It was like a scene out of a movie. On August 31, 1985, Richard Ramirez, the depraved rapist and murderer whom Los Angeles newspapers had dubbed “The Night Stalker,” got off a Greyhound bus in East Los Angeles. He slipped out a back door to evade the undercover LAPD officers waiting for him there and ducked into a convenience store. There, he saw his face plastered on the front page of every newspaper as all eyes turned to him. He took off on foot, running across four lanes of highway traffic and onto the sizzling blacktop of residential streets.
He attempted to steal one car, then another, and was rebuffed by a man named Manuel de la Torre, who grabbed a metal bar from a nearby fence and swung it at the serial killer. A crowd began to gather, crying out in Spanish that this was the man. Dozens of East L.A. residents swarmed Ramirez, beating and punching the self-proclaimed emissary of Satan who had paralyzed the city for the past six months. If a sheriff’s vehicle had not driven up soon after, they probably would have killed him—and no one would have missed him.
That strangely encouraging true story of a community coming together to stop a dangerous predator in its midst is only a small part of Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer, Netflix’s latest docuseries about an infamous American bogeyman. Unlike 2019’s Conversations With A Killer, however, the focus here is not on Ramirez himself. His name isn’t even mentioned until the end of the third episode, and only the briefest mention is made of the childhood forces that helped shape him into a monster. Described here as a scarecrow of a man with rotten teeth, a bad odor (one witness describes him smelling like a goat), and terrifying eyes in an AC/DC hat and Members Only jacket, Ramirez lurks in the shadows throughout Night Stalker, his presence unseen but chillingly felt.
Instead, the main characters of the piece are Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives Frank Salerno and Gil Carrillo, the lead investigators in the hunt for the murderer. Their dynamic is classic cop-movie fodder: Salerno, the hardened veteran famous for his work on an earlier serial killer case, serves as a grizzled counterpart to ambitious family man Carrillo. Born into a devoutly Catholic, Mexican American family in East L.A., Carrillo ends up being the emotional linchpin of the series thanks to the participation of his wife, Pearl. She adds her own memories of the overwhelming fear she felt during the Night Stalker’s reign of terror from March to August 1985, well aware that the perpetrator was reading his own press and knew her husband’s name. When a murder took place less than five minutes from their home, Pearl and the kids took off to an undisclosed location, waiting there until the nightmarish killing spree was over.
The Carrillos are one of multiple families profiled in Night Stalker: Beginning in episode three, the son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter of murder victim Joyce Nelson appear for extended on-camera interviews, talking about Joyce and the grief and despair that settled over them after her shocking demise. (In one sobering anecdote, Joyce’s eldest granddaughter describes becoming overwhelmed by the description of her grandmother’s death during Ramirez’s trial, only to step out into a hallway full of Ramirez groupies and hangers-on.) The Nelsons are also people of faith, and they talk about how they were able to find, if not meaning, then some form of grace over the years. Along with blood ties, Night Stalker also highlights professional relationships, like the TV news reporter who speaks admiringly of a female colleague who dutifully reported every disturbing detail of the case even though it gave her nightmares.
That’s not to say that this is a wholesome tale in any way. Ramirez targeted everyone from elderly women to young boys for sexual abuse and indiscriminate brutality, and Night Stalker spends significant time deconstructing the crimes that gripped the city throughout that blazingly hot summer. (The first and fourth episodes in particular contain testimony that may be extremely triggering to survivors of sexual assault.) Throughout the series, 3D models are paired with actual crime-scene photographs, which flash across the screen just long enough to be seared into the viewer’s memory forever. Any bleak scraps of hope—a grandmother who fought to the end, a man who chased Ramirez out of his house after taking a bullet in the neck—are scant and hard-won, and are canceled out by devastating details like the young woman who hid from her attacker, only to be shot when she ducked her head out to see if the coast was clear.
Unlike many recent true-crime docuseries, Night Stalker is relatively uninterested in the cultural underpinnings of the Ramirez case, choosing instead to take a procedural approach. Due to the sheer number of people killed, this leads to a numbing effect as horrible death after horrible death marches across the screen in the first three episodes, followed by a rollercoaster of relief and renewed terror in the fourth after Ramirez is caught. A light sprinkling of analysis of—to be blunt—the multiple ways politicians and law enforcement fucked up the manhunt (Dianne Feinstein ends up looking particularly bad) suggests social commentary, but in the end Night Stalker’s critique of cops is much like the sinuous synth music that plays over each episode’s credits: colorful details to set the tone. Instead, the takeaway here is a fable about how the love of his family saved one detective from being overwhelmed by the darkness that ripped so many other families apart. And for Christ’s sake, lock your doors—especially the sliding glass ones.