True-crime stories of serial killers are a genre in and of themselves, so much so that the repeated retelling of murderers is liked Jeffrey Damer and John Wayne Gacy almost turns them into cliches that threaten to trivialize the real consequences of their killings. But rarely are true crime and social justice so consistently intertwined on the small screen as in “Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York,” a four-part docuseries premiering on HBO.
Directed by Anthony Caronna and executive produced by Howard Gertler from Elon Green’s 2021 non-fiction book, “Last Call” pulls back the curtain on the killing spree of Richard Rogers, a nurse who, from the 1980s to 2001 when he was eventually caught by authorities, he targeted gay men in New York and New Jersey. (Earlier, in 1973, he had been acquitted of killing his college roommate in what he claimed was a gay panic attack.) by the mainstream media amidst the AIDS crisis and the still felt influence of the Anita Bryants of the world. Through sensitively conducted interviews with the victims’ surviving family members, friends and lovers, and through noir reenactments reminiscent of the work of Errol Morris and “The Thin Blue Line”, “Last Call” seeks to recover those stories and the socially vulnerable who tell them.
Gertler told IndieWire that the filmmakers didn’t want to “create something that would re-traumatize the victims’ families. The community at large should drive how we would deal with the violence of it. This also involved setting up months-long interviews with the NYC Anti-Violence Project and the authorities following the case.
Beneath the more gruesome aspects detailed in the series – Rogers’ modus operandi involved dismembering and scattering body parts around the Tri-State Area – there’s also an evocative snapshot of gay New York in the early 1990s . Queer bars like The Townhouse and Five Oaks, which have since closed, play as big a role as the people who frequented them and the killer who stalked them.
Rogers’ first victim was Peter Stickney Anderson, a well-liked and closeted banker whose former secret lover shares poignant testimonies about their relationship. That man was the last to see Anderson before he was kidnapped drunk by Rogers and killed. Rogers also captured and killed Thomas Richard Mulcahy, a married father of four who lived a gay life undercover and whose daughter relates poignant memories of him. Also there was Michael Sakara, the mayor of Townhouse, fondly remembered by former employees of the bar and by her sister, also gay.
‘Last Call’ gives us perhaps the most access to the surviving family of Anthony Marrero, a 44-year-old Latina prostitute whose killing confounded the NYPD – who had mostly targeted the man who was ultimately revealed to be Rogers like a murderer of white, wealthy, old men.
Regarding how the filmmakers got the victims’ loved ones to speak so candidly without reactivating their trauma, Gertler says, “It was a series of conversations. There was one topic we talked to them about for a year before they felt ready to sit down for this interview. When approaching individuals with a history like this, especially those who have experienced some sort of trauma, it is important to communicate what your intent is (…) to let them know that when they are in the room they can say no to anyone who asks they want.
He added that “everyone came away feeling like they had a cathartic experience.”
In the harrowing second episode of “Last Call,” which focuses primarily on Marrero and the fallout within the underground gay community of his murder, one of Rogers’ alleged attempted victims speaks anonymously about her run-in with someone whose modus operandi sounds very similar to that of the killer.
“His parameters in telling this story were that he wanted to hide his identity because he wasn’t afraid, but he didn’t want Richard Rogers to see this show or hear about this seated person who still had the trauma of that experience. He didn’t want Richard she felt like it affected her life like that,” Caronna said.
Rogers, who was not approached about joining the series, is still alive and serving multiple life sentences in New Jersey State Prison. The NYPD’s futile pursuit of him over the years turns the series into a documentary thriller in its final stages, also futile due to the police’s seemingly homophobic refusal to take the killings any more seriously.
“Richard’s backstory has never been the most interesting thing to me and Howard. We weren’t really interested in telling that story. We also didn’t want to do this kind of armchair psychology on Richard Rogers,” Caronna said, with the filmmakers insisting that “Last Call” is not a scary saga of serial killers, but rather a portrayal of oft-maligned rumours. or ignored. by the queer community. In a timely reminder of recent controversies surrounding The New York Times’ coverage of trans people, “Last Call” touches on the bias the Times and other New York media outlets viewed Rogers (before his identity was known) as the “gay-slay” killer obviously because he had a catchy, if-bleeds-leads rhyme. But that’s only part of the story that the four hours of ‘Last Call’ – which, like ‘OJ: Made in America,’ begins as a kind of true crime before revealing a larger, deeper social canvas – can only address much.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever tell a story as incredibly difficult as this one because we weren’t just telling a simple true crime story. We had so many elements that we had to work in four hours. It was a complicated thing, by trial and error over the course of a year and a half” Gertler said.
What drove Rogers to kill remains strangely ambiguous, and it’s not something the series tries to answer. “We know his sexuality, but the only thing that really matters to him is that he has known how to exploit these safe spaces,” said Caronna. “I can’t talk to him—and I don’t think any of us can—about his true motives, but it wasn’t for us to make that comment.”
“Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York” will premiere on HBO and stream on Max on Sunday, July 9. Watch an exclusive clip below.