked the case, and the burden he felt to protect the public from a monster, only for his father to not be able to witness the culmination of those efforts and share his son’s success. It was in that moment that I decided Night Stalker had succeeded — not because of how it examined death, but because it captured the pain and joy of life.
Russell also does a good job of capturing the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in the ’80s: not the people standing in the spotlight, but the bad men lurking in the shadows. Its citizens had already lived through the Manson Family murders and the Hillside Strangler case (which is what made Salerno famous in the first place), but Ramirez was a new breed of evil. Those with weak stomachs may not appreciate the repeated shots of crime scene photos, but Russell shows some restraint in putting black boxes over the victims’ eyes to soften the blow. And I appreciated smaller details he included about the investigation, such as the recollection of a forensics tech who allowed her colleague to fingerprint Ramirez because she was too scared to do it herself.
While I can’t wait to see Russell’s feature directorial debut Silk Road, he certainly has a way with non-fiction, and though this series may not hit the true-crime highs of Netflix’s Don’t F**k with Cats, Night Stalker makes for a compelling if grisly binge-watch on the level of the streamer’s Evil Genius and Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. It’s definitely worth a look, and if you can sleep through the night afterwards, you can thank Carrillo and Salerno for that peace of mind. We all sleep safer thanks to them, and not just because Ramirez is dead and gone, but because the next Night Stalker out there knows he’ll be hunted to the ends of the earth. And a wolf stands no chance when the sheep he preys on band together to protect themselves.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is streaming now on Netflix.
Davis coined the phrase “Just win, baby” and had it out for Pete Rozelle.
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