Son Of Sam Essays

On a warm August night in 1977, detectives arrested a man outside his apartment building, located an hour north of New York City. Even with two guns pointed at his head, the man, whose name would soon be on the front page of every newspaper in the state, seemed oddly calm. “I’m Sam,” he said – almost sweetly, the detectives were later to recall. And then, “Sam. David Berkowitz.”

In the thirteen months leading up to his arrest, Berkowitz had become the most feared criminal in a city widely seen as the most dangerous place in the United States. In July 1976, he murdered two teenaged girls with a .44 Bulldog revolver, inspiring the first nickname the papers gave him, “the .44 Caliber Killer.” Months later, after he’d killed or injured half a dozen more, he left the police a letter. When someone leaked it to the press, a new nickname, “the Son of Sam,” replaced the old one. In May 1977, he sent a second letter, this time to Jimmy Breslin of the New York Daily News. The edition of the Daily News in which letter appeared is still the highest selling in the paper’s history (reporters from the New York Post were rumored to be offended that Sam hadn’t thought of them first). Following Berkowitz’s arrest, publishers secretly competed for the rights to his tell-all, prompting the passing of a “Son of Sam Law” that prevented criminals from profiting from the stories of their crimes. Berkowitz’s name and nicknames continue to show up in true crime paperbacks, punk songs (although thousands of people still insist, mistakenly, that Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” is about Berkowitz), Saturday Night Live skits, video games, and films.

Summer of Sam, Spike Lee’s study of outer-borough New York City in the months leading up to Berkowitz’s arrest, has never been one of his most highly regarded works. At the time of its release in 1999 it was criticised for its profanity and violence, or else ignored in favor of features by fresher faces like David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and David O. Russell. Faced with a minor outcry about the ethics of making a Hollywood film about a real-life serial killer, Lee adopted a curtly defensive stance in interviews, claiming, confusingly, that his film wasn’t really about a serial killer at all. Further controversy arose because Summer of Sam was the first Spike Lee Joint with a predominately white cast. In a 1991 interview with Elvis Mitchell, Lee – who’d criticised Steven Spielberg and Norman Jewison for directing films with largely African American casts – insisted, “Black people are qualified to direct movies about white people … Because we grow up with white images all the time, on TV, in movies, in books. It’s everywhere, you can’t get around it. The white world surrounds us.” Eight years later, he put his own claim to the test, and the experience of filming “the white world” proved interesting enough that he returned to it in 25th Hour three years later.

Viewed today, Summer of Sam deserves a place in the ever-growing subgenre of unjustly neglected Spike Lee Joints. Its portrait of white America, condemned at the time for its harshness, now seems nuanced, sympathetic, and tragically prophetic, and its maximalist style, dismissed as Lee’s overreaching, now seems like a fitting way to document a pivotal era in history of New York City, white America, and the United States itself. The film opens with the real-life Jimmy Breslin (who passed away early in 2017) addressing the camera in the brash, hyperbolic tone he perfected in his Daily News articles:

I write about New York, the city of my birth. Where I’ve lived and worked all my life. The city that I love and hate both equally. Today things are much different. Business is booming up, up and up. Crime is down, down, down. Homicides are the lowest it’s been since 1961. Well, it wasn’t always like this. This film is about a different time, a different place. The good old days, the hot, blistering summer of 1977. There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and this was one of them.

Even more explicitly than Lee’s previous ‘70s New York film, Crooklyn (1994), Summer of Sam emphasises its setting – a time and place unlike the present, but still well within living memory; different and yet uncannily similar. With this in mind, the overarching question the prologue poses isn’t simply, “What was it like in the old days?”, but a sharper, more political one: “How did New York get here from there?” What had to change about the city’s culture, its law enforcement techniques, its newspapers, and, not least, its racial dynamics, in order for it to become what it was on the cusp of the new millennium?

Teenage Wasteland

Less than a minute into its run time, Summer of Sam has already posed challenging questions about politics and history. Instead of taking these questions seriously, critics were ready to conclude that the director had once again bitten off more than he could chew.Summer of Sam finds Lee in an unusual mode, to which he has yet to return: there are too many bodies packed into each frame, too many important events compressed into too little time, and a strange sense of repetitiveness offset by sudden splashes of grotesque violence. It is, in other words, the appropriate mode for a film about the Bronx in the summer of 1977.

Summer of Sam was released twenty-two years after Berkowitz’s arrest, a decade or so before the glut of films, books, and TV shows about ‘70s New York in which American culture is still swimming. That the decade of stagflation and shag carpeting is currently the subject of so much nostalgia has baffled more than a few people, particularly those who actually lived through it. In a long article for n+1 on recent, ‘70s-set fiction by Jonathan Lethem, Don DeLillo, Rachel Kushner, and others, Nicholas Dames reassesses the ‘70s’ reputation as a cynical, disaffected era, haunted by the failures of the utopian left of the previous decade. The defining feature of the ‘70s as it’s been captured in recent literature, Dames finds, is a sense of overpowering banality, which Lethem, DeLillo, and their peers depict as maddening yet addictive.

Police mug shot of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz

The paradox, for Dames, of “’70s throwback fiction” is that it coincides with a surge in nonfiction writing that, like the prologue to Summer of Sam, frames the decade as an era of change, in which the American cultural, economic, and racial status quo came into its current form. In Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Jefferson Cowie argues that the oft-parodied stagnancy of the ‘70s was, in itself, an important political event, and the consequence of specific political maneuvers that left the white working class in shambles.

Under the presidency of Richard Nixon, the Republican Party began catering to white, traditionally Democratic factory workers, one of the most reliable segments of the New Deal coalition, while continuing to pedal the same economic agenda. In the 1972 presidential elections, Cowie argues, Nixon defeated George McGovern by catering to white working-class voters’ desire for law and order, their opposition to busing, and, thanks to his skillful use of dog whistle rhetoric, their racism against African Americans. The result was that the Republican Party persuaded millions of white working-class voters to vote for a political platform guaranteed to undermine their own economic interests by appealing to a shallow version of white identity, rooted in hatred of the Other—a political stratagem that has reappeared in the 21st century with the rise of the Tea Party.

