Night Stalker director Tiller Russell on unraveling Richard Ramirez's untold stories
In the spring and summer of 1985, serial killer Richard Ramirez was on the loose terrorizing the city of Los Angeles. At the time, Ramirez was still a shadow in the night, picking his victims at random and leaving local residents wondering if they might be next.
By the end of his approximately year-long killing spree, he is estimated to have killed 14 people in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, though it is believed he killed many more. Among the departed were people of various age groups, sexes, and cultural backgrounds, which made him that much more difficult to pinpoint.
Director Tiller Russell (The Last Narc, Silk Road) was intent on not making Ramirez more famous with his new Netflix true crime documentary Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, opting instead to highlight the heroes and lift up the voices of Ramirez's victims with love and respect.
Russell spoke to EW about the careful planning that went into the production of the 4-part doc, available to stream in its entirety now. He also breaks down how the title stands apart from other Ramirez projects, and why the serial killer's capturer, Detective Gil Carrillo, is the real star of this tale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about the Richard Ramirez case that inspired you to make this documentary?
TILLER RUSSELL: At the time that Ramirez was doing all these murders simultaneously, he was also kidnapping children and molesting them and nobody really knew that at the time. Ramirez's crimes were unprecedented, there weren't other serial killers that were murdering adults and abducting children and sometimes murdering them. It was hard for anybody in the department to believe all these crimes were being committed by one person. Once they realized it was, it accelerated the pace of the investigation. In the end, law enforcement and prosecutors decided to prosecute him for the murders so as to avoid putting the kids through hell and re-traumatizing them in court. So he was never tried for any the molestation and kidnapping charges and that part of the story never entered into history. We felt that was an important part of the story we wanted to tell.
Also, it was important to us to highlight the stories of his victims carefully because we were dealing with highly sensitive, fragile, and sometimes tragic memories of somebody's life. We worked hard to form a bond with them so they understood they're in a safe place and that we would treat their stories with love and respect.
Even though this is about Ramirez, he's not the star of the documentary. Why did you center the story on Gil Carrillo?
Very early on we decided that we're not going to glamorize this guy in any way and we're not making him a hero. This story has had this weird afterlife. After he was caught, captured, and brought to justice he became this unlikely Satanic sex symbol in the middle of this crazy, circus-like atmosphere. There was this mythology about him and he had all these groupies and fans.
We focused instead on telling the stories of the lives he impacted. At the time, the media treated him like the Jim Morrison of serial killers and I felt like that was bullshit. My team and I decided to tell this story from Gil's perspective because he had this amazing story and he's not typically who you think of as an ordinary hero. He's a guy from the streets who had a dream to be the first person in his family to go to college. He never imagined he'd one day work for the sheriff's department, much less that he'd join the legendary homicide department known as the Bulldogs. He was the youngest guy to make it that far and then he got assigned the case of a lifetime. And he did it all for his dad, his family, and the neighborhood. That's the hero's arc that fascinated me and I really loved him as a character.
How do you feel about Ramirez dying from cancer while awaiting execution for his crimes?
It's a weird end to the story because the whole thing was really so surreal. You couldn't have made this story up in a writers' room if you wanted to write a TV show because you'd have been thrown out of there for coming up with a wild and ridiculous story. But it's fascinating because it's all true. Then there's this unremarkable end to it where he dies in San Quinten without an execution. Beyond that, what is haunting to me is that his attorney told me it wasn't [Ramirez's] first rodeo, there are other cases out there. Subsequently, DNA evidence has connected him to multiple other murders including one of a child and two sisters in San Francisco. Who knows how many other people are out there with unanswered questions? That to me is what's really heartbreaking.
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