The ’90s “Last Call” killer trolled NYC gay bars for victims. Then police botched the investigation.

A man's back sitting at a bar in a clip from "Last Call"
Photo: Screenshot

In the early 90s, as the AIDS crisis reached a fever pitch and LGBTQ+ hate crimes rose to their highest level in decades, a serial killer preyed upon New York City’s queer community. 

Based on the true-crime book by Elon Green, HBO’s docuseries Last Call chronicles the story of a string of queer murders in four parts. The series deep dives into both the heinous killings and the botched investigation thereafter. To cover a case this dynamic, the filmmakers behind the series spoke to a wide swath of subjects. The episodes are stacked with interviews from LGBTQ+ activists, NYPD officials, victims’ families, and club owners, all amist the backdrop of early 90s Manhattan archival footage. 

One of the most influential aspects of the case was the NYPD’s neglect. Through interviews with law enforcement, the series explores how institutionalized homophobia impacted the police’s inaction. The “Last Call” killer, identified as Richard Westall Rogers Jr., would not be arrested and charged until 2001, after outside state officials aided in the case. LGBTQ Nation spoke to the series’ Executive Producer Howard Gertler to discuss the project. 

LGBTQ Nation: What initially drew you to the Last Call project? 

Howard Gertler: I was sent the book, Last Call by Elon Green, and I read it overnight. It was a story that I was unaware of. I think whenever a filmmaker wants to adapt a work, you’re thinking: Why should this be adapted? Why should the adaptation exist? The book is perfect unto itself. And there’s nothing to add to it. What is actually the point? I felt like there was a queer historical intersection that the books had that could be explored even more deeply in the visual format. It provided an opportunity to talk about the nature of violence against queer people and the challenges in addressing and finding justice. And these are things that we’re clearly thinking about today. There’s unfortunately a fresh wave of relevance. 

LGBTQ Nation: In making the series, what did you learn about the inherent bias within our police and military systems in America, as so much of the story of these queer serial murders was tainted by the homophobia within the NYPD? 

HG: What we knew the story sort of illuminated was the way that institutionalized homophobia works in policing and the courts in particular. It was, I think, most evident in the way the NYPD engaged or did not engage with this case. I do think the out of state police who worked on the case were empathetic people; they just didn’t understand the queer community. And so the project became not just about the killings, but the investigation into the killings, the lives of the victims. And then you see all the other environmental factors that you actually do need to understand in depth to understand why these killings were such a challenge to address. 

We worked with an amazing historical consultant, Nikita Shepherd from Columbia University. They were with us from the very beginning of development. I wanted to have as part of our team a historical consultant who was an expert in queer history. And something that Nikita pointed out to us as we started working on the show was that homophobia in the 90s wasn’t just this free-floating thing. It actually had very specific intentions during that time. There was a certain fuse that created that pervasive atmosphere in the 90s when these killings were taking place. 

LGBTQ Nation: What was it like to interview your subjects? 

HG: Elon had interviewed a bunch of these folks already. So in many cases, we were just reaching out to people who had spoken to him. We described the show to them and what we were making, which is the show that you’ve seen, we’re going to talk about the case, we’re going to talk about homophobia, the way homophobia works, you know, what queer people were facing at the time. 

So they were all aware going into it of the topics that we were going to cover. We wanted them to be prepared. So they could sort of go back and think about that time again, some of them had read the book and some hadn’t. But many of them came prepared with their own maps and paraphernalia. For the subject, they’re the ones guiding the conversations. They can pass on any questions they don’t want to answer, they can come back to things that they want to rephrase, they can ask us things, you know, you really go into these conversations thinking about how can we make these these interviews a great experience for them. When people feel comfortable sharing elements that are really personal, that will inevitably deepen the story. 

LGBTQ Nation: The footage of New York City in the early 90s is so beautiful in the episodes. How did you acquire it?

HG: Having made a couple of queer historical docs, I was thinking for this project, we gotta find fresh footage. When we pitched the show to HBO, one of the things we told them was that we wanted to tell this from the perspective of the queer community. We have amazing archival producers, Rebecca Stern and Rosemary Rotonde. GAY USA’s Andy Humm also had this amazing archive. We realized that every main character in our show was on Gay USA at a certain point. Some of our footage also came from our subjects giving us material from their personal collections and doing outreach to club owners for the nightlife sequences. You would think there was a ton of footage, but there isn’t.

LGBTQ Nation: From having gone through the process of making this series and talking to the members of the NYPD about these murders, do you believe the police in NYC have learned from their mistakes in this case?

HG: All the investigators that we interviewed for the show engaged with our conversations about queer people’s experiences in very good faith. And I was really grateful for all those conversations. One of the investigators had said at one point; ‘Why is there this emphasis on the gay part?’ You know, even though we told them beforehand we’re going to talk about this stuff. That person came towards the end of the conversation. And it was like we realized, there might be viewers at home asking that same question. And we thought, what a great opportunity for us to actually talk about it further.

It seemed that the officials we talked to really appreciated having these conversations. It felt like they learned something from the experience of participating in the show, which was wonderful. That’s where the transformation happens. There was an aspect of when these people were found dead that the NYPD immediately went to ‘Oh, they’re partying too hard.’ And it’s like, no, why are you making that presumption? Our lived experience suggests that we think they may be making that assumption because these were queer people out of bars. And that’s just what happens, right? 

I felt like they were held to accountability quite quickly, and they turned it around. So I certainly think they have evolved, but I think they’ve evolved in the way that society as a whole is evolving. The outcomes of these cases also depend on how society feels about queer people and how they factor that into how they feel about these killings. So I think the institutions have changed, and much of society has changed, but as we know, society has a ways to go. So too do those institutions.

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