Lee’s great achievement in Summer of Sam was to capture the dead-endedness of ‘70s America without ignoring the broader social changes afoot. After Breslin’s prologue, the film cuts to a derelict apartment, in which Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) writhes on his mattress, screaming for the neighbor’s dog to stop barking. We’ve seen this apartment before – in The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and sundry other serial killer movies – and yet Lee doesn’t frame his antagonist’s mania in terms of the typical Freudian or fundamentalist mumbo-jumbo. Instead, Berkowitz is cracking under the pressures of New York City itself – the impotent, negatively sublime feeling of being surrounded by eight million people, each with their own culture and behavior and noises. Then, abruptly, the film cuts to a crowd lining up outside a discotheque, coping with the pressure of city life the way most sane people do, by spending time with their like-minded friends. As the camera pans down, we hear “Fernando,” one of ABBA’s sugary late-’70s hits. It’s no coincidence that much of Summer of Sam’s extensive soundtrack was written by European musicians such as The Who, ABBA, Rod Temperton, and Elton John. Coming from Lee, for whom music is as important a part of cinematic storytelling as dialogue, this suggests the cultural vacuum of late-’70s white America, the era in which millions of white youths turned to African American or British performers for their music and style.

The characters lined up outside the disco include Vinnie (John Leguizamo), the closest thing in the film to a protagonist; his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino), and Dionna’s cousin Chiara (Lucy Grillo). There’s a lovely moment, echoing the Technicolor dance sequence in Lee’s otherwise black-and-white She’s Gotta Have It (1986), in which the other dancers vanish, leaving Vinnie and Dionna to conquer the disco. But a few minutes later, Vinnie is having rough anal sex with Chiara in the back of a car, wrecking whatever sense of starry-eyed romance the dance sequence might have generated. Vinnie, a hairdresser, seems to be one of the few men in his Italian-American Bronx community with a nine-to-five job; when we first see his peers, they’re standing around in the middle of the day, doing nothing in particular. There’s nothing cheerful or relaxed about these characters’ loitering. While the supporting characters of Do the Right Thing (1989) – an earlier Lee film about tensions escalating in the hot New York summer – seem mostly at ease with themselves while they’re killing time, the Bronx residents of Summer of Sam exude frustration. Within a few minutes, we’ve witnessed them putting out cigarettes on a character’s arm and throwing bottles at a WASP-y Long Islander’s car. They’re so bored and so uncomfortable with themselves that they spend their waking hours harassing others.

Summer of Sam’s opening scenes uphold Cowie’s grim portrait of ‘70s white working-class America: the decaying institutions of work and marriage; fragile masculinity; a high-octane, bullying manner to compensate for it – somehow held together by the fleeting comforts of drugs and pop culture. Like the sign around which the characters gather, which also serves as the film’s final, epitaphic image, Bronx life as Summer of Sam depicts it is one big “DEAD END.”

Hating the Other

Many of Spike Lee’s most controversial films have a prophetic quality, so that what initially seems laughable about them later becomes all-too true to life: the critic Ashley Clark recently wrote about how Bamboozled prefigured a decade and a half of Fox News, Rachel Dolezal, and Tyler Perry. Nobody in 1999 could have predicted the polls indicating that a significant percentage of Americans believed Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim; the election of Donald J. Trump, the preferred candidate of the Ku Klux Klan; or the surge in hate crimes, the vast majority of them perpetrated by white Americans against African, Muslim, and Mexican Americans – and in fact, anyone who had would have been accused of perpetuating crude, anti-white stereotypes. Nearly two decades later, it may be time to start taking Summer of Sam’s portrait of white America more seriously.

Spike Lee

In his essay on Do the Right Thing, Stanley Crouch faulted Lee for “turning people into things,” filling his screenplays with shallow, one-dimensional characters whose only purpose was to spout whatever position on race Lee put in their mouth. Crouch isn’t wrong to point out the artificial characterisation in Lee’s films. People go on talking for far longer than they would in real life, and they often seem neatly arranged to steer the film’s themes in one direction or another – witness Mookie’s (Spike Lee) long conversation on race with Pino (John Turturro) midway through Do the Right Thing, or the way that Lee counterpoints Pino’s behavior with that of Vito, his sweeter, more tolerant brother (Richard Edson). Crouch is wrong, however, to suggest that Lee writes shallow characters. In a typical Spike Lee Joint, characters struggle with themselves, constantly and painfully aware of the stereotypes about how they should behave. Some of these characters – the Harvard-educated, affectedly genteel Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) in Bamboozled, for instance – push back against the script they know society expects them to follow. Others choose to revel in their stereotypes, defying society, paradoxically, by doing exactly what society expects them to do, and then some – thus, in Do the Right Thing, whenever the racist Pino berates Mookie for his laziness, Mookie makes a point of moving even more slowly. This is why it would be wrong to say that Lee’s characters are one-dimensional: in the best Spike Lee Joints, they teeter on the verge of one-dimensionality, sometimes giving in to it, sometimes, resisting it, but almost always making a conscious, humanity-confirming decision.

When asked about one-dimensional portrayals of Italian-Americans in Summer of Sam, Lee hid behind the fact that his two co-writers, Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio, were Italian. Even at the time, this seemed like a flimsy excuse – both because Lee alone wrote the final draft of the screenplay and because Lee the auteur was usually reluctant to attribute his films’ artistic visions to anyone other than himself. Throughout the film, Lee seems to hold his Italian-American characters at arm’s length – there are noticeably fewer of the intimate neighborhood details that immediately make his portrayals of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook feel true to life, whether they are or not. Most of the Italian-American men in the film are violent and argumentative. Lee shows them using drugs and firing guns (albeit to protect another character from harm), whereas in his previous films he’d refused to show either act, on the grounds that there were already too many gun and drug-filled films with predominately black casts.

It’s important to be precise in distinguishing between Lee’s portrayals of Italian-American culture and white culture: the former is a close-knit, tribal identity, rooted in food, music, slang, and sports; the latter is a looser category, always on the verge of collapsing on itself, but held together by hatred of outsiders of any kind. The implicit subject of Summer of Sam is how the decline of the former gave way to the latter toward the end of the 1970s, the same historical process at the centre of Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive. At various times in the film, the group gathered around the DEAD END sign, which Lee called simply the “Dead End gang,” consists of drug dealers and drug addicts, homophobes and one overtly homosexual character. Over the course of the film, they work together to catch the Son of Sam, whom they believe to be living somewhere in their neighborhood – suspects include “Billy the Jew, Jimmy del Fini and that guy that drives the bus to City Island.” No definition of the Dead End gang’s common culture is ever offered; their identity is based, in a triumph of circular reasoning, on bullying people who are different from them, all under the guise of protecting their community.

