The Satan-Worshipping Serial Killer and Rapist Who Terrorized Los Angeles
Netflix’s true crime docuseries “Night Stalker” revisits Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker” who murdered, raped, and tormented his way through 1985 Los Angeles.
Even with the best detectives on the job, catching a serial killer often hinges on a lucky break—a fact proven by the case of Richard Ramirez, the young man known as the Night Stalker who spent most of 1985 terrifying Los Angeles. Over the better part of a year, Ramirez committed a stunning number of brutal crimes, and compounding matters, he did so in a pattern-less manner that made ending his reign of terror that much more difficult. Documentarian Tiller Russell’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer revisits that infamously bloody period in L.A. history, and though it leans unnecessarily hard on melodramatic flourishes that distend rather than enlighten, it serves as a potent reminder that there’s nothing more dangerous, or elusive, than a monster without a clear M.O.
Premiering Jan. 13 on Netflix, Night Stalker tells its four-episode tale through the prism of L.A. County detectives Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, the former a rising star who was honored to be partnered with the latter, who by 1985 was famous throughout the city for having brought to justice another notorious serial killer: the Hillside Strangler. In extended new interviews, Carrillo and Salerno serve as de facto narrators for this story of the Night Stalker, who became known to authorities on March 17, 1985, when 34-year-old Dayle Okazaki was shot dead, in point-blank style, and her roommate Maria Hernandez narrowly escaped the same fate when a bullet ricocheted off the keys in her raised-to-her-face hands. When news broke of a second homicide (of 30-year-old Tsai-Lian Yu) committed on the same night, and with the same .22 caliber gun, and then another double-murder (of Maxine and Vincent Zazzara) took place ten days later, Carrillo began to suspect that a serial fiend was on the loose.
Not just any murderer, however, since Carrillo quickly became convinced that the individual they sought was actually the same person carrying out a string of assaults in which children were kidnapped, raped, and then set free. Given that no such criminal figure had ever been detected before, Carrillo was roundly mocked by his colleagues. Yet as the bodies and rape victims piled up, many linked by Avia athletic shoe prints, Carrillo’s theory came to look sound—which, alas, did little to help forward his and Salerno’s investigation, since those prints were the only physical evidence left behind by the madman, who confounded police by adhering to no discernible template, killing, raping and abusing men and women, young and old, with guns, knives, ropes, blunt-force instruments, and his own bare hands.
In a pre-DNA era, the Night Stalker was able to evade apprehension by slaughtering at random, meaning that Carrillo and Salerno were left to chase leads that frequently went nowhere. Night Stalker is thus, to some extent, a saga about the prime role that fortuitousness plays in successfully stopping a malevolent predator. Even knowing that the man they wanted was relatively tall, gaunt, wore a size 11.5 shoe, and dressed in a black Member’s Only jacket and AC/DC baseball cap, Carrillo and Salerno routinely found themselves one step behind their prey. Further complicating things, the Night Stalker benefited from news reports that—at a couple of key junctures during his rampage—broadcast the very evidence cops were using to catch him, thereby allowing him to change up his methods (for instance, he began unplugging phones so no one could call for help after one dying man, post-assault, managed to dial 911 to save his wife).
Archival TV footage and photos, including gruesome crime-scene images, hammer home the cruel depravity of the Night Stalker, who slashed one woman’s throat and then repeatedly stabbed her in that same wound, and who removed the eyeballs of another woman after he had finished her off. The fact that multiple female survivors remember him saying “Don’t look at me!” speaks to his underlying issues of shame, disgust and fear, although Night Stalker doesn’t attempt to unduly psychoanalyze the homicidal sociopath, who upon his capture was revealed to be a Satan-worshipping product of a horribly abusive home. There’s simply no explaining exactly what made Ramirez do the unthinkable deeds he did—including drawing pentagrams on the walls of some of his victims’ homes, Charles Manson-style, and taking breaks during his attacks to eat food from their fridges—and director Russell shrewdly puts most of his focus on Carrillo and Salerno, two dogged sleuths who eventually found the Night Stalker’s misdeeds hitting perilously close to home.
While Russell wisely doesn’t try to offer pat answers to impenetrable questions, he does work overtime to cast an ominous spell through overdone aesthetics. From slo-mo shots of firing guns, falling bloody hammers and close-ups of fish bowls, cigarettes in ashtrays, and dead flies, to drone shots of nocturnal L.A., CGI maps, and recreations of crime scenes—not to mention a score that never stops being cheesily portentous—Night Stalker tries too hard to generate menace. Moreover, these flourishes are so incessant that they interfere with the series’ momentum, grinding things to a halt at the very moment suspense should be ramping up, and giving one the impression that they’ve been included to pad the proceedings’ runtime.
Such unnecessary corniness doesn’t jibe with the gravity of this tale, nor with Russell’s own empathetic consideration of the Night Stalker’s victims (all of whom are identified on-screen) and their relatives, who in heartrending interviews recount the traumatic ordeal of discovering that their loved ones had been slain. That tonal inconsistency leaves the docuseries feeling far bumpier than it need be, as well as a tad superficial—a shortcoming also felt in its depiction of the media’s role in this affair, which lacks a strong perspective. Nonetheless, in its closing chapter, Night Stalker strikes a legitimately terrifying chord thanks to Ramirez himself, a spectral madman who showed no remorse for the 43 crimes of which he was convicted (13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries), whose magnetic personality somehow attracted the romantic affections of scores of female groupies, and whose large eyes exuded something close to pure evil.