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Crime News Serial Killers

How Did Detective's Previous Work On The 'Hillside Strangler' Help Solve The 'Night Stalker' Case?

Det. Frank Salerno hunted down homicidal cousins Angelo Buono Jr. and Kenneth Bianchi before taking on the Richard Ramirez case with his new partner, Det. Gil Carillo

By Gina Tron
The Richard Ramirez Case, Explained

Two Los Angeles detectives who took very different approaches to their work teamed up to crack the infamous "Night Stalker" case, ultimately unmasking the serial killer as Richard Ramirez. To do so, one of the investigators' previous work on a high-profile case came in quite handy.

Ramirez was behind a terrifying murder spree in the mid-1980s that absolutely paralyzed the Los Angeles area and it took some real brain work to crack the case because the killer didn’t have a clear modus operandi. Not even close. He was all over the place with his choice of weapons, with his victim profile, with his crimes themselves, which ranged from molestation to rape to murder. Sometimes he'd kidnap children and let them go; other times he'd rape and kill adults. 

Gil Carrillo was a relatively new detective at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. In fact, he was the youngest one there, according to "Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer," a new docuseries available Wednesday on Netflix. While he was known for his tenacity, he was also known for being smiley and good-natured. The media found him a welcome change because he was welcoming and approachable. However, his lack of solid experience led to some issues: his peers didn't initially believe his theory that the crime spree was the work of one killer. He was dismissed and even laughed at. It was only when seasoned detective Frank Salerno believed him that his theories gained traction. Soon they were on the hunt for the elusive killer, dubbed the "Night Stalker."

The blossoming of the pair's professional relationship is depicted in the docuseries. Together, they tracked shoe prints left at crime scenes, which they were able to link to an uncommon pair of Avia shoes. That, in turn, led them on the track to finding Ramirez.

But it wasn’t the only very high profile case that Salerno worked on. Before Ramirez’s crime spree even began, Salerno “played a key role” in the "Hillside Strangler" case, according to a 1985 Los Angeles Times piece.

"Frank was the guy who put it all together," Tony Valdez, a KTTV news reporter, told producers in the Netflix docuseries.

His work on the case led officials to determine that it was two cousins, Angelo Buono Jr. and Kenneth Bianchi, who were responsible for wreaking havoc in the area from late 1977 to February 1978. The relatives murdered 10 women and girls during their spree; their victims were discovered strangled and posed in the hills surrounding the Los Angeles area. Bianchi killed another two on his own in Washington state. 

“He’s as good as you can get,” Detective Sgt. Bill Williams of the Los Angeles Police Department told the Los Angeles Times in 1985 of Salerno, just as the detective was assigned to the "Night Stalker" case.

Salerno thought that working on the "Hillside Strangler" spree was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of case for him. But then Ramirez began striking, and the experience he acquired during the "Hillside Strangler" probe proved invaluable.

One of the biggest flaws of the "Hillside Strangler" case was the fact that information was not shared between investigators effectively, according to the Los Angeles Times. Salerno told the outlet in 1985 that he made sure to cross-share info when tracking down Ramirez.

“You learn as you go along,” he told the outlet. “I think naturally because of the amount of information that came in on that case, mistakes are going to be made. [...] You learn from your mistakes.”

He emphasized that “one of the major (improvements) is cross-indexing. We’re trying to accomplish more correlation and exchange of information between the various agencies that are working. It’s almost a daily contact between the investigators, and also meetings and briefings.”

In the end, the "Night Stalker" case was solved in a little more than a year.

"The relationship between these two men captivated me from the beginning," "Night Stalker" Director Tiller Russell said in a director's statement. "Gil's from the streets. He's Latino. He comes from this world where the notion of actually making it on to the sheriff's homicide team and becoming one of those iconic cops was a childhood dream in some ways. To suddenly find himself involved in the case of a lifetime took him on an incredible hero's journey, alongside Frank Salerno, who was already this legendary cop."

He said he was moved to make the docuseries because of "the unlikely pairing of these two guys - the young buck from the streets and the grizzled veteran."

Both detectives then went on to work on solving countless homicide cases. Carillo, now retired, investigated between 700 and 800 murders in all, the Pasadena Star-News reported in 2015.

Ramirez was convicted of 13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries in 1989. He was sentenced to death but died in 2013 of lymphoma behind bars as he awaited his execution.