The prime target of the Dead End gang members’ bullying – and, supposedly, the person they most suspect of being the Son of Sam – is Ritchie, a wannabe British punk played by Adrien Brody. Too little has been made of the way Spike Lee uses casting to ridicule racial and cultural essentialism. Buggin’ Out from Do the Right Thing, played by the half-Italian, half-black Giancarlo Esposito, complains that there are too many Italians and not enough African Americans on the walls of Sal’s Pizzeria; meanwhile, John Turturo plays Italians in some Spike Lee Joints and Jews in others. Brody represents one of Lee’s wittiest directorial choices: unless you count Badalucco, he’s the film’s only starring actor to be born and raised in New York City. (John Leguizamo was born in Colombia; Mira Sorvino grew up in New Jersey.) By casting the New York insider as a perceived outsider, Lee makes further nonsense of the Dead End gang’s xenophobia.

As much as the Dead End gang adheres to hollow, tautological sameness, Ritchie adheres to difference for the sake of difference: he projects outsiderness in every way, but refuses to commit to any one identity. At various points, Lee shows Ritchie playing at a punk concert at CBGB’s, jamming to The Who, having sex with his girlfriend, and prostituting himself for the patrons of a gay midtown club. Ritchie’s refusal to accept life in the Bronx strikes the Dead End gang as an insult: what’s good enough for them isn’t good enough for him. At the end of the film, the gang – now including Vinnie, Ritchie’s lifelong friend – ambush and beat Ritchie, not because they have any proof that he’s the killer (who, ironically, has just been arrested) but because they want to punish him for his difference and, by the same token, rejoice in their own hollowed-out, dead-end sameness.

Over the course of Summer of Sam, Ritchie, Vinnie, the Dead End gang, and the Son of Sam are shown to suffer from the same profound self-loathing, intensified by the decay of New York City, the influx of many different kinds of people and cultures, and, not least, the summer heat. They try to compensate for the feeling in wildly different ways: Ritchie with music and sexual experimentation; Vinnie with adultery; the gang with bullying; and all, ultimately, with some form of violence. In this respect (and contrary to what Lee claimed in interviews), Summer of Sam isn’t wildly different from other films about serial killers; like the bulk of its predecessors, it diagnoses characters on both sides of the law with the same disease while implicating the viewers in its gory depictions of violence. In the film’s aesthetic highpoint, a montage set to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” Lee shows the characters struggling to release their pent-up frustration, first lashing out at themselves and then at other people. The pointless destruction is grotesquely childish and yet exhilarating, and one can feel Lee’s exhilaration in filming it.

The same sense of exhilaration lies at the core of Summer of Sam’s politics and its depiction of the Bronx. In spite of the film’s cynicism about certain characters, it’s full of reverence for Italian-American culture. For as long as he’s been giving interviews, Lee has been extravagant in his praise for ‘70s Italian-American cinema, especially the works of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom mentored him at NYU. These directors’ early work not only provided Lee with a guide to excellent filmmaking; it also gave him a model for how to represent minorities onscreen as protagonists, rather than supporting players. In this sense, it’s instructive to compare the receptions of Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Do the Right Thing: for all the praise the two films received, both were reviled for glamorizing violence and crime and perpetuating crude stereotypes, and it’s likely that Lee took inspiration from Coppola when deciding how to depict African Americans sensitively without ignoring the unpleasant realities of their lives. Throughout Summer of Sam, Lee pays tribute to his Italian-American idols – the “Baba O’Riley” interlude, with its juxtapositions of life and death, sacred and profane, echoes the climax of The Godfather, and the film’s constant, giddy blend of violence, pop music, and comedy is difficult to describe as anything other than Scorsese-esque. To argue that Spike Lee denigrates Italian-Americans, as some did in 1999, is to miss the distinctly – and gloriously – Italian-American quality of the film’s directing.

In another sense, Lee’s portrayal of the Italian-American community in Summer of Sam comes down to a fine distinction between one-dimensional and hollow. One-dimensional characters are boring, predictable, and not worth the audience’s time. Hollow characters, by contrast, often make for fascinating films: they project dangerous charisma, challenge expectations, and provoke complicated emotions from the audience. Vinnie, Ritchie, and the other Bronx characters of Summer of Sam are often difficult to admire, but never dull – even when they’re betraying their friends or tearing themselves apart, they demand attention. Similarly, the historical process that Lee portrays – the hollowing-out of Italian-American New York in the 1970s, leaving behind a paranoid, reactionary whiteness – is disturbing but also tragic. Like Michael Corleone, Vinnie and his peers try to be virtuous, and then to balance virtue and sin, but in the end, they surrender to the latter. They may be hollow, but they continue to command our sympathy and our respect.

… Same as the Old Boss?

Summer of Sam ends as it begins, with Jimmy Breslin addressing the camera. The Son of Sam – “that sick fuck” – was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences, he explains, and then repeats, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and this was one of them.” As the Frank Sinatra version of “New York, New York” plays, Breslin abruptly walks out of the frame, leaving viewers to ponder the yellow “DEAD END” sign.

Frank Sinatra at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, 15 May 1998

“New York, New York” was composed by Fred Ebb and John Kander for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name, released just five days before Dave Berkowitz shot two people in Bayside, Queens. Originally written for Liza Minnelli, it didn’t become a hit until after Frank Sinatra performed it at Radio City Music Hall in 1978. Today, it’s so heavily associated with Sinatra – and with New York itself – that many people don’t realise Sinatra was sixty years old before he started singing it, at a time when New York was widely seen as a place whose best days were far behind it. The enduring charm of “New York, New York” lies in the way it ignores reality, breezing past everything that happened to New York, and Sinatra, in the ‘70s in order to celebrate a glittering, old-fashioned city that never existed in the first place:

Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it, New York, New York
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it, New York, New York

I want to wake up in a city, that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap

These little town blues are melting away
I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New York

It’s peculiar that a song that glorifies ruthless, every-man-for-himself competition has become a symbol of citywide solidarity, performed for tearful crowds near the rubble of the World Trade Center and after every one of Lee’s beloved Knicks games. One could say that solidarity and competition, helping out one’s neighbors and fighting with them, are the two central themes of Spike Lee’s directorial output, and his films are never better, or more quintessentially New York, than when these two themes come together in the same scene. Oftentimes, there’s something oddly affectionate about the way his characters argue with each other, celebrating their boisterous New York-ness even while they’re shouting in each other’s faces.

