In the summer of 1985, a mysterious serial killer who became known as the Night Stalker terrorized the city of Los Angeles. Catching the criminal proved to be a uniquely challenging task for law enforcement, since victims came from a wide range of age groups, neighborhoods, and backgrounds. Now, a new true crime docuseries on Netflix recounts the discovery of who the Night Stalker was, and delves into the horrific crimes of Richard Ramirez.
As Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer — which hit Netflix on Jan. 13 — explains, it initially seemed like the killer's dozens of crimes were the work of several different murderers. After all, he killed and sexually assaulted people between the ages of 6 and 82, from a range of socioeconomic statuses, racial backgrounds, and geographic locations. His killing methods also varied wildly, from using guns and knives to strangulation.
Ramirez ultimately met his match in two men: fresh-faced Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detective Gil Carrillo and veteran homicide investigator Frank Salerno (who previously took down a serial killer known as the Hillside Strangler).
Most of Night Stalker focuses on the hunt to catch Ramirez, relying largely on interviews with the two detectives, as well as survivors, loved ones of Ramirez's victims, and even audio recordings of Ramirez himself. But it's not until Episode 4, the final installment of the four-part series, that dives into who the serial killer really was. Described as a "thief" since early childhood, Ramirez grew up in a rough household; his cousin killed his wife in front of him, and his father punished him by tying him to a cross in a cemetery overnight.
When Ramirez was finally arrested on Aug. 31, 1985, he made it clear he was a fan of other serial killers by enthusiastically referencing Salerno's work on the Hillside Strangler case. He soon received quite a bit of attention from the public, whether they were elated that he was caught or they were among his subset of admirers.
The court case surrounding Ramirez's crimes was dramatic, as Ramirez (a proclaimed Satanist) played into the media frenzy. He even once flashed a Pentagram tattoo on his palm and said "Hail Satan" as he was escorted out of the courtroom. After a series of legal delays and a lengthy trial involving around 140 witness testimonies, he was finally found guilty on all Night Stalker-related murder charges in the fall of 1989.
Although Ramirez was sentenced to death in a California gas chamber, that surprisingly wasn't how the Night Stalker died. In 2013, he died of cancer after spending over two decades on death row.
"Instead of staying in a box for decades and decades, he only stayed in a box for a relatively short time," journalist Laurel Erickson noted in an interview used in the Netflix doc. "Kind of a blessing. More than he gave his victims."
The Night Stalker's crimes cast a dark shadow over L.A. in the '80s, but with this new docuseries, a new generation of viewers can hear about the story through the lens of the survivors and detectives who ultimately held Ramirez accountable for his heinous crimes.
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is on Netflix now.