Netflix s Night Stalker Series Captures The Terror Of A Murder Spree I Recall All Too Well

From Alder's Worlds

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Once he was identified as a suspect, police used a previous mugshot of Richard Ramirez to track him down.


I didn't love how begins. The first episode in opens with shots of a seductive Los Angeles in the 1980s. We see the 1984 Olympics, palm-tree-lined streets, partying celebrities and golden beaches lined with sunbathers. LA was a glamorous boomtown, we're told, but the sunny City of Angels had another side. And if you went to that other side, LA could be a dark place.
It's hardly a surprising remark about any metropolis, and the accompanying camera shot of flying over the Hollywood Hills to the San Fernando Valley on the other side is too on the nose. But the series doesn't dwell on formula for long. Instead, it plunges freeway-speed into the crimes of , a serial killer who famously terrorized Southern California for five months in 1985, earning the unsettling nickname The Night Stalker. Directed by , who also directed and , the series doesn't make for mindless, escapist viewing, and it wouldn't feel right if it did. It's a compelling and disturbing dive into a vicious crime spree and the people who stopped it.

Despite the show's title being focused on the criminal, Ramirez only has a bit part. Rather, the series rightfully belongs to Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo, homicide detectives with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department who investigated Ramirez's 13 murders and eventually cracked the case. They're an odd couple straight out of central casting -- Salerno the gruff veteran who had investigated , and Carrillo his younger, more personable counterpart. And through interviews with them, we come to understand how they put the case together, the setbacks and mistakes they encountered along the way, and the emotional toll the investigation took on them and their families.

Other interviews include Carrillo's wife, Pearl, and families of the murder victims. One of the most moving is with , who candidly talks about how Ramirez kidnapped and sexually assaulted her when she was 6. We also get a who's who of local TV reporters at the time, like journalist and helicopter pilot , who would later gain national notoriety during the and the .

Gil Carrillo was relatively new to the homicide beat when we started following the case.

A necessary fear
Tiller had to do one important thing to maximize the impact of the series: capture the fear that swept Los Angeles that spring and summer. He lands the gut punch. I was 11 in 1985 and living with my parents and sister in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia, near where Ramirez killed four and attacked a 16-year old girl. I can recall the hot weather that summer that forced residents to leave their windows open at night. Never breaking his way in, Ramirez entered his victims' homes through unlocked windows and doors (his first nickname was The Walk-in Killer). I remember the uneasy feeling of going to bed at night in a house with no alarm and how the hollow eyes on of the killer gave me nightmares. 

The Night Stalker was terrifying, even in a sprawling city of millions, because his victims didn't fit one profile. They were young and old, they were men and women, and they lived all over the Southland. Some he raped before killing; others he brutally beat before sparing their lives. Sometimes he ransacked a house, helped himself to food in the refrigerator and drew pentagrams on the wall. Ramirez appeared to drive down a street and target houses at random. It could easily be yours or that of someone you know. As Linda Arthur, an LA County Sheriff's Department crime scene technician, chillingly puts it in episode 2, "He's in the area and anybody can be a victim."

When he took on The Night Stalker case, Frank Salerno had been with homicide division for years.


Some reviewers have criticized the use of crime scene photos that show mutilated body parts and bloodied mattresses as needlessly grotesque. I disagree. Ramirez's murders were grotesque, and depicting them as such (faces of the victims aren't shown) reinforces the anxiety Los Angeles felt. Thankfully, there are no reenactments of the crimes, but other stylistic choices are unnecessary. You only have to tell me Ramirez used a hammer as a weapon, not show me a bloody hammer clanging to the floor multiple times. 

The constant, ominous music that plays in the background is overdone as well, and while you might think the same of the dark visuals of home interiors and the city at night, they're appropriate here. These are scenes of the quiet suburbia that I knew and Ramirez stalked -- dim porch lights over vulnerable front doors, lights shimmering in cerulean backyard swimming pools and peaceful streets lined with well-kept homes and sleeping residents.