“Night Stalker” a powerful recollection of a season of terror


No Angeleno who lived as an adult through the summer of 1985 could ever forget the Night Stalker — even if some of the details may have grown fuzzy over time. As a native Angeleno myself, the terror and dread of those days came back all too accurately while watching Netflix’ new multi-part documentary Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. Richard Ramirez’ horrific crime spree extended from Mission Viejo to San Francisco, and only came to an end when the superb detective work of Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno identified him — and the residents of East Los Angeles chased him down and beat him into submission.

It took 166 days to first notice the Night Stalker and bring him down. We may never know, however, the number of crimes and victims created by Ramirez. Prior to 1985, Ramirez was a small-time thief, barely on law-enforcement’s radar, but could he just have become one of the weirdest and terrifying serial killers/rapists/child molesters overnight?

Tiller Russell and James Carroll bring the Ramirez case and all its questions back to terrifying real life in Night Stalker. The documentary wisely directs most of its focus onto the two lead detectives in the case and their frustrating-yet-successful efforts to stop a monster. Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno still look the part of homicide detectives, perhaps even more now than they did in 1985, and their honesty helps make this series so compelling. The personal costs of this six-month mystery and manhunt to Carrillo, Salerno, and other detectives make Night Stalker rise above the normal true-crime documentary genre, even if Russell and Carroll get carried away at times on stylistic flourishes.

Credit for the success of this series is also more than due to several of the victims and their surviving family members as well. That’s especially true for Anastasia Hronas, one of Ramirez’ many child victims, abducted and assaulted when she was only six years old. Hronas bravely recounts her ordeal and her cooperation with law enforcement, and to this day it still moves Carrillo to tears.

The five-episode series never slows down and never drags. As it moves along, driven mainly by Ramirez’ prolific campaign of terror, viewers can feel a little of the sense of urgency that began driving people in both Southern California and the San Francisco area by summertime. We can identify with the frustrations of Carrillo and Salerno when their fellow detectives scoff at first at the idea of a serial killer committing such a wide range of crimes and varying MOs; with the near-misses caused by turf-protecting, penny-pinching, and bad luck; and then finally at the monumental stupidity of Dianne Feinstein. Yes, that Dianne Feinstein, who nearly derailed the entire case in an effort to puff herself up in the media while mayor of San Francisco. And finally, we can recall the rush of elation and gratitude when people in East Los Angeles made sure that Ramirez didn’t get away.

As someone who went through the summer of 1985 in Los Angeles, Night Stalker captures it almost perfectly, and reminds us of its heroes even more than its villain. That makes it a worthy addition to your viewing list, and I’d recommend binge-watching it. You won’t want to wait between episodes.

Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Night Stalker gets a 4:

  • 4 – Buy the film/subscribe to the service
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Be warned that Night Stalker features gruesome pictures, a few gory re-stagings, very disturbing discussions, and the like. This is not for children or young teens, or adults who have trouble handling these topics.

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