More than three decades after he was apprehended in Los Angeles, Richard Ramirez continues to haunt our nightmares. Better known as the Night Stalker, Ramirez cut a deadly swath through the “city of angels,” killing 13 people, while sexually assaulting, burglarizing and attempting to murder many more. His cruelty and malevolence were nearly unprecedented in criminal history.
A gripping new Netflix docuseries “The Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” chronicles the desperate search to find Ramirez by focusing on the police officers tasked with bringing the killer to justice. The unlikely pair who had to sift through the clues were Gil Carrillo, a young and outgoing detective, and his taciturn mentor, the legendary investigator Frank Salerno.
Tiller Russell, the director of the four-part series, says getting them to open up about cracking the case, as well as convincing the survivors and victims’ families that the show would honor the memories of their loved ones, was the greatest challenge he faced. He spoke to Variety shortly before “The Night Stalker” premiered on Netflix on Jan. 13.
Why did you want to make the series?
As someone who spends their entire professional career sifting around crime stories, it was, of course, a story that I knew. I knew the name, I knew the headlines, I knew the bones of the story. At the time, I was writing for a Dick Wolf TV show [‘Chicago Fire’] and a fellow writer and friend Tim Walsh came in with me and said he just sat down with the homicide detective who worked the Night Stalker case and he thought there might be an amazing documentary there. We went out to dinner with Gil Carrillo, the detective, and as a I sat down with him in this bygone diner/bar/restaurant and listened to him unfurl the story, I saw how profoundly impacted he was by it in terms of its emotional hold. I thought what a gift from the cinema gods. This is a story of iconic cops chasing an iconic killer in an iconic city. And yet no one had done the definitive, multi-part telling of it.
Why did the fact that it unfolded in L.A. appeal to you as a filmmaker?
There is an amazing lineage of L.A. crime stories and L.A noirs dating back to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett all the way through James Ellroy and more contemporary stuff. You realize this fits into a continuum of stories. The interesting thing is that all of these stories present countless different versions of Los Angeles because the city is constantly being reinvented. This is one that no longer exists anymore — the long, hot summer of 1985 in L.A. is a piece of lost history. It was such a rich canvas to paint on and be able to evoke.
Ramirez remains largely an off-screen presence in the series. Why did you focus on Carrillo and Salerno and the victims instead of the Night Stalker?
Perspective is one of the most important decisions that ends up getting made in the course of telling a story like this. There was this weird afterlife that Richard Ramirez had and still has. There was this celebriti-zation of him as a character due to the circus-like nature of the trial and he became this weird obscure object of desire. I didn’t want to glamorize him in any way. That was incredibly important to us not to fall prey to his false and corrupting and dangerous myth. So what perspective do you want to anchor it in? Those homicide cops and what they went through to catch him became a natural entry into the story. It allowed us to make a past tense story in present tense. We only revealed what they knew when they knew it. They were detectives walking into the dark and trying to unearth information clue by clue.
We also wanted to remind the audience of the victims and their surviving family members to really show them the extreme horror and terror and brutality of these attacks. We needed to honor their stories and what they went through. What often happens for the victims of a sensational crime spree is that it can be reductive and dehumanizing. They can be viewed as just a statistic of somebody else’s depredations. We wanted to treat those people as people. That summer in L.A. everybody felt like it could be me, it could be my kid, it could be my grandmother that goes next.
Was it difficult to get the survivors and the families of victims to talk about these crimes?
The way I make non-fiction films is completely immersive, 360 in its storytelling. If you didn’t live it, if you weren’t there, you’re not in the movie. A huge amount of trust needs to be garnered and won long before you ever end up on a set with cameras rolling. You spend a long time letting people know that you’re going to honor their story and tell it in a nuanced and respectful way.
What made this case so difficult to solve?
Ramirez was a killer who was unprecedented in criminal history. He was operating completely without an M.O. These were pattern-less killings. They were men. They were women. They were children. They were people of different races and socio-economic backgrounds. The murder weapons were different. Sometimes he used a knife, sometimes he used a gun, sometimes he used a hammer. The crimes were scattered across the city. There was a random nature to the murders that made it hard for law enforcement to realize that it was possible for one person to be doing all of this.
What was the reason he inspired such a media frenzy?
There was a feeling that anyone could be next. People were sleeping in their homes and were at their quietest and most vulnerable and seemingly at their safest when he attacked. Here was somebody who was under the cover of night invading the sanctity of their homes and taking people’s lives.
You show the media trying out different monikers for the killer before settling on Night Stalker. Is that typical?
The term that we think about nowadays is branding, and that’s what it was. Initially, this story breaks and every local paper or TV station wanted to have their own hook or angle. There are different names like the Walk-In Killer, the Valley Intruder. Everyone had their own branding and then one day everyone woke up and there’s the headline and it says, the Night Stalker. It was such an arresting title that all those other names just faded to black.
How did the Night Stalker change Los Angeles?
This is a small but telling detail. You know the bars that are across the windows across Los Angeles? That is a product of the Night Stalker. That’s this summer and this case. It was a sweltering hot summer where if you didn’t have A.C. you kept the windows open, but you didn’t want to keep the windows open because the Night Stalker could crawl in. It’s rare to have a story where we’re still kind of reckoning with the cultural impact of the story, as well as our complicit fascination with it.
What do you mean by complicit fascination?
Why am I as a filmmaker drawn to this story? Why are you interested in writing about it? Why is the audience interested in watching something on it? What is our fascination with serial killers and with Richard Ramirez? In a weird way, we are all a part of the story by giving it our attention and focus.
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