Sinatra crooning, “It’s up to you, New York, New York,” is as powerful an expression of the United States’ motto E Pluribus Unum – “from many, one” – as one can find in the nation’s music. The beauty of the song is that it glorifies competition, even as it asks all its listeners to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in love for their city. So it is that Summer of Sam, a film about the corruption of one portion of American society, ends by suggesting how people of all backgrounds might get along. Coexistence as Lee understands it doesn’t mean giving up one’s identity or even one’s ambition – rather, it means accepting other people’s differences, and the concept of Otherness itself, to a degree that none of the Dead End gang members have the courage to accept, but which Lee himself exemplifies throughout his film.

Few people who watched Summer of Sam in 1999 realised how insightful, or how prophetic, its story of white America driven to frustrated, xenophobic violence would become. To this day, even fewer recognise the utopian vision hidden in the film’s final scene – the same vision that runs through much of Lee’s later work, from 25th Hour (2002) to When the Levees Broke (2006) to Red Hook Summer (2012) to Chi-Raq (2015). Even as Lee grows more thoughtful in his middle age, pundits continue to dismiss his politics as angry ranting. There is anger in Summer of Sam, but also hope – and the rest, with all due respect to Mr. Sinatra, is up to us.



For other people named David Berkowitz, see David Berkowitz (disambiguation).

"Son of Sam" redirects here. For other uses of "Son of Sam", see Son of Sam (disambiguation).

David Richard Berkowitz (born Richard David Falco; June 1, 1953), known also as the Son of Sam and the .44 Caliber Killer, is an Americanserial killer who pleaded guilty to eight separate shooting attacks that began in New York City during the summer of 1976. The crimes were perpetrated with a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver. He killed six people and wounded seven others by July 1977. As the number of victims increased, Berkowitz eluded the biggest police manhunt in the history of New York City while leaving letters that mocked the police and promised further crimes, which were highly publicized by the press. The killing spree terrorized New Yorkers and achieved worldwide notoriety.

On the night of August 10, 1977, Berkowitz was taken into custody by New York City police homicide detectives in front of his Yonkers apartment building, and he was subsequently indicted for eight shooting incidents. He confessed to all of them, and initially claimed to have been obeying the orders of a demon, manifested in the form of a dog, "Harvey", who belonged to his neighbor "Sam." Despite his explanation, Berkowitz was found mentally competent to stand trial. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was incarcerated in state prison. He subsequently admitted the dog-and-devil story was a hoax. In the course of further police investigations, Berkowitz was also implicated in many unsolved arsons in the city.

Intense coverage of the case by the media lent a kind of celebrity status to Berkowitz, and some observers noted that he seemed to enjoy it. In response, the New York State legislature enacted new legal statutes, known popularly as "Son of Sam laws", designed to keep criminals from profiting financially from the publicity created by their crimes. Despite various amendments and legal challenges, the statutes have remained law in New York, and similar laws have been enacted in several other states.

Berkowitz has been incarcerated since his arrest and is serving six consecutive life sentences. During the mid-1990s, he amended his confession to claim that he had been a member of a violent Sataniccult that orchestrated the incidents as ritual murder. He remains the only person ever charged with the shootings. Although some law enforcement authorities have questioned whether Berkowitz's claims are credible, a new investigation of the murders began in 1996, but was suspended indefinitely after inconclusive findings.

Early life[edit]

Berkowitz's mother, Elizabeth "Betty" Broder, grew up as part of an impoverished Jewish family and married Tony Falco, an Italian-American, in 1936.[1] After a marriage of less than four years, Falco left her for another woman.[2] About a decade later in 1950, Broder started a relationship with a married man named Joseph Klineman.[3] Three years later she became pregnant with a child to whom she chose to give the surname Falco[4]—Richard David Falco was born on June 1, 1953 in Brooklyn, New York.[5] Within a few days of his birth, she gave the child away.[4] Although her reasons for doing so are unknown,[6] later writers have surmised that Klineman threatened to abandon her if she kept the baby and used his name.[7]

The infant boy was adopted by Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz of the Bronx.[8] The Jewish-American couple were hardware store retailers of modest means, and childless in middle age. They reversed the order of the boy's first and middle names and gave him their own surname, raising young David Richard Berkowitz as their only child.[9][10][11]

Journalist John Vincent Sanders wrote that Berkowitz's childhood was "somewhat troubled." Although of above-average intelligence, he lost interest in learning at an early age and became infatuated with petty larceny and starting fires.[12] Neighbors and relatives would recall Berkowitz as difficult, spoiled, and a bully. His adoptive parents consulted at least one psychotherapist due to his misconduct, but his misbehavior never resulted in legal intervention or serious mention in his school records.[13] Berkowitz's adoptive mother died of breast cancer when he was fourteen years old,[14] and his home life became strained during later years, particularly because he disliked his adoptive father's second wife.[15]

At the age of 18 in 1971, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the United States and South Korea.[16][17] After an honorable discharge in 1974, he located his birth mother, Betty. After a few visits, she disclosed the details of his illegitimate birth. The news greatly disturbed Berkowitz, and he was particularly distraught by the array of reluctant father figures.[1][18] Forensic anthropologist Elliott Leyton described Berkowitz's discovery of his adoption and illegitimate birth as the "primary crisis" of his life, a revelation that shattered his sense of identity.[18] His communication with his birth mother later lapsed, but for a time he remained in communication with his half-sister, Roslyn. He subsequently had several non-professional jobs, and at the time of his arrest he was working as a letter sorter for the U.S. Postal Service.[19]

Crimes begin[edit]

During the mid-1970s, Berkowitz started to commit violent crimes. He bungled a first attempt at murder using a knife, then switched to a handgun and began a lengthy crime spree throughout the New York boroughs of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. He sought young female victims. He was purportedly most attracted to women with long, dark, wavy hair.[20] All but one of the crime sites involved two victims; he infamously committed some of his attacks while the women sat with boyfriends in parked cars.[20] He exhibited an enduring enjoyment of his activities, often returning to the scenes of his crimes.[20]

Michelle Forman stabbing[edit]

Berkowitz claimed that he committed his first attack on Christmas Eve, 1975, when he used a hunting knife to stab two women. One alleged victim was never identified by police, but the other was teenager Michelle Forman, whose injuries were serious enough for her to be hospitalized.[21][22] Berkowitz was not suspected of these crimes, and soon afterward he relocated to an apartment in Yonkers, New York, just north of the New York City border.[22][23]

Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti shooting[edit]

The first shooting attributed to the Son of Sam occurred in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx. At about 1:10 a.m. on July 29, 1976, Donna Lauria, 18, and her friend Jody Valenti, 19, were sitting in Valenti's Oldsmobile, discussing their evening at Peachtree's, a New Rochellediscotheque.[24] Lauria opened the car door to leave and noticed a man quickly approaching the car. Startled and angered by the man's sudden appearance, she said, "Now what is this ..."[24] The man produced a pistol from the paper bag that he carried and crouched. He braced one elbow on his knee, aimed his weapon with both hands, and fired.[24] Lauria was struck by one bullet that killed her instantly.[25] Valenti was shot in her thigh, and a third bullet missed both women. The shooter turned and walked away quickly, without saying a word.[24]

Valenti survived her injuries and said that she did not recognize the killer. She described him as a white male in his thirties with a fair complexion, about 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 m) tall and weighing about 160 lb (73 kg). His hair was short, dark, and curly in a "mod style."[24] This description was repeated by Lauria's father, who claimed to have seen a similar man sitting in a yellow compact car parked nearby. Neighbors gave corroborating reports to police that an unfamiliar yellow compact car had been cruising the area for hours before the shooting.[24]

Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan shooting[edit]

On October 23, 1976, a similar shooting occurred in a secluded residential area of Flushing, Queens, next to Bowne Park. Carl Denaro, 20, and Rosemary Keenan, 18, were sitting in Keenan's parked car when the windows suddenly shattered. "I felt the car exploded [sic]", Denaro said later.[26] Keenan quickly started the car and sped away for help. The panicked couple did not realize that someone had been shooting at them, even though Denaro was bleeding from a bullet wound to his head. Keenan had only superficial injuries from the broken glass, but Denaro eventually needed a metal plate to replace a portion of his skull. Neither victim saw the attacker.[27]

Police determined that the bullets embedded in Keenan's car were .44 caliber, but they were so damaged and deformed that they thought it unlikely that they could ever be linked to a particular weapon.[28]

Denaro had shoulder-length hair, and police later speculated that the shooter had mistaken him for a girl.[29] Keenan's father was a 20-year veteran police detective of the NYPD, causing an intense investigation. As with the Lauria–Valenti shooting, however, there seemed not to be any motive for the shooting, and police made little progress with the case. Many details of the Denaro–Keenan shooting were very similar to the Lauria–Valenti case, but police did not initially associate them, partly because the shootings occurred in different boroughs and were investigated by different local police precincts.

Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino shooting[edit]

Donna DeMasi, 16, and Joanne Lomino, 18, walked home from a movie soon after midnight on November 27, 1976. They were chatting on the porch of Lomino's home in Bellerose, Queens when a man dressed in military fatigues who seemed to be in his early 20s approached them and began to ask directions.[30]

In a high-pitched voice he said, "Can you tell me how to get ..." but then quickly produced a revolver.[31] He shot each of the victims once and, as they fell to the ground injured, he fired several more times, striking the apartment building before running away. A neighbor heard the gunshots, rushed out of the apartment building, and saw a blond man rush by gripping a pistol in his left hand. DeMasi had been shot in the neck, but the wound was not life-threatening. Lomino was hit in the back and hospitalized in serious condition;[30] she was ultimately rendered a paraplegic.

Christine Freund and John Diel shooting[edit]

During the early morning of January 30, 1977, Christine Freund, 26, and her fiancé John Diel, 30, were sitting in Diel's car near the Forest Hills LIRR station in Queens, preparing to drive to a dance hall after having seen the movie Rocky. Three gunshots penetrated the car at about 12:40 a.m. In a panic, Diel drove away for help. He suffered minor superficial injuries, but Freund was shot twice and died several hours later at the hospital. Neither victim had seen their attacker(s).

Police made the first public acknowledgment that the Freund–Diel shooting was similar to earlier incidents, and that the crimes might be associated.[32] All the victims had been struck with .44 caliber bullets, and the shootings seemed to target young women with long, dark hair. NYPD sergeant Richard Conlon stated that police were "leaning towards a connection in all these cases."[33][34] Composite sketches were released of the black-haired Lauria–Valenti shooter and the blond Lomino–DeMasi shooter, and Conlon noted that police were looking for multiple "suspects", not just one.[33]

Virginia Voskerichian shooting[edit]

At about 7:30 p.m. on March 8, 1977, Columbia University student Virginia Voskerichian, 19, was walking home from school when she was confronted by an armed man. She lived about a block from where Christine Freund was shot.[35] In a desperate move to defend herself, Voskerichian lifted her textbooks between herself and her killer, but the makeshift shield was penetrated, the bullet striking her head and killing her.[36]

Moments after the shooting, a neighborhood resident who had heard the gunshots was rounding the corner onto Voskerichian's street. He nearly collided with a person whom he described as a short, husky boy, 16 to 18 years old and clean-shaven, wearing a sweater and watch cap, who was sprinting away from the crime scene. The neighbor said that the youth pulled the cap over his face and said, "Oh, Jesus!" as he sprinted by.[37] Other neighbors claimed to have seen the "teenager", as well as another person matching Berkowitz's description, loitering separately in the area for about an hour before the shooting. During the following days, the media repeated police claims that this "chubby teenager" was the suspect.[37] There were no direct witnesses to the Voskerichian murder.

Press and publicity[edit]

In a March 10, 1977, press conference, NYPD officials and New York City MayorAbraham Beame declared that the same .44 Bulldog revolver had fired the shots that killed Lauria and Voskerichian.[38] Official documents were later revealed, however, saying that police strongly suspected that the same .44 Bulldog had been used in the shootings, but that the evidence was actually inconclusive.[38]

The crimes were discussed by the local media virtually every day. Circulation increased dramatically for the New York Post and Daily News, newspapers with graphic crime reporting and commentary.[39] Foreign media featured many of the reports as well, including front page articles of newspapers such as the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano, the Hebrew newspaper Maariv, and the Soviet Izvestia.[40]

Crimes continue[edit]

Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani shooting[edit]

At about 3:00 a.m. on April 17, 1977, Alexander Esau, 20, and Valentina Suriani, 18, were sitting in Suriani's car near her home in the Bronx, only a few blocks from the scene of the Lauria–Valenti shooting, when each was shot twice.[41] Suriani died at the scene, and Esau died in the hospital several hours later without being able to describe his attacker(s).

