Netflix's 'Night Stalker' series captures the fear that gripped Southern California

A new documentary focuses on the two homicide detectives who led the investigation that resulted in the arrest of serial killer Richard Ramirez

In the summer of 1985, I was a newly promoted sergeant working the night shift at a municipal police department in southeast Los Angeles County. My wife, 12-year-old son, newborn son and I lived in South Gate, also in southeast Los Angeles County. That long, hot summer is still vivid in our minds because of the mayhem a serial killer, Richard Ramirez, who was later dubbed the Night Stalker, created in nearby cities.

Ramirez eventually was convicted of 13 counts of murder, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults and 14 burglaries, for which he was sentenced to die. Netflix’s four-part documentary series “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” accurately captures the fear that gripped the Southern California area during his reign of terror.

series focuses on lead detectives, victims

The strength of the documentary series lies in its focus on the two lead homicide detectives and the victims rather than the Night Stalker himself. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department homicide investigators Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno are clearly the stars of the show.

Carrillo and Salerno, both of whom participated in the series, could not be more different, Carrillo was a young, street smart investigator when he was selected by Salerno to be his partner. Salerno was a sardonic, old-salt investigator who had made a name for himself by solving the Hillside Strangler case a decade earlier. As Salerno told Carrillo, “You only get a case like that once in a career.” Boy, was he wrong.

Serial killers typically have a distinct pattern, either in the selection of victims, location, or method of killing. Not the Night Stalker. His victims were men, women, boys and girls ranging in age from six to 83. Though many of the attacks were in the San Gabriel Valley area, he committed crimes from San Francisco to Mission Viejo. The weapons he used ranged from guns and knives to tire irons, handcuffs and more.

Early on, Carrillo surmised there was a connection between some of the murders and child kidnapping/sexual assaults happening around the same time. However, veteran homicide investigators from across the county scoffed at the notion that such disparate crimes could be related.

Investigators faced many pitfalls

The accounts from Carrillo and Salerno include warts and all. For example, Carrillo once walked into a patrol briefing at an LASD substation to hear a sergeant providing patently wrong information. Because of ineffective communication (and obvious competition) between LASD and LAPD investigators, potential fingerprint evidence was destroyed. Another time, an LASD administrator called off a stakeout to avoid excessive overtime costs just one day before the Night Stalker arrived. A silent alarm set up in lieu of the stakeout malfunctioned.

Despite the pitfalls, Carrillo and Salerno's dogged efforts paid off.

If Carrillo and Salerno are the stars of the series, the surviving victims and family members are the co-stars. Particularly riveting is Anastasia Hronas, who was six years old when Ramirez kidnapped and sexually assaulted her. If the story of her presence and actions during the in-person lineup doesn't bring a tear to your eye, nothing will.

“Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer” is graphic, using actual crime scene photos, and doesn't gloss over the Night Stalker’s actions. Hearing Ramirez's own words about his crimes, even when read by a narrator, is almost as disturbing as the crime scenes. In the end, though, following Salerno and Carrillo as their lives are upended and consumed in their search for the Night Stalker makes for riveting television. 

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