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Netflix’s misguided Night Stalker series treats its cops like gods

To be a true crime fan is to have a troubled dependence on the police.

Gil Carrillo in Night Stalker.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The climactic moment of Netflix’s true crime docuseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, is probably supposed to feel cathartic. In the final minutes of the four-part series’ third installment, San Francisco detective Frank Falzon recalls how he tracked down a friend of the California serial killer whose string of attacks throughout 1984 and 1985 made him a household name among true crime followers.

Falzon describes this moment with relish almost four decades later. In his recounting, the friend — who’d originally contacted police himself with a tip about the Night Stalker’s identity — balked when Falzon asked him to reveal the Night Stalker’s full name. So Falzon forcibly dragged the friend-turned-informant into his police car, threatened him, and punched him in the face.

“It wasn’t my best punch, but it definitely wasn’t my worst,” Falzon says. After further threats, Falzon says, he lunged toward the informant, who cringed away from him, “threw his hands up in a cross,” and stammered out: “Richard Ramirez. Richard Ramirez. Richard Ramirez.”

As Falzon repeated the name, the music swelled and grew more ominous. The episode cut to the docuseries’ cliffhanger end credits. And all I could think was how terrified this person must have been of the police.

To their credit, Night Stalker producers Tiller Russell and James Carroll have created a series that attempts to do exactly what true crime media should do: demystify the perpetrator and elevate the people impacted by their crimes. Although Ramirez’s lurid nickname gets the title credit, there’s very little of him in Night Stalker’s narrative, which is almost entirely focused on the Los Angeles and San Francisco communities Ramirez prowled during his intense 16-month period of home invasion, robbery, sexual assault, violence, and murder.

But the strident erasure of Ramirez from this story of his crimes has also made Night Stalker a deeply confusing entry point for anyone who is unfamiliar with the case. And it’s opened up the series to other criticism: In its determination to avoid glorifying Ramirez, it instead glorifies the police who caught him.

I’m not sure that version of the story is any less troubling.

Night Stalker goes out of its way to avoid including Ramirez in its narrative

Night Stalker is emphatically not about Richard Ramirez. In fact, the series has done a stellar job of assembling dozens of people who encountered Ramirez over the course of the investigation into his crimes, from random witnesses to people who survived his attacks.

Especially prominent are the police who hunted him, in particular Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detectives Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno. Carrillo and Salerno are essentially the stars of Night Stalker; as the younger, junior cop, Carrillo’s perspective takes center stage, while Salerno, who was already a minor celebrity when Ramirez became active because of his prior work on the Hillside Strangler murders, is introduced as a veritable demigod. Salerno is framed as larger than life, with stirring musical cues. And even decades later, Carrillo’s voice retains a tinge of awe in recalling Salerno. These two are unquestionably our heroes.

But there’s a huge hole at the center of this story in the shape of the lanky, hollow-eyed Ramirez. As a true crime fan, I’ve complained in the past about media that goes too far in the direction of glorifying the killer and allowing them to control the narrative surrounding their crimes — Ted Bundy being the glaring, trope-setting standard. It’s easy to see why Night Stalker’s producers would want to avoid this with Ramirez; he’s one of the “big” names in true crime, a serial killer whose name (or at least nickname) you’re likely to recognize, in the same category as Bundy, BTK, or the Zodiac. So it’s plausible that the intended audience for the documentary is assumed to be familiar with Ramirez’s case, and that they didn’t feel it necessary to rehash too many details.

But while Ramirez was headline news for much of the ’80s (his attacks took place in 1984 and 1985, his trial began in 1988, and he was convicted in 1989), by the time of his death from cancer in 2013 while on California’s death row, he had largely faded from the public awareness. So the brief glimpses of him that Night Stalker offers are actually more confusing than enlightening — they feel like odd interruptions, cameos from a strange minor character who inexplicably pops up occasionally, waving pentagrams on his palms.

Why pentagrams? Why is Ramirez embarking on his crime spree? What makes his crimes in particular so memorable in the annals of serial killing? Night Stalker never makes any of this clear, nor does the series attempt to provide any context for either Ramirez’s motives or the impact of his crimes on the communities he terrorized. Growing up in Texas, Ramirez experienced severe abuse from multiple family members, including one who groomed him to be a sexual predator and another who filled Ramirez’s head with lingering horrific memories and images from the Vietnam War at an impressionable early age. Ramirez began to claim he worshiped Satan while still a teenager, and was committing sexual assault by his 20s.

The element of Satanism is the lurid, headline-grabbing aspect of the Night Stalker case, but that had much more to do with the way Ramirez’s claims fed the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s than any real Satanic influence evident in his crimes. His attacks were mostly about sexual gratification and power, as well as notoriety; Ramirez clearly craved fame and relished being in the spotlight after his arrest.

On the one hand, the production must have felt it would be satisfying to deprive Ramirez of some of that notoriety. To some extent, it is satisfying. In particular, it’s inspiring to hear from Ramirez’s survivors, including one couple who narrowly escaped their brush with Ramirez, and one victim who was assaulted by Ramirez when she was a child. Seeing her declare with certainty that she’s fine feels like the ultimate victory over Ramirez.

But Ramirez’s life arguably fits into a conversation about the cyclical nature of abuse and the cyclical horror of war — each a form of trauma. Likewise, a more thorough examination of Ramirez’s actions in the context of Satanic Panic could have made for a fascinating discussion within the series, had it been handled well. To what extent was Ramirez responding to the Satanic Panic of the era, and to what extent was he acting independent of it, but still becoming a part of the larger societal hysteria? These are all themes I’d have loved to see explored.