Police said that the weapon used for the crime was the same as the one which they had suspected in the earlier shootings.[41] During the days afterwards, they repeated their theory that only one man was responsible for the .44 murders. The chubby teenager in the Voskerichian case was still regarded as a witness, while the dark-haired man who shot Lauria and Valenti was considered the suspect.[42]

Crime scene letters[edit]

Son of Sam letter[edit]

Police discovered a handwritten letter near the bodies of Esau and Suriani, written mostly in block capitals with a few lower-case letters, and addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borrelli.[43] With this letter, Berkowitz revealed the name "Son of Sam" for the first time.[43] The press had previously dubbed the killer "the .44 Caliber Killer" because of his weapon of choice.[44] The letter was initially withheld from the public, but some of its contents were revealed to the press, and the name "Son of Sam" quickly replaced the old name.[44]

The letter expressed the killer's determination to continue his work, and taunted police for their fruitless efforts to capture him.[45] In full, with misspellings intact, the letter read:

I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the "Son of Sam." I am a little "brat". When father Sam gets drunk he gets mean. He beats his family. Sometimes he ties me up to the back of the house. Other times he locks me in the garage. Sam loves to drink blood. "Go out and kill" commands father Sam. Behind our house some rest. Mostly young—raped and slaughtered—their blood drained—just bones now. Papa Sam keeps me locked in the attic, too. I can't get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by. I feel like an outsider. I am on a different wave length then everybody else—programmed too kill. However, to stop me you must kill me. Attention all police: Shoot me first—shoot to kill or else. Keep out of my way or you will die! Papa Sam is old now. He needs some blood to preserve his youth. He has had too many heart attacks. Too many heart attacks. "Ugh, me hoot it hurts sonny boy." I miss my pretty princess most of all. She's resting in our ladies house but I'll see her soon. I am the "Monster"—"Beelzebub"—the "Chubby Behemouth." I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game—tasty meat. The wemon of Queens are z prettyist of all. I must be the water they drink. I live for the hunt—my life. Blood for papa. Mr. Borrelli, sir, I dont want to kill anymore no sir, no more but I must, "honour thy father." I want to make love to the world. I love people. I don't belong on Earth. Return me to yahoos. To the people of Queens, I love you. And I wa want to wish all of you a happy Easter. May God bless you in this life and in the next and for now I say goodbye and goodnight. Police—Let me haunt you with these words; I'll be back! I'll be back! To be interrpreted as—bang, bang, bang, bank, bang—ugh!! Yours in murder Mr. Monster[46]

At the time, police speculated that the letter-writer might be familiar with Scottish English. The phrase "me hoot, it hurts sonny boy" was taken as a Scottish-accented version of "my heart, it hurts, sonny boy"; and the police also hypothesized that the shooter blamed a dark-haired nurse for his father's death, due to the "too many heart attacks" phrase, and the facts that Lauria was a medical technician and Valenti was studying to be a nurse.[47] On July 28, New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin alluded to the "wemon" quirk and referred to the shooter watching the world from "his attic window".[48]

The killer's unusual attitude towards the police and the media received widespread scrutiny. Psychologists observed that many serial killers gain gratification by eluding pursuers and observers. The feeling of control of media, law enforcement, and even entire populations provides a source of social power for them.[49] After consulting with several psychiatrists, police released a psychological profile of their suspect on May 26, 1977. He was described as neurotic and probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and believed himself to be a victim of demonic possession.[48]

Letter to Jimmy Breslin[edit]

On May 30, 1977, Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin received a handwritten letter from someone who claimed to be the .44 caliber shooter. The letter was postmarked early that same day in Englewood, New Jersey. On the reverse of the envelope, neatly handprinted in four precisely centered lines, were the words: Blood and Family – Darkness and Death – Absolute Depravity – .44. The letter inside read:

Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. Hello from the sewers of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks. J.B., I'm just dropping you a line to let you know that I appreciate your interest in those recent and horrendous .44 killings. I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and I find it quite informative. Tell me Jim, what will you have for July twenty-ninth? You can forget about me if you like because I don't care for publicity. However you must not forget Donna Lauria and you cannot let the people forget her either. She was a very, very sweet girl but Sam's a thirsty lad and he won't let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood. Mr. Breslin, sir, don't think that because you haven't heard from me for a while that I went to sleep. No, rather, I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam. I love my work. Now, the void has been filled. Perhaps we shall meet face to face someday or perhaps I will be blown away by cops with smoking .38's. Whatever, if I shall be fortunate enough to meet you I will tell you all about Sam if you like and I will introduce you to him. His name is "Sam the terrible." Not knowing what the future holds I shall say farewell and I will see you at the next job. Or should I say you will see my handiwork at the next job? Remember Ms. Lauria. Thank you. In their blood and from the gutter "Sam's creation" .44 Here are some names to help you along. Forward them to the inspector for use by N.C.I.C: [sic] "The Duke of Death" "The Wicked King Wicker" "The Twenty Two Disciples of Hell" "John 'Wheaties' – Rapist and Suffocator of Young Girls. PS: Please inform all the detectives working the slaying to remain. P.S: [sic] JB, Please inform all the detectives working the case that I wish them the best of luck. "Keep 'em digging, drive on, think positive, get off your butts, knock on coffins, etc." Upon my capture I promise to buy all the guys working the case a new pair of shoes if I can get up the money. Son of Sam[50]

Underneath the "Son of Sam" was a logo or sketch that combined several symbols. The writer's question "What will you have for July 29?" was considered an ominous threat: July 29 would be the anniversary of the first .44 caliber shooting.[26] Breslin notified police, who thought that the letter was probably from someone with knowledge of the shootings. The Breslin letter was sophisticated in its wording and presentation, especially when compared to the crudely written first letter, and police suspected that it might have been created in an art studio or similar professional location by someone with expertise in printing, calligraphy, or graphic design.[51] The unusual writing caused the police to speculate that the killer was a comic letterer, and they asked staff members of DC Comics whether they recognized the lettering.[52] The "Wicked King Wicker" reference caused police to arrange a private screening of The Wicker Man, a 1973 horror movie.[53]

