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Netflix's Night Stalker captures the terror of a murder spree I recall well

Commentary: I was 11 when Richard Ramirez killed two people in my hometown. The four-part true crime documentary has rough parts, but vividly shows how scary that was.

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nightstalker the hunt for a serial killer episode 4

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

Netflix

I didn't love how Netflix's The Night Stalker: A Hunt for a Serial Killer begins. The first episode in the four-part true crime series 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 Richard Ramirez, a serial killer who famously terrorized Southern California for five months in 1985, earning the unsettling nickname The Night Stalker. Directed by Tiller Russell, who also directed The Last Narc and Operation Odessa, 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 the Hillside Strangler murders, 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 Anastasia Hronas, 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 Zoey Tur, who would later gain national notoriety during the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson.

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

Netlfix

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 the first police sketch 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."

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

Netflix

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. 

In the end…

The series rounds out the story of the murders with some fascinating tangents, like the competition between law enforcement jurisdictions that hindered the investigation and the careful dance between the cops and the media. At one point, local TV reporter Laurel Erickson discovered that the only evidence investigators had to link the cases was a print from a unique shoe Ramirez wore. When she asked Salerno for comment, he requested she keep the information under wraps so Ramirez wouldn't ditch the shoes (she agreed in exchange for another scoop). Not long after, Ramirez would discard the shoe after then-mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein mentioned it at a press conference, infuriating Salerno and Carrillo. (Ramirez committed one murder in the city.)

Ramirez himself only shows up at the start of the last episode. For barely a minute, we learn about abuse he experienced as a child, but wisely, the series doesn't try to explain his actions. More effective are the tale of his remarkable capture and the interviews with two people who had chance encounters with him at a thrift store and a library. These underscore that serial killers like Ramirez don't always hide during the day. They're out walking the streets mingling with the public. That's scary, too. 

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Laurel Erickson covered the case for a local TV station.

Netflix

The last few minutes of the series are the weakest. Episode 4 rushes through the yearlong trial, and the bits about the groupies and female admirers Ramirez attracted are neither needed nor revealing. (Ramirez eventually married while in prison.) More time should have been devoted to how some of the victims' families felt when in 1989 Ramirez was given 19 death sentences. 

Ramirez escaped execution by dying of complications from lymphoma in 2013 at San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco. As Erickson says, he should have stayed confined for decades more. But in the end an evil serial killer was captured. Tiller's series has its rough parts, but the story of The Night Stalker is one absolutely worth telling. And it does Ramirez's victims justice.