I was nine years old in the summer of 1985, and it was scorchingly hot in San Diego — the kind of oppressive dry heat where you don’t sweat because it evaporates instantly. I sat very, very still with my parents in suffocating heat around the dining table at our neighbor’s house. All the doors and windows were open — air conditioning was a rarity then in San Diego — and my parents kept interrupting the meal to look out the window or to stand in the doorway. My father loomed, staring outside, my mother angling her head around him to also take a quick glance into the night.
My father wasn’t looking to cool off. It was because the former college basketball player — who is over six-and-a-half feet tall and more than 250 pounds — was worried about the Night Stalker. All the lights were on in our house, and the blinds and curtains were open for a clear line of sight. He kept gazing across the courtyard to make sure no one was inside the house, waiting to ambush us when we got home.
Between March and August 1985, Richard Ramirez killed 12 people in California, primarily in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles, a campaign of slaughter and torture that also included numerous sexual assaults and child abductions. It goes beyond true crime; it’s true horror. Netflix’s “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” is a four-part docuseries that follows the work of two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives as they track down Ramirez. The cataloguing of the police work done by Det. Sgt. Frank Salerno and Det. Lt. Gil Carrillo is a cathartic tale, a compelling examination of intuition, dogged evidence tracing, luck, and experience that is always at risk of being thwarted by interagency cop politics.
Where the series goes horribly, offensively awry is in the lurid packaging of the very solid interviews with the police, journalists, surviving victims, and families. Real crime-scene photos are used throughout the series, a choice that is profoundly upsetting but necessary to illustrate the animalistic horror. (As wild as your imagination is, it would not be enough.)
What is not necessary, at all, are director Tiller Russell’s re-enactments of the crimes supported by cheesy B-movie grade visuals. We do not need to see a single drop of blood in slow-motion as it falls to the ground. We do not need to see a blood-covered hammer drop alongside it. (This shot repeats multiple times.) We do not need to see scenes of ominous animals looming in the dark — it’s not symbolism, it’s tawdry, scare-tactic filler. We do not need Ramirez’s recorded words bulleted across the scene in hot pink over scenes of nighttime Los Angeles traffic. This isn’t a Patrick Nagel exhibition.
In the last episode, when Ramirez is finally identified as a suspect, his name and photograph are splashed all over the media. Arriving back from Arizona on a Greyhound bus, Ramirez soon realizes he’s at real risk of being apprehended and starts on a frantic chase through East Los Angeles, including running across all the lanes — in both directions — of the 5 freeway. The tale of this final, desperate bid for freedom is intercut with, God help me, a scene of Pac-Man chasing and about to eat a ghost. (It’s the ‘80s, get it?)
It’s profoundly, jarringly tone-deaf, and it’s a problem throughout the series. When you use the actual photo of a bloodied bedspread of a 16-year-old girl who was beaten almost to death with a tire iron, you don’t get cute.
My father was watching the news on August 30, 1985 — the day after his birthday — and told me when I entered the room that they caught the Night Stalker. “How did the police get him?” I asked.
“A bunch of people in a neighborhood recognized him, and…” he started, and I remember that it was quite a long time for my father to figure out how to formulate what exactly happened to Ramirez to 9-year-old me, “…made very sure that he wasn’t going to get away.”
As the docuseries reveals, once Ramirez was recognized through his run through East Los Angeles an impromptu neighborhood posse beat him into submission. A patrol car came by out of sheer chance and the officer got Ramirez in the back seat before the mob killed him. Ramirez eventually received 19 death sentences for his crimes and was sent to San Quentin; he died in prison in 2013 from lymphoma.
The case of the Night Stalker still resonates with me and the others who lived through that time, but by now the locations he terrorized in the San Gabriel Valley are seemingly back to their norm. Sierra Madre is where the good ice cream store is located. We got our Christmas tree from a place in Monrovia. A bakery in Glassell Park has the best pastries in Los Angeles. We buy our camping gear for our son’s annual school trip to Joshua Tree in Arcadia.
There is a story to be told about life in suburban Los Angeles, where the Night Stalker proved that the veneer of bucolic normalcy is so thin, so tenuous. It can be a sunny place for shady people, to steal Somerset Maugham’s line.
But that’s a tale that requires subtlety, a willingness to delve into the inhuman and inhumane amid the seemingly mundane, and how the day-to-day can be curdled by the unfathomable. Maybe one day that story will get told. This is not it.
“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” is streaming now via Netflix.