Joe Berlinger demonstrated his mastery of the true-crime documentary with “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) and the “Paradise Lost” Trilogy (1996-2011), films he co-directed with his late partner, Bruce Sinofsky. Suspenseful and fascinating, their projects relentlessly uncovered clues resolving the cases but provided insight into the broader, more insidious social issues that underlay them.
Berlinger has returned to the genre several times since, and his films include “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” (2014), about Boston’s infamous gangster. Lately he has turned to TV docuseries, most recently, on Netflix, the engaging three-part “Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer.”
In December 1979 New York’s Times Square was not the Disneyfied theme park it has become. The city had sunk into the morass of vice and violence satirized by John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981). But even Snake Plissken would be shocked at what firemen discovered when they responded to a report of a fire at the Travel Inn Hotel on 42d Street. Two naked women’s bodies lay on smoldering twin bed mattresses. They were decapitated and their hands had been cut off. In a sinister touch the perpetrator neatly folded the victims’ clothes and piled them with their shoes in the bathtub.
Not only did the mutilation of the bodies add an element of grotesque sadism to the crime, but in that pre-DNA era the lack of fingerprints, facial details, and dental records stymied identification of the victims. A witness had caught a glimpse of a possible perpetrator in the hotel lobby, but a composite sketch from her description distributed to the media turned up nothing.
The location of the crime also hampered the investigation. Times Square was the busiest part of the city and one of the most crime-ridden. The sex industry was booming, the mob was cashing in on it, cops were on the take, and solving crimes there was a low priority.
When the police came up with the inspired, if morbid, notion of dressing mannequins in the women’s clothes and publicizing the photos they finally caught a break. A local sex worker recognized some of the clothing as that of her friend, also a sex worker. She was the first known victim of the culprit dubbed “The Torso Killer,” but not the last, and further investigation linked him to numerous other unsolved murders of women going back to 1967.
The killer chose his victims well. Sex workers were easy prey for criminals because they would not be willing to testify, fearful of getting arrested. Many were young girls new to the city, who turned to prostitution out of desperation and were at the mercy of pimps, johns, and crooked members of the police.
But social attitudes were changing. The second wave of feminism had mobilized against sexual exploitation and victimization and had put pressure on the authorities to change their policies. Now johns would face charges and the rights and safety of sex workers would be better protected. Consequently, many of the workers came forward to present their testimony regarding the Times Square killer.
Berlinger slickly puts together the story, with arresting images from news footage and police photos, as well as atmospheric and creepy reenactments. He interviews an eclectic, colorful group of characters, including grizzled ex-cops, hardboiled journalists, a suspect’s coworker who seems a little unsavory himself, a “sex journalist and porn actor,” a live sex performer, a porn film cinematographer, the daughter of Martin Hodas, the self-styled “King of Porn,” who owned virtually every peep-show in Times Square, and legal, forensic, and sociological experts.
Most compelling, though, is the daughter of the first victim. She had been given up for adoption as an infant and decided to search for her birth mother. Instead of an emotional reunion she was presented with newspaper clippings of her mother’s heinous, degrading fate.
Brokenhearted, she decided to act. She was determined to restore the identities and dignity of other anonymous women and girls who had been murdered by sadists and in effect discarded by the society that had exploited them. She is the hero of the story, perhaps worthy of her own film.
“Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer” streams on Netflix beginning Dec. 29. Go to www.netflix.com/title/81405883.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.