Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer and the Night Stalker. The Big Three of serial killers. I suppose Ted Bundy could be included in that mix, but to my knowledge, there’s never been a Big Four so he’s on the outside looking in. Take that, Ted.
On January 13, Netflix released its limited mini-series, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer”. This seems to be right up Netflix’s true crime alley as they have produced several true crime documentaries recently. While I’ve not seen them all, it would be hard to imagine any of them being as effective and as highly produced as this one here.
If you were old enough to ride a bike in the 1980s, there’s a better than good chance that you know about Richard Ramirez, who later acquired the name, the Night Stalker. I vaguely remember thinking about him, walking home from my friend’s house one night. On second thought, I have to ask my mom why she let me out with a killer on the loose. Granted, we didn’t live in Los Angeles, but as we found out, he dipped his murderous toe in the Bay Area’s crime scene as well. Was mom using me as a trap, hoping my golden locks would attract Ramirez, at which point she would leap into action like the ninja she was, leaving him bound and hogtied for the police to send to central booking? Or was she just trying to get rid of me without having to smother me with a pillow in my sleep? I have given myself a lot to think about, but either way, a conversation should probably be had.
The first episode introduces us to the series’ starts of the show: Los Angeles homicide detectives, Gil Carillo and Frank Salerno. Carillo, a former troublemaker, turned war veteran turned cop, who, despite the horrors that he had seen in his life, still managed to have a positive outlook on life. Salerno, was the hard-boiled detective and was the star of the department. He was the detective who was known for his capture of the Hillside Strangler which terrorized the Los Angeles area from October 1977 to February 1978. Much of the episode is that of the cliche buddy cop trope that we see in so many movies. Young guy comes up through the ranks to team up with the hardened veteran. Because we’re used to that storyline, the relationship between Carillo and Salerno plays out wonderfully and even though we know it’s a documentary, it feels very much like a film. Both of these men are filled with character and they hold your attention every time we see them on screen. Once you hear about Carillo’s first three goals after leaving the military, I have no doubt that you’ll feel the same way.
In this first episode, we are put into Detective Carillo’s shoes as he is called on to the Night Stalker’s first killing which happened on March 17, 1985. Dayle Okazaki entered her home via her garage. Ramirez entered behind her and she took off to find safety in her condominium and this is our first introduction to the callous ways in which the Night Stalker treated his victims. He knew that she was hiding behind a counter so he waited, arms stretched, gun aimed. Waiting for her to peek out. The room was silent so she did just that, lifted her head and that’s when he shot her. The documentary shoes us actual images from the crime scene(s) with quick cuts to obscure some of the gruesome details. Sometimes it’s too much and it’s during those points where I know that I made the right choice to not enter the field of law enforcement.
After the killing of Dayle Okazaki, we are shown five other murder scenes while being told about the Night Stalker’s other vice: molesting children. The murder scenes are horrifying, as mentioned above, but director, Tiller Russell incorporates a brilliant strategy in never showing an actor playing as Richard Ramirez. Instead, we see obscured parts of the car. We can’t see Ramirez, but we know he’s in there. We know he’s behind the wheel of his beat-up yellow car. We know he’s opening the window in the middle of the night. There is a weight and a gravity to these scenes that help to build the legend of the Night Stalker, while generating fear in us along the way. Russell’s choice of opening the episode on a tracking shot as we travel, upside down, through the streets of Los Angeles was genius. We are in the mind of a person who lived his life in the exact opposite of regular folks. During this shot, we hear Ramirez and his monotone voice as sort of justifying his actions by saying, “We are all evil in some form or another. Are we not?”
I was just 7 years old when Richard Ramirez hacked and slashed his way to infamous notoriety, so I didn’t share the same fear that my parents may have. After watching this first episode, however, I’ve made sure to double check that all of my doors and windows are locked and the alarm is on, before going to bed. Evil didn’t die when Richard Ramirez did and if I ever have to come face to face with it, I at least want to give myself a fighting chance.