Netflix’s latest true-crime docuseries expands its scope not just to the famed LA murderer, but the community he ravaged, to gripping effect.
On March 17, 1985, Maria Hernandez was shot by an intruder. Fortunately, the bullet ricocheted off of her keys as she used them to shield her face. Her roommate, Dayle Okazaki, was not as lucky, and the intruder shot her in the face as she cowered behind the kitchen counter. Afterward, the killer pulled Tsai-Lian “Veronica” Yu out of her car and shot her as well.
While it wasn’t the killer’s first murder (his earliest known victims were killed in 1984), it was the events of March 17th that struck a chord of fear into the Los Angeles community. Soon, all anyone could talk about was the killer that the media had dubbed “The Night Stalker”.
After almost six months of terror, LAPD finally discovered The Night Stalker’s identity: Richard Ramirez. Once the monster gained a name and a face, it was only a matter of time before the people of LA found him and cornered him, with the arresting officers basically saving Ramirez from the mob that surrounded him. For the past 35 years, Richard Ramirez has been the subject of countless books, documentaries, and podcasts.
But Netflix’s latest docuseries Night Stalker isn’t about Ramirez. Instead, it’s about the community he terrorized, the people affected by his crimes, and the two men who managed to uncover his identity.
In fact, director Tiller Russell turns the series into a mystery of sorts, only giving out information as it’s discovered by the police investigating it. Images of Ramirez himself don’t even appear- asides from police sketches- until the final episode. Instead, the main focus is on the detectives working on the case: Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo.
Indeed, if Night Stalker has a protagonist, it’s Carrillo. At 29 he was one of the youngest homicide detectives in LA, and he was the one who correctly suggested that a series of seemingly unrelated murders, rapes, and child abductions were committed by the same person. While Salerno is certainly given his due, Carillo is, inarguably, “the star”. Much of the first episode is dedicated to Carrillo’s backstory and a significant chunk of the series discusses how the case affected his private life. Part of this is due to his underdog status (he had to fight to convince the force that one man was responsible for several heinous crimes) and part of this is due to his charming screen presence.
As such, the episodes act as a procedural documentary, utilizing an array of archival footage, B-Roll shots of LA, and abstract reeanctments of the crime that feature artistic close-ups of the weapons without showing any actual violence. This, paired with a creepy synth score, keep the show engaging when it sometimes veers off into the dryer aspects of gathering and piecing together evidence.
But the focus isn’t entirely on the police working the Night Stalker case: Russell also shows us how Los Angeles reacted to the wave of terror. While we get some interviews of people who had unknowingly interacted with the killer, most of LA’s citizenry is represented by the media. While there is a wide swath of media personalities who speak in the series, Tiller creates a secondary antagonist in KNBC-TV journalist Laurel Erickson.
While I’m always a little wary of any show that makes a journalist wanting to get a story out as a “bad guy”, it’s not hard to understand why Carrillo and Salerno (and thus, the audience) would feel a little contentious towards Erickson. It is revealed that Erickson discovered that the Night Stalker wore shoes that left very distinctive prints and was going to release that detail to the press, only relenting when she was able to get an interview with the two detectives.
The focus isn’t entirely on the police working the Night Stalker case: Russell also shows us how Los Angeles reacted to the wave of terror.
If the news had gotten out about his shoes it could have thrown a wrench in the investigation, as Ramirez almost would have certainly changed them. In fact, several events caused a delay in his capture, such as when the mayor of San Francisco gave away sensitive information to the press or when the LAPD stopped a stake-out that could have caught Ramirez much quicker. All these setbacks show how much an investigation is dependent on luck.
But while the details of the case and the fight between the police and the media is a compelling one, what really sets Night Stalker apart is its focus on the people most affected by Ramirez: his victims and their families. It’s easy for true crime shows to treat the victims as almost secondary in the story, a banal trivia compared to the sinister glamor of the crime. Night Stalker never lets you forget every crime that Ramirez committed is a loss for humanity as a whole. We see the pain the families of his victims feel, not only in seeing their loved ones killed, but also having to see the worst day of their lives endlessly discussed on TV, and then even when Ramirez is arrested, they are forced to reckon with people who view this evil man as a twisted hero. Seeing their resilience in face of their trauma is inspiring.
Most inspiring is Anastasia Hrona, who was abducted and assaulted by Ramirez when she was six years old. Despite the unimaginable trauma, she managed to pick Ramirez out of a lineup and offered to testify against him to make sure he was put behind bars. At the end of the show, it’s cathartic to hear her talk about her happy life, and how she managed to go through what she went through without becoming like Ramirez.
People are fascinated by The Night Stalker, and it’s easy to see why. The man did horrible things and is without remorse- we want to know what makes him tick. But fascination can turn into a sick form of admiration, and Ramirez doesn’t deserve that. He was a cowardly, pathetic man who used fear to gain power when in reality he had none, and Night Stalker does the right thing by denying him any allure at all.
Night Stalker is currently streaming on Netflix.