The New York Daily News published the letter a week later (after agreeing with police to withhold portions of the text) and Breslin urged the killer to surrender himself. The dramatic article made that day's paper the highest-selling edition of the Daily News to date—more than 1.1 million copies were sold.[54] Police received thousands of tips based on references in the publicized portions of the letter, all of which proved useless.[51] All the shooting victims to date had long dark hair, and thousands of women in New York acquired short cuts or brightly colored dyes, and beauty supply stores had trouble meeting the demand for wigs.[55]

Sal Lupo and Judy Placido shooting[edit]

On June 26, 1977, there was another shooting. Sal Lupo, 20, and Judy Placido, 17, had left the Elephas discotheque in Bayside, Queens and were sitting in Lupo's parked car at about 3:00 a.m. when three gunshots blasted through the vehicle.[56] Lupo was wounded in the right forearm, while Placido was shot in the right temple, shoulder and back of the neck, but both victims survived their injuries.[57] Lupo told police that the young couple had been discussing the Son of Sam case only moments before the shooting.[57][58]

Neither Lupo nor Placido had seen their attacker, but two witnesses reported a tall, dark-haired man in a leisure suit fleeing from the area; one claimed to see him leave in a car and even supplied a partial license plate number.[57] Another report described a blond man with a mustache who drove from the scene in a Chevy Nova without turning on its headlights. Police speculated that the dark-haired man was the shooter, and that the blond man had observed the crime.[59]

Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante shooting[edit]

The first anniversary of the initial .44 caliber shootings was approaching, and police established a sizable dragnet that emphasized past hunting grounds in Queens and the Bronx. However, the next and final .44 shooting occurred in Brooklyn.[60]

Early on July 31, 1977, Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante, both 20, were in Violante's car, which was parked under a streetlight near a city park in the neighborhood of Bath Beach.[61] They were kissing when a man approached within three feet of the passenger side of Violante's car and fired four rounds into the car, striking both victims in the head before he escaped into the park.[60] Moskowitz died several hours later in the hospital. Violante survived, although he lost vision in one eye and retained very limited vision in the other eye.

The Moskowitz–Violante crime produced more witnesses than any of the other Son of Sam murders; there was one direct eyewitness who was not an intended victim. During the shooting, 19-year-old Tommy Zaino was parked with his date three cars in front of Violante's vehicle. Moments before the shooting, Zaino caught a peripheral glimpse of the shooter's approach and happened to glance in his rear view mirror just in time to see the actual shooting. Zaino clearly saw the perpetrator for several seconds due to the bright street light and full moon and later described him as being 25 to 30 years old, of average height—5 ft 7 in (1.70 m) to 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)—with shaggy hair that was dark blond or light brown. Zaino said that the shooter's hair "looked like a wig."[62]

About a minute after the shooting, a woman seated next to her boyfriend in his car on the other side of the city park saw a "white male [who was wearing] a light-colored, cheap nylon wig" sprint from the park and enter a "small, light-colored" auto, which drove away quickly. "He looks like he just robbed a bank", said the woman, who wrote what she could see of the car's license plate. She was unable to determine the first two characters, but was certain that the others were either 4-GUR or 4-GVR.[62] Other witnesses included a woman who saw a light car speed away from the park about 20 seconds after the gunshots,[62] and at least two witnesses who described a yellow Volkswagen driving quickly from the neighborhood with its headlights off.[63] A neighborhood resident given the pseudonym Mary Lyons heard the gunshots and Violante's calls for help, and glanced from her apartment window to see a man whom she later positively identified as Berkowitz, who was walking casually away from the crime scene as many others were rushing towards the scene to render aid.[64]

Soon after 2:35 a.m., a man who was later given the pseudonym Alan Masters was driving through an intersection a few blocks from the park. Masters was nearly struck by what he described as a yellow Volkswagen Beetle that sped through the intersection without its headlights activated as the driver ignored a red light. Angered and alarmed, Masters followed the Volkswagen at high speed for several minutes before losing sight of the vehicle. Masters described the driver as a white male in his late 20s or early 30s, with a narrow face, dark, long, stringy hair, several days' growth of dark whiskers on his face, and wearing a blue jacket.[65] Masters was upset and he neglected to note the Volkswagen's license plate number, but he thought that it might have been a New Jersey rather than a New York plate. Violante encountered a very similar man, because he and Moskowitz were in the park shortly before they were shot. Violante described him as a "grubby-looking hippy" with whiskers, wiry hair over his forehead, dark eyes, and wearing a denim jacket.

Thomas Scally stated that he was sitting in Alley Pond Park on Winchester Boulevard, in the borough of Queens, at dusk with a female friend when a yellow Volkswagen Beetle approached his car door to door and only three inches apart from his vehicle, which did not have its engine running. Scally kept an air gun under his seat and, as the VW approached his car, the VW driver was met with the gun pointed straight at him. At first, he appeared to be a light-skinned black male, but he also appeared to be wearing a stocking over his face. The driver of the VW quickly started his car and gunned it in reverse out of the parking lot. Scally chased the car to a point in Glen Oaks, Queens, where the driver jumped out and ran. He did not want to leave his female passenger to give chase, so he telephoned the Son of Sam Hot Line. Detective Richard Carroll from the Son of Sam Task Force (and Scally's former baseball coach) later told Scally that he had indeed seen the Son of Sam. Glen Oaks was later revealed to be the home of Berkowitz's sister and was close to the site of the Donna DiMaise and Joanne LoMino shootings.[66]

Police did not learn of the Moskowitz–Violante shooting until about 2:50 a.m., and Dowd did not think that it was another Son of Sam shooting until an officer at the scene reported that large-caliber shells had been used.[67] Police established a series of roadblocks about an hour after the shooting, stopping hundreds of cars to question drivers and inspect vehicles. During interviews, Masters and others described a Volkswagen speeding from the crime scene, and police now suspected that the shooter owned or drove such a vehicle. In subsequent days, police determined that there were more than 900 Volkswagens in New York or New Jersey, and they made plans to trace each of these cars and their owners.[68] Detective John Falotico was awakened at home and told to report to the 10th Homicide Division at the 60th Precinct station house in Coney Island. He was told that Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante had been shot. Falotico was given two weeks to work on the case as a normal murder investigation; it was then given to a special Son of Sam task force.[61]

Arrest in Yonkers[edit]

Suspicion and capture[edit]

