Netflix’s ‘Night Stalker’ pays respect to the lives a killer took
Gripping crime docu-series makes sure the victims of the brutal Los Angeles home invader aren’t just numbers in a body county.
We know the formula for true-crime limited documentaries and limited series on streaming and premium cable, from the elegantly haunting opening credits sequence to the grainy news footage going back to the period in question to the shadowy re-enactments of the murders to the interviews with the investigators and the survivors and the loved ones of the victims to the recorded video and/or audio of the killers.
A four-part documentary series premiering Jan. 13 on Netflix.
When handled with great storytelling instincts and respect for the gravity of the material, these docs become addictive albeit sometimes lurid buzz-worthy binge viewing, e.g., “Making a Murderer,” “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” “American Murder: the Family Next Door.” Joining the ranks of the very best true crime shows in recent memory is the four-part Netflix series “The Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” premiering Jan. 13 and almost certain to keep you in its grips from the opening sequences to the final images. We are very early in the 2021 viewing season, but it’s difficult to imagine any project in this genre having a more profound impact. This is great television.
The first thing we see in “The Night Stalker” is a slightly muddy videotape from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from 1985, with a round-faced young detective named Gil Carrillo saying in a stiff monotone, “The Sheriff’s Department is currently conducting an investigation into a series of homicides and sexual assaults in Los Angeles County. The suspect has used guns, knives, tire irons, handcuffs, thumb cuffs …”
After some scene-setting footage taking us into the Los Angeles of the mid-1980s, including the Olympic games, a visit from the Pope, shots of the major celebrities of the time, etc., we see a montage of news clippings chronicling the horrifying works of a killer dubbed “The Night Stalker,” including glimpses of authorities carrying bodies covered in sheets from homes and a quote from a neighbor woman whose frustrations speak for the city: “I don’t understand why someone can’t identify him, he has to live somewhere, somebody must know, he’s a weird-looking character, somebody has to know him!”
As we later see a drop of crimson blood hitting the ground in slow motion, followed by a hammer bathed in blood, we hear a voice say, “I don’t think anybody has a choice. Your number is there one day, we’re all gonna die, you just don’t know when. You start dying the day you were born.” That voice belongs to the same Detective Gil Carrillo we met in that Sheriff’s Department videotape, but now it’s some 35 years later, and Carrillo has the world-weary look of someone who has seen more death and pain in his lifetime than a thousand of us. Much of “The Night Stalker” is filtered through the memories of Carrillo, who was a promising but relatively inexperienced homicide detective at the time, and the man who selected him as a partner: one Frank Salerno, who was already a legend, a cop’s cop, who had handled dozens of cases and was the primary investigator in the Hillside Strangler serial murder case from the 1970s. From the moment we see Salerno in present-day, a drink by his side, still as a statue yet exuding presence, we can see this is not a man to be trifled with. (Yet as the story unwinds, Salerno is revealed to be just as human, just as affected by the murders, as the more outwardly emotional Carrillo.)
Carrillo and Salerno do a brilliant job of walking us through the case — telling us how they came to realize a series of seemingly unrelated killings throughout Los Angeles County actually shared common elements, most notably a shoe print from a relatively rare type of athletic shoe. Yet they felt powerless as this predator continued to invade homes in the dead of night, raping and killing his victims in horrific fashion. It’s almost unbearably painful to hear from those who survived the killer’s attacks, as well as the grown children and grandchildren of the victims — but director Tiller Russell always makes sure we learn about the lives these innocent people lived, their personality traits and their passions and their families, so they’re not just numbers in a body count. For a series about such a brutal string of killings, “The Night Stalker” is filled with humanity.
It’s not until the final episode that the focus shifts to the Night Stalker, one Richard Ramirez, a psychopath with rotted teeth, the body odor of a goat and piercing, shiny black eyes. Through a coordinated effort of good old-fashioned police work from many departments, Ramirez is identified as the Night Stalker and his picture is on the front page of every newspaper in California. He is recognized while riding a bus, he hops off the bus, he starts running and running and running — and he’s eventually detained by a group of citizens, including one man who whacked him over the head with a metal bar. Amazing.
“The Night Stalker” takes us through the sensational trial of Ramirez, with throngs of onlookers outside the courthouse, media everywhere and sickening groupies lining up to get a seat inside. Justice prevails and the slimy creep is hauled away.
After 23 years on Death Row, the Night Stalker died of cancer at the age of 53. The world instantly became a better place.