The Night Stalker (Richard Ramirez) was a serial killer who murdered more than a dozen people and terrorized LA for months in 1985. LA County Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno cracked the case. They’re profiled in a new Netflix docuseries called “Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer.”
“These were seemingly patternless crimes,” series director Tiller Russell tells KCRW. “So the victims ranged in age from six to 82. There were men, there were women, there were children. There were different murder weapons that were used. There were guns, there were knives. And the randomness of those attacks was also mirrored in some sense by the randomness of how they were scattered across the city.”
He says the attacks happened in different police jurisdictions, so they were difficult for officers to track because one department didn’t know what another department was doing.
Two detectives ended up working full time on this. Frank Salerno was “homicide cop royalty” because he solved the Hillside Strangler case, Russell says. “He ended up getting paired with this young Latino rookie, Gil Carrillo, who at the time was one of the youngest members to ever make homicide. And so it became this unlikely pairing of the grizzled veteran and the young buck working this kind of once in a lifetime, horrifying case.”
In the film, Carrillo says, “Frank had been through a serial killer before. I remember leaving the Hall of Justice one day, asking him if it was wrong for me to want somebody else to die. I needed more evidence, I needed him to screw up. And the only way you'd make a mistake was if there were more victims.”
Russell says working homicide was a “complicated moral calculus,” especially when there was no computerized fingerprint database or DNA.
“The only way that you could get the next clue, the next piece of information was by waiting for another body to drop. And so, particularly for somebody that is a deeply religious guy, Catholic and a family man himself, with a wife and multiple kids, it was a heavy moral weight for him having to chase in the wake of death to solve the case.”
One signature piece of evidence that tied all the cases together: Avia shoes that the suspect wore. Russell explains that a new manufacturer just started making these shoes, and a small number of them were used.
“In repeated murder scenes, there were footprints of this very unique sole pattern. … Suddenly when that information was shared … as well as information about the ballistics, so the story goes that from that day forward, the Avias has never appeared again. And so that one critical piece of evidence that linked them all together then disappeared afterwards.”
But the detectives kept working and ultimately identified the Night Stalker — with the help of other law enforcement agencies.
“There's an informant in Southern California whose information coincides with that of a police inspector in San Francisco. And they're able to connect with one of Ramirez’s running buddies,” says Russell. “This tough, hard-bitten San Francisco cop squares away and threatens to bang him over the head, and then this guy coughs up the name, Richard Ramirez. And from that confession from his crime partner, we get the name Richard Ramirez, which then they're able to pull a photo ID … then that iconic booking photo ends up getting published in the paper, and seen all over the world.”
Citizens were the ones who eventually caught Richard Ramirez, after recognizing him and chasing him through the streets of East LA.
“There's a poetic justice to it. … If you were to have made this story up, and if you were in a writers room pitching it, you would be fired. People would tell you like, ‘That's preposterous, the city is never going to rise up and capture the serial killer that's been terrorizing them for this entire long, hot summer.’ But because it's true, it ends up feeling like, ‘Wow, this is a kind of a gift from the cinema gods in terms of the storytelling, and it becomes this, I think, beautiful, poetic justice that as he's preying on the fears of the city … it’s the city itself that grabs him in the end.”
Did the city find out what motivated the Night Stalker? Russell says he asked every person he came into contact with — police, victims, reporters. “There's no clear consensus, there's no explanation for it, because the acts are of such profound evil that it's hard to kind of justify it in human terms.”
He adds, “What I wanted to do with this — most people know Ramirez is a serial killer. What they don't know is that he was also a pedophile and a rapist of children. And that is a crucial piece of the story that we tell because those cases never ended up being prosecuted because they didn't want to re-traumatize the kids that had lived through them. But I think it's important for people to confront.”