When the justice system failed, the LGBTQ+ community rose up to catch a killer. Credit: HBO
True crime can be a tricky genre, full of rubbernecking over human tragedy. However, HBO’s new documentary series, Last Call: When A Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York, has been earning praise from critics for its sophisticated and empathetic approach to its dark material. The focus of the series is less on the notorious murderer or the graphic details of his crimes and more on the victims, their families, and the LGBTQ+ advocacy that arose from this grim tragedy.
Based on the Edgar Award-winning investigative book by Elon Green, Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York, the four-part series examines what happened during the two years that the queer community of New York City lived in fear of a suspected serial killer preying on men at gay hot spots. Directed by Anthony Caronna, Last Call focuses on the victims’ stories, as well as how the biases of the police and the media hampered the investigation, as well as how the queer community fought back.
Whether you’re watching the series or just want to know what really went down, we’ve got you covered.
Who were the victims of the Last Call Killer? Between 1991 and 1993, the bodies of four gay and bisexual men — Thomas Mulcahy, Anthony Marrero, Michael J. Sakara, and Peter Stickney Anderson — were found in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Despite the disparate discovery locations and personal details, one thing they all had in common was a killer who’d evaded a police force and justice system notorious for aggression or apathy toward the gay community. Because of his method of targeting gay and bisexual men at bars at the end of the night when last call for alcohol was announced, the killer was dubbed by the press the “Last Call Killer.”
On May 3, 1991, 54-year-old banker Peter Stickney Anderson traveled from Philadelphia to New York City, where he attended a fundraiser and then visited the Townhouse, an upscale piano bar on the Upper East Side with a clientele that was largely gay. Anderson, who was married and ostensibly in the closet, was never seen again after getting into a cab headed to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Two days later, his body was found off the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
In July 1992, Massachusetts businessman Thomas Mulcahy also came to New York on a business trip that he ended with a visit to the Townhouse. The remains of the married father of four were found in two different trash cans off of the New Jersey Turnpike on July 10, 1992.
The last two victims lived in New York City but were both originally from Philadelphia: 44-year-old Anthony Marrero, a sex worker who is warmly remembered in the doc by his family and friends, and 56-year-old Michael Sakara, a typesetter who was last seen at the Five Oaks Bar piano bar in Greenwich Village, were both murdered in 1993. Their bodies were found in New Jersey and New York, respectively. Marrero’s obituary, with the headline “Crack Addict, Prostitute,” illustrated the media’s attitude towards sex workers, and assisted not only the police but the public in dismissing his murder.
Who was the Last Call Killer? To be clear, the focus of HBO’s documentary is the victims, as well as the homophobia within the criminal justice system that proved another obstacle in cracking the case. There’s still much that’s unknown about their convicted murderer, Richard Rogers, who is now 73 years old and serving two consecutive life sentences at the New Jersey State Prison.
In Last Call, director Anthony Caronna comments on the speculation around Rogers’s motives for the murders. However, the doc series suggests that it doesn’t matter if Rogers was a closeted gay man or a homophobe enacting his rage. Whatever his motives, it remains that he killed four people, each of whom is still mourned over and missed by their surviving families, be they biological or chosen.
In addition to being convicted of two of the Last Call murders, Rogers is a suspect in at least two other homicides: Matthew John Pierro, who was last seen leaving a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, in 1982; and Jack Franklin Andrews, found dead at a rest stop in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1986. Both crimes remain unsolved.
In 1973, while a graduate student at the University of Maine, Rogers was charged in the murder of his housemate, Frederick Allen Spencer. Rogers was acquitted when he employed the “gay panic defense,” claiming Spencer hit on him. Rogers was also acquitted in the 1988 assault on a man whom he allegedly brought back to his Staten Island apartment and drugged, then carried out of his building and left on the street. The alleged victim testified, yet Rogers went free. Three years later, the Last Call killings began. At the time of his arrest in 2001, Rogers was working as a surgical nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital Pediatric Ward.
Police finally created a cross-state task force in 1993, and then sought assistance from the FBI. However, little progress was made until 1999, when fingerprints from the Last Call crime scenes were matched with those of Rogers’ from Maine’s fingerprint database, where they had remained on file since 1973.
What was the queer community’s response to the Last Call murders? New York City’s queer community was in the grip of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. In 1992, the city saw 58,174 total diagnoses and 38,635 deaths, and by 1993, the number of deaths had jumped to 46,060. At the same time, incidents of hate crimes were rising, and the Last Call murders ruptured the spaces where many queer people went to feel safe: bars.
The rampant homophobia in the NYPD, including the fact that Commissioner Raymond Kelly was a member of the Emerald Society (which, in 1991, passed a resolution opposing the inclusion of LGBTQ+ groups in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade) are believed to have jeopardized investigations into the murder.
It was activists, many of whom appear in the documentary, including those with the NYC Anti-Violence Project, who flyered neighborhoods about the killer and put up the reward money for information, as well as reporters on the cable news show Gay USA and Gay City News, which reported on the murders and called out politicians on their oversight. The story of the Last Call Killer and his reign of terror is one of justice delayed, but also of a community who organized and fought back in order to save themselves.
How to watch: Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York airs Sunday nights on HBO, then streams on Max.
Chanel Dubofsky is a writer and editor. Her work on gender, sexuality, reproductive health, and pop culture can be found in New York Magazine, Lilith, Rewire, and others. She appears in the new documentary My So-Called Selfish Life, which is about the choice to be childfree. Follow her on Instagram at @cdubofsky.