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'Night Stalker: Hunt for a Serial Killer' Reminds Us About the Victims
January 13, 2021  | By David Hinckley

It's hard to describe the apprehension of a serial killer as a "happy" ending, particularly when you have just been escorted through a litany of his serial crimes.

Night Stalker: Hunt for a Serial Killer, whose four episodes become available Wednesday on Netflix, does the next best thing, assuring us that even an elusive killer can eventually be stopped.

That brings no one back. It quite likely prevents the list from growing.

The Night Stalker, as he became known, was Richard Ramirez, and throughout 1985 he terrorized most of California, though most of his attacks occurred around the Los Angeles area.

The difficulty he presented for law enforcement was that, unlike most criminals, he didn't seem to have a signature M.O.

He attacked people from 6 to 82, with no pattern for gender, ethnicity, occupation, or anything else that could narrow motive and thus focus the search.

He also randomly let some victims go yet killed others with no apparent reason.

Director Tiller Russell tells the story primarily through the eyes of two L.A. cops: Frank Salerno, a legendary homicide detective, and Gil Carrillo, a relatively new kid.

Carrillo caught an apparently random homicide and, in the course of checking it out, ran into evidence that suggested whoever committed his murder very likely committed others.

Once Salerno agreed they were facing a serial killer, everything ramped up, including the apprehension among L.A. citizens through a long hot summer.

Night Stalker follows the investigation through minute details and conversations that yield one tiny speck of evidence. As more police departments got involved, there were naturally more complications, even as nothing surfaced to help law enforcement anticipate the next attack.

Narrators include Carrillo, Salerno, and other law enforcement agents, as well as journalists who covered the case, relatives of victims, and several surviving victims themselves. We also see real-life contemporary footage, primarily from news outlets.

They paint a picture of a frightening assailant, with a chilling voice and dead eyes. Like many killers, he apparently took delight in seeing the fear he inspired. Also, like many killers, he was a coward who preyed on people physically weaker than he: women, children, the elderly.

While Night Stalker isn't considerably graphic by the standards of popular crime documentaries, some of the descriptions are not for those prone to nightmares.

Russell digs a little into the background of Ramirez, who died of cancer while on Death Row in San Quentin, and it doesn't take a psychologist to see that his actions as an adult reflected some of the disturbing abuse he took as a child.

For his own part, he seemed unrepentant. It is not known how he felt about, for instance, the cadre of women who were attracted to him after his arrest and sent him love letters with graphic photos.

Night Stalker notes that this often happens with men perceived as bad and dangerous – that some women, presumably with problems of their own, fantasize themselves into a world they see as forbidden and exotic.

Fortunately, Night Stalker spends more of its time with the victims' families, talking about the empty places that Ramirez's crimes left in their lives. It also notes how Ramirez was eventually apprehended by a group of ordinary townspeople who had seen his picture in the paper, sending the unsubtle symbolic message that there are many more decent people than agents of evil.

It's a modestly upbeat note on which to wrap up another downbeat though well-narrated story.

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