HBO’s Last Call Is the Rare True-Crime Doc That Does Right by the Victims

7 minute read

“Anything that I didn’t ask that you think I should’ve asked?” It’s a standard final interview question for investigative journalists—a gesture of due diligence that acknowledges that the scope of the story might be wider than the reporter imagines. But when it’s posed from behind the camera in HBO’s Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York, one subject questions the whole premise of the docuseries: “Why,” asks Carl Harnish, a former Pennsylvania State police officer who worked on the case, “is the emphasis on the gay part?”

It isn’t exactly a gotcha moment. Last Call, which premieres on July 9, is not that kind of true-crime doc. More than an investigation, the series is an eloquent and timely rumination on why it took police in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania so many years to catch a serial killer who, throughout the early 1990s, picked up men at gay bars in Manhattan and crossed state lines to dispose of their dismembered remains. Unlike so much contemporary true-crime schlock, which enthuses over “favorite” murders and fetishizes Jeffrey Dahmer, its emphasis is on the victims, their still-grieving families, and a larger LGBTQ community that sublimated fear into action. Harnish’s question epitomizes the disconnect that persists between police and one of the most vulnerable groups they’re supposed to serve and protect.

Based on Elon Green’s Edgar-winning book Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York, the series tells the complete story of the so-called Last Call Killer, down to the nickname’s origin in homophobic tabloid news coverage. Each murder is dutifully recounted, from the late night at a piano bar to the discovery of body parts in plastic bags. Yet we don’t hear the killer’s name until the very end of the third out of four episodes. Instead, director Anthony Caronna (who also directed Susanne Bartsch: On Top, a portrait of a queer nightlife icon, as well as a standout episode of FX’s LGBTQ-rights docuseries Pride) devotes most of the documentary’s runtime to interviews with the family members, friends, and partners who knew the victims best.

Two of the men were closeted 50-somethings, with careers in conservative industries and families in the suburbs. We meet Thomas Mulcahy, whose remains were found in New Jersey in 1992, through his daughter, Tracy O’Shea. “My father was very kind, kind of gentle, funny in a quirky kind of way,” she recalls, sifting through photographs of the family-oriented Mulcahy just “being a dad,” from her childhood. “The big thing was, he kind of let us be ourselves.” Tony Hoyt had known the first Last Call victim, Peter Anderson, since the mid-’60s. They didn’t act on their mutual attraction at the time. “Where I grew up, everybody was straight,” Hoyt wryly explains. “One was not a homosexual.” So he married a woman and had kids, while Anderson got a big job in banking. They found each other again, briefly, several years later. It was Hoyt’s first sexual experience with another man. “We fit together, and we were safe together,” he says. But the affair couldn’t last. They were still closeted. Anderson found a wife of his own. And they didn’t see each other again until a chance meeting on the last night that Anderson was seen alive.

A decade younger, Latino, and a sex worker, Anthony Marrero represented a very different segment of queer New York. Caronna shows us an obituary for Marrero with the headline “Crack Addict, Prostitute” and suggests that his murder never got the attention it deserved because of how society viewed him. As his friend, the author and activist Ceyenne Doroshow, puts it: “There was no directory for find your dead homo friends. In my life, people disappeared a lot.” Marrero becomes a window into the antagonism and entrapment that the queer sex workers who congregated around Port Authority in the ’70s and ’80s suffered at the hands of police. But Caronna never loses sight of the individual, either. Marrero’s grand-nephew Antonio, who is bisexual, talks about how a strain of homophobia that persists within his family prevented him from learning his great-uncle’s story earlier. Antonio’s grandfather, who was Anthony’s brother, is still in denial. “I don’t think he was gay or anything like that,” he says in an interview.

The fourth and final known victim, Michael Sakara, was an out gay man with a robust social life—and his status as a fixture in the queer community led to some major breakthroughs in the case. Lisa Hall, the bartender at the watering hole where he was a regular, knew him by his real name and was able to describe the man he left with on the night he disappeared. A former partner regrets that he never got the chance to reconcile with Michael. And in an especially poignant interview, his younger sister Marilyn recounts how Michael’s openness, despite a rough childhood and an undesirable discharge from the military, made her own coming out easier: “He grounded me, and I felt protected.” The camera lingers on Marilyn grasping the hand of her spouse, Karen, and zooms in on a shelf in their home, loaded with books about grief.

These conversations are anything but pain porn. They’re rejoinders to salacious, dehumanizing media coverage of the Last Call Killer. They illuminate who every one of his victims were as people, through the eyes of those who loved them—some of whom never got to know the full extent of their identities while they were alive. And the interviews fly in the face of decades’ worth of propaganda that has framed queer people as abject, lonely outsiders.

Indeed, the heroes of Last Call are the people who spent decades helping to unite LGBTQ New York as a community. Veterans of the NYC Anti-Violence Project (then the NYC Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project) recall the difficulty of working with the NYPD; the police commissioner at the time, Ray Kelly, was a member of the openly homophobic Emerald Society, and New York City authorities dragged their feet on joining an interstate investigative task force, citing jurisdictional issues. Even as HIV-AIDS ravaged the community, it was the AVP that found the time to flyer neighborhoods about the Last Call Killer and the money to offer a reward for evidence leading to his arrest. And it was Gay USA—a cable news program that is still airing weekly episodes—that kept viewers informed about the case and held public officials who seemed to be devoting insufficient attention and resources to it accountable.

Last Call is not a formally ambitious documentary. Like many true-crime docs, it’s woven together from talking-head interviews, archival B-roll, and vague, wordless reenactments. What distinguishes it, structurally, are Caronna’s concision and attention to detail. Yet its real innovation is its compassion, in the trust that it not only establishes among the people whose lives were irreparably harmed by these killings, but also honors with its humanistic storytelling.

From time to time, Caronna touches on a subject of much speculation regarding the Last Call Killer: Was he a gay man with some kind of murder kink, or was he a raging homophobe, channeling his bigotry into ghastly crimes? (Never mind that these options are not mutually exclusive.) As many of the series’ interview subjects point out, the answer doesn’t really matter. Too many myopic serial-killer stories begin and end with the psychology of the perpetrator, revealing only slightly different flavors of psychopathology. Even before its shocking and infuriating final episode drives home the point, Last Call indicts a society whose systemic—and ongoing—homophobia, from the isolation of the closet to the prejudice embedded in public institutions, can have lethal consequences. Why the emphasis on the gay part? That’s why.

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