The new Starz documentary series Confronting a Serial Killer is captivating, immersive and infuriating. One of the first things we learn is how victims are parsed through the criminal justice system. On the scale of homicide priorities, “pretty white college students are the most dead, black hookers are the least dead.”
Because it tells a story about an under-represented and largely dismissed cross-section of the community, Confronting a Serial Killer focuses on the victims. Even the journalist spearheading the investigation is a survivor. Putting a human face and voice to statistics is a slowly growing trend in true crime coverage. It was recently done in Peacock Originals’ John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise. But the Killer Clown is one of the most recognizable names in the history of homicide. While Samuel Little may have racked up a higher body count, his is a lesser-known name.
Little extinguished 93 lives over four decades. Black serial killers are statistically rare, but that is only one reason Little was overlooked by the police. Victimized low income and disenfranchised women of color are statistically high. In the documentary, the authorities list dozens of reasons why they are invisible.
Jillian Lauren (Some Girls: My Life in a Harem) is a Gonzo journalist on par with Jimmy Breslin. She’s gone from memoirist to deep dive investigator, exposing sultans and bureaucrats. Lauren consistently lays herself bare in her works, fully transparent about even the most intimate details of her past. This documentary shows her going beyond mere disclosures, sliding deeper into a sociopath’s world to the point of being on his list. She contorts her psyche to become Little’s most enticing prey, and ends up his last psychological victim.
Besides the audience, that is. Confronting a Serial Killer makes victims of everyone watching. It is blunt and honest, straightforward and absolutely unblinking. The viewer is held captive for five hours, bound by the bare bones presentation but mesmerized by the investigator’s journey. It induces a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but we identify with Lauren, and she identifies with the victims.
Joe Berlinger is a true crime genre pioneer, co-directing the Paradise Lost trilogy, Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger, and Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich and Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Berlinger steps aside as a filmmaker so the victims can be heard loud and clear. It is sometimes a cacophony of dissonance, but the messages are unmistakable. Berlinger doesn’t dive headlong into a search for justice in this documentary, he fulfills the promise made by Lauren. Look as hard at the victims as you do at the killer, and don’t let the investigators off the hook.
The interview with Hilda Nelson, a victim who lived, is unsparing. “He cold cocked me,” she remembers, knocking her out without warning. The only reason she survived the attack is because she worked the streets, and people checked in on girls who were on the clock. The police “took her statement, but nothing was done about it,” Nelson remembers. “They didn’t start looking into it until a white girl went missing.”
Even the white girl didn’t get the proper attention because she’d also been marginalized due to the work she did. One memorable moment comes when a family member said he put a cigarette out in his hand just to feel something after being numbed by official inaction. The documentary gives amazing backstories on the victims. The documentary fills in their lives, visiting their hometowns and allowing the families to tell their backstories. Patricia Ann Mount was 26 years old when she was attacked, but she was dismissed by prosecutors because she had an IQ of 40. They do remember she was an alcoholic who went home with men, though.
During the interviews, everyone who worked the case or the courts brings up how each victim was a sex worker who was probably an alcoholic or drug addict. Tonya Jackson, whose attack was interrupted by police, never took the stand because San Diego County DA Gary Rempel said she wouldn’t have made a very good witness. White survivor Laurie Barros also wasn’t considered a credible witness, even though she came prepared with evidence and sketches, because she was labeled a sex worker.
The documentary proves this is how the case went unsolved for so long. Little had a knack for picking victims society didn’t care about and the law didn’t track. He crisscrossed state lines, strangling sex workers, drug addicts, people with mental health issues, and others he believed would not be missed. What precinct had the manpower to investigate the death of a Black hooker from Mississippi, or a junkie in Florida? They certainly aren’t taken seriously on the stand because Little was set free numerous times.
These traits work in Lauren’s favor. She was a concubine in a harem, thought heroin was as comfortable as breathing, survived domestic violence, and lived through attempted murder. Jillian does what no interrogator can do. She cracks the serial killer. Lauren manipulates the psychopath who still vehemently denies the three murders for which he’s been convicted. She does it by becoming the very thing he responds to. She is “a mother, a daughter, his ultimate victim.”
Lauren gets Little to reveal details of the crimes which were unknown to authorities. She gives the killer the space to confess. One of the best moments comes when Lauren realizes Little is actually confessing. She is as concerned as she is pleased, but she still doesn’t let him off the hook. She tells him she doesn’t believe him on several occasions, and wants more than mere details. Lauren wants to understand why Little sees women as lesser human beings.
The audio excerpts of the conversations are chilling. Little has an eye for detail, and his casual descriptions are monstrous. But they are reinforced by law enforcement. In a sequence where Barros confronts Rempel about ignoring her testimony, the DA throws the blame back on her.
The documentary also catches Lauren speaking with current female officers, in an attempt to see how the criminal justice system is still weighted against women of color, as well as people suffering from mental illness or struggling with addiction. LAPD Homicide Detective Mitzi Roberts used DNA technology to solve three cold cases from the 1980s. She admits she is most proud to be part of the team which put Little behind bars. She is less proud about the final count. Detective Roberts helped put him away for killing three women in Los Angeles. She confesses to a hunch he was guilty of many more murders. It was just out of her jurisdiction.
The documentary also speaks with Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman, the Los Angeles judge who sentenced Little to serve three life sentences in 2014. Some of Little’s murders remain unsolved, and some victims are still unidentified as Jane Does. Confronting a Serial Killer makes a strong case for systematically reappraising unofficially disenfranchised communities. If the survivors who came forward weren’t devalued by the system, Little would never have been able to kill 93 victims.
Confronting a Serial Killer is dry, but it is not unemotional. The series examines indifference and institutional biases. It shines a light on racial and gender bias in the criminal justice system against victims from marginalized communities. But it is also about confronting trauma. Sam Little died in 2020. The documentary points out that he killed more people than Gacy, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer combined. It also points out how only the system has killed more than Sam Little.
Confronting a Serial Killer premieres on Starz on April 18.