The absence of Ramirez from his own story wasn’t that confusing to me because I could see what Night Stalker was trying to do. But it was confusing to other viewers I’ve spoken with, many of whom were totally unfamiliar with Ramirez’s story and naturally expected to learn about the titular serial killer.

There’s an obvious argument to be made that “understanding the mind of a serial killer” is too often used to justify overblown, glorified serial killer narratives. Sure. But we also need to understand the minds of serial killers, as well as the societal and personal circumstances that can lead to criminal behavior, if we’re ever going to fully understand criminality and attempt to rehabilitate potential offenders before it’s too late.

Even the life of a serial killer contains mitigating factors, and it’s too easy to write off the worst criminals as “monsters” instead of exploring and addressing the many sociological, cultural, and socioeconomic circumstances that often exacerbate these types of crimes. If we don’t know the criminal — if we erase their story altogether — then we also lose the opportunity to discover hints of possible interventions.

And that’s an especially disturbing prospect if the alternative is to glorify the cops instead. Because Night Stalker is all about glorifying the cops.

The cops in Night Stalker are presented as the good guys. But are they?

Night Stalker’s focus on the hunt for Ramirez keeps the series at a steady pace, but it’s also pretty dry storytelling, a mostly straightforward, uneventful recounting of events, attacks, eyewitness sightings, and police chasing down leads. Outside of survivors discussing the crimes, the narrative is primarily focused on recounting clues and leads, besides a few detours like a witness eagerly recalling how Ramirez smelled like a goat and a local reporter exasperatedly recalling how she missed the scoop of Ramirez’s arrest because she was getting her hair done.

The main thread tying the narrative together is detective Carrillo. Night Stalker vaguely interjects a number of cop tropes into his story, like Carrillo’s brief references to wanting his father’s approval, his status as the junior cop who has to earn the respect of his superiors, and his dedication to the case nearly jeopardizing his marriage. It’s still dry, but it’s an obvious attempt to make Carrillo the human face of the series — the everyman who serves as our window to understanding the Ramirez murders.

But Carrillo and Salerno, for all their earnestness and passion as they recount their roles in the narrative, are still cops. Los Angeles homicide squads in the ’80s weren’t exactly human rights groups. The summer of 1984, when Ramirez began his attacks, was also the summer in which then-police Chief Daryl Gates used the Olympics as an excuse to occupy parts of inner-city Los Angeles. This was among many actions that resulted in increased tension and clashes between police and locals, particularly in communities of color.

But Night Stalker never confronts this dynamic; instead, it suggests that the people of Los Angeles are unequivocally grateful for the police, and happy to work with the cops to catch the killer. In fact, when Ramirez is ultimately corralled by East LA residents, the series treats the capture as a harmonious moment between the police and the people.

Perhaps it was. Carrillo and Salerno seemed to do good police work, even if the clue that led to the killer came from a Northern California citizen who apparently got punched in the face for his good deed. We need dedicated police officers who have positive relationships with their communities. Whenever cops do good work — work that truly serves the public — that moment feels like a victory. It comes with deep relief and pride in the justice system for functioning as it should.

But herein lies the difficulty of being a true crime fan: We have to recognize that police officers as a group perpetuate an inherently flawed and racist system of justice that fails people of color and marginalized communities far more often than it serves them. We can never lose sight of the reality that for every moment when the cops and the community are in harmony, there are countless others when the police force is the oppressor. And cases like Ramirez’s are often used as excuses for police to crack down and enact violence on people who aren’t serial killers.

Night Stalker doesn’t acknowledge this paradox at all. Instead, it treats Carrillo and Salerno like demigods. It approvingly lets a cop talk about punching an informant in the face and edits it like a pivotal, satisfying moment of triumph rather than a horrifying example of police brutality. And that strange omission — I mean, it’s dealing with the LAPD in the ’80s, perhaps the most notoriously racist police force to exist outside of the LAPD in the ’90s! — undermines Night Stalker’s effort to excise the bad seed at the heart of its story. Especially given the racial tensions between the police and their communities that erupted across the nation in 2020, I’m wondering if the production team ever stopped to think about how their approach to the police might be perceived.

It all starts to feel like the series’ producers knew what they were supposed to aspire to — centering the victims, downplaying Ramirez — but didn’t reflect fully on the logic behind why, or on how a thorough effort to consider the sociocultural context of the Ramirez story could change the way they structured Night Stalker. The final episode, which offers a strangely eroticized framing of Ramirez after all his absence — with long, slow pans up a photo of his body while the detectives recall how he had women throwing themselves at him — makes everything that came before it feel even more muddled. What’s the point of serving up five minutes of Richard Ramirez, sex idol, after being so careful not to tell us anything about him?

Night Stalker is a reminder that building a true crime story around the non-criminals isn’t enough. You need balance — and more crucially, context — for every narrative beat, especially because these are real crimes, still sending ramifications and echoes throughout society decades later.

Those echoes are clear, just from the fact that so many people who witnessed and lived through the Ramirez story are still around to talk about it nearly four decades later. History is living and walking — and very occasionally still stalking — among us. In the case of Night Stalker, that history deserved more careful attention.

Correction: This article originally misidentified Carrillo and Salerno as members of the LAPD homicide squad. They are Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives.