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Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York Ends With a Call for Justice

The capture of Richard Rogers is not the sole focus of the docuseries, which concludes by centering his victims.
  • Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York (Photo: HBO)
    Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York (Photo: HBO)

    What does a true-crime story mean to the queer community? It's a question that feels particularly pertinent after the fourth and final episode of Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York, which aired July 30 on HBO.

    True crime’s popularity has caused a great deal of introspection and hand-wringing about the ways in which the stories and lives of crime victims and their loved ones are exploited for entertainment. These considerations feel particularly pointed when applied to crime within the queer community. LGBTQ+ people have been systematically victimized, brutalized, gaslit, and denied justice throughout history. Acts of violence like the ones investigated in Last Call reverberate outward, starting with the victims themselves, then their friends and loved ones, and ultimately terrorizing the greater queer community. To be callous or sensational when revisiting these crimes not only denies justice to the victims and those who loved them, but risks trivializing the systemic threat that queer people have always faced.

    Director Anthony Caronna, along with executive producer Howard Gertler and producers and documentarians Liz Garbus and Dan Cogan, has taken great care in unpacking the case of serial killer Richard Rogers and his victims, primarily the four gay men he killed around New York City between 1991 and 1993. The series, based on Elon Green's meticulously researched book of the same name, which was published in 2021, is not merely the story of a killer or even the police investigation that at long last led to his capture and conviction. It's also the story of the victims themselves, the people who loved them and mourn their loss, and the community that fought for justice on their behalf.

    There's no getting around the fact that the details of the murders are grisly, involving dismemberment and people finding the victims' remains in bags dropped in trash cans alongside highways in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. These details are provided to help the viewer follow the investigation, but Caronna focuses on the victims as often as possible.

    Peter Anderson and Thomas Mulcahy were closeted men living in a time when they couldn't be openly gay. Anthony Marrero was a sex worker whose family still has a hard time reconciling themselves with the man he truly was. Michael Sakara was a gregarious, out gay man who was a mainstay at a Greenwich Village piano bar. The series notes that it was the fact that Sakara was so open and visible in his queer existence that helped break the case. Each of these men had friends and lovers and family members. They lived complicated queer lives. They existed, in one way or another, as part of a community that gathered in bars across New York City where they were momentarily able to be themselves.

    The series does a great job of setting the scene in queer New York City in the early '90s. Bars like Townhouse and The Five Oaks were more than just the last known locations for these victims. They were oases in Manhattan where gay people could gather to meet people, drink, sing, and revel. One of the more insidious effects of Rogers' killings was how they violated these queer spaces. This was a community that had faced the devastating scourge of AIDS for a decade, demonization by everyone from politicians to TV preachers, and was under constant threat of physical violence from bigots. Groups like the Anti-Violence Project formed because the NYPD, under the leadership of homophobic police commissioner Ray Kelly, had little interest in solving crimes in the gay community, much less protecting queer people. The series features interviews with people like Bea Hanson and Matt Foreman, whose anger at the institutional homophobia that allowed a serial killer to thrive in their community still simmers.

    One of the more deftly subversive moves Last Call makes is to follow the police investigation closely while refusing to lionize law enforcement. It is, of course, a fascinating investigation, one that begins with finding severed body parts strewn in trash cans along the highway, and it's interesting to watch the evidence mount up: a plastic bag from a specific grocery store, an eyewitness account from a piano-bar entertainer, an advancement in fingerprinting technology that helps break the case years later.

    But all along, we're reminded of the myriad ways in which the cops failed these victims. This was a case that encompassed several jurisdictions across Manhattan, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and some departments handled the case better than others, but the common thread throughout them all was an unfamiliarity with the queer community and a disinterest in it that manifested itself in many ways, from bemusement to outright hostility. There's a moment early on in which the interviewer (presumably Caronna) asks the Pennsylvania cops, who have the full benefit of hindsight, if there's anything he should have asked that he hasn't yet asked, and the response is "Why the emphasis on the gay part?"

    The NYPD comes under particular scrutiny for their historically awful treatment of the queer community. Their ambivalence was paired with outright incompetence, like when the New York cops broke the surveillance of Rogers and brought him in for questioning too early, simply because mayor Rudy Giuliani's mother was staying at the hospital where Rogers was working.

    Again and again, we see footage of the straight establishment simply not getting it. As innocuous as it may seem, a scene in which a cop expresses befuddlement that a gay man like Rogers would possess a VHS collection of Golden Girls episodes says it all. This was a community who the rest of the world did not make the time or effort to ever really understand.

    As the final episode nears its end, Marrero's nephew offers a fitting elegy. "I want everyone who has a family member or a friend who's been a victim of violence against the queer community to have that sense of 'My friend, my lover, my family member, they weren't just a statistic or a victim in a news article. They lived. They loved. They had their own story too.’" Last Call serves as a reminder that these men were more than just the crime perpetrated against them, and their community fought for them.

    Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York is streaming on Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Last Call, HBO, Anthony Caronna, Howard Gertler, LGBTQ

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