Local resident Cacilia Davis was walking her dog at the scene of the Moskowitz and Violante shooting when she saw patrol officer Michael Cataneo ticketing a car that was parked near a fire hydrant. Moments after the traffic police had left, a young man walked past her from the area of the car, and he seemed to study her with some interest. Davis felt concerned because he was wielding in his hand some kind of "dark object". She ran to her home only to hear shots fired behind her in the street. Davis remained silent about this experience for four days until she finally contacted police, who closely checked every car that had been ticketed in the area that night.[69]

Berkowitz's 1970 four-door yellow Ford Galaxie was among the cars that they investigated.[70] Despite their claims to the contrary, police initially considered Berkowitz a possible witness rather than a suspect. On August 9, 1977, NYPD detective James Justis telephoned Yonkers police to ask them to schedule an interview with Berkowitz. The Yonkers police dispatcher who first took Justis' call was Wheat Carr, the daughter of Sam Carr and sister of Berkowitz's alleged cult confederates John and Michael Carr.[71]

Justis asked the Yonkers police for some help tracking down Berkowitz. According to Mike Novotny—a sergeant at the Yonkers Police Department—the Yonkers police had their own suspicions about Berkowitz in connection with other strange crimes in Yonkers, crimes that they saw referred to in one of the Son of Sam letters. To the shock of the NYPD, they told the New York City detective that Berkowitz might just be the Son of Sam.[26]

The next day, August 10, 1977, police investigated Berkowitz's car that was parked on the street outside his apartment building at 35 Pine Street in Yonkers. They saw a rifle in the back seat, searched the car, and found a duffel bag filled with ammunition, maps of the crime scenes, and a threatening letter addressed to Inspector Timothy Dowd of the Omega Task Force. Police decided to wait for Berkowitz to leave the apartment, rather than risk a violent encounter in the building's narrow hallway; they also waited to obtain a search warrant for the apartment, worried that their search might be challenged in court. The initial search of the vehicle was based on the rifle that was visible in the back seat, although possession of such a rifle was legal in New York State and required no special permit. The warrant still had not arrived when Berkowitz exited the apartment building at about 10:00 p.m. and entered his car. Detective John Falotico approached the driver's side of the car. Falotico pointed his gun close to Berkowitz's temple, while Detective Sgt. William Gardella pointed his gun from the passenger's side.[61]

A paper bag containing a .44-caliber Bulldog revolver of the type that was identified in ballistics tests was found next to Berkowitz in the car. As described in Son of Sam (1981) by Lawrence D. Klausner, Detective Falotico remembered the big, inexplicable smile on the man's face:

"Now that I've got you", Detective Falotico said to the suspect, "who have I got?"

"You know," the man said in what the detective remembered was a soft, almost sweet voice.

"No I don't. You tell me."

The man turned his head and said, "I'm Sam."

"You're Sam? Sam who?"

"Sam. David Berkowitz."[61][72]

An alternate version claimed that Berkowitz' first words were reported to be, "Well, you got me. How come it took you such a long time?"[73][74] Detective John Falotico was officially credited by the New York City Police Department as the arresting officer of the Son of Sam.[61][72]

Police searched Apartment 7-E and found it in disarray, with Satanic graffiti on the walls. They also found diaries that he had kept since he was twenty-one—three stenographer's notebooks nearly all full wherein Berkowitz meticulously noted hundreds of arsons that he claimed to have set throughout New York City.[75] Some sources allege that this number might be over 1,400.[75] Soon after Berkowitz's arrest, the address of the building was changed from 35 Pine Street to 42 Pine Street in an attempt to end its notoriety. After the arrest, Berkowitz was briefly held in a Yonkers police station before being transported directly to the 60th Precinct in Coney Island, where the detectives' task force was located.[76] At about 1:00 a.m., Mayor Abraham Beame arrived to see the suspect personally.[76] After a brief and wordless encounter, he announced to the media: "The people of the City of New York can rest easy because of the fact that the police have captured a man whom they believe to be the Son of Sam."[77]


Berkowitz was interrogated for about thirty minutes in the early morning of August 11, 1977. He quickly confessed to the shootings and expressed an interest in pleading guilty. During questioning, Berkowitz claimed that his neighbor's dog was one of the reasons that he killed, stating that the dog demanded the blood of pretty young girls. He said that the "Sam" mentioned in the first letter was his former neighbor Sam Carr. Berkowitz claimed that Carr's black labrador retriever Harvey was possessed by an ancient demon and that it issued irresistible commands that Berkowitz must kill people.[20]

A few weeks after his arrest and confession, Berkowitz was permitted to communicate with the press. In a letter to the New York Post dated September 19, 1977, Berkowitz alluded to his original story of demonic possession but closed with a warning that has been interpreted by some investigators as an admission of criminal accomplices: "There are other Sons out there, God help the world."[78]


Three separate mental health examinations determined that Berkowitz was competent to stand trial.[79] Despite this, defense lawyers advised Berkowitz to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but Berkowitz refused.[80] He appeared calm in court on May 8, 1978, as he pleaded guilty to all of the shootings.[81]

At his sentencing two weeks later, Berkowitz caused an uproar when he attempted to jump out of a window of the seventh-floor courtroom. After he was restrained, he repeatedly chanted "Stacy was a whore" and shouted "I'd kill her again. I'd kill them all again."[80] The court ordered another psychiatric examination before sentencing could proceed. During the evaluation, Berkowitz drew a sketch of a jailed man surrounded by numerous walls; at the bottom he wrote, "I am not well. Not well at all".[20] Nonetheless, Berkowitz was again found competent to stand trial.[80]

On June 12, 1978, Berkowitz was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison for each murder, to be served consecutively.[82] He was ordered to serve time in Attica Correctional Facility, an Upstate New Yorksupermax prison.[83] Despite prosecutors' objections, the terms of Berkowitz's guilty plea made him eligible for parole in 25 years.[84]

Retraction of claims of possession[edit]

Berkowitz declared at a press conference during February 1979 that his previous claims of demonic possession were a hoax.[85][86][87] Berkowitz stated in a series of meetings with his special court-appointed psychiatrist David Abrahamsen that he had long contemplated murder to get revenge at a world that he felt had rejected and hurt him.[85] Berkowitz claimed he felt particular anger due to his lack of success with women, and thus singled out attractive young women as victims.

Prison life[edit]

After his arrest, Berkowitz was initially confined to a psychiatric ward in Kings County Hospital where the staff reported that he seemed remarkably untroubled by his new environment.[88] On the day after his sentencing, he was taken first to Sing Sing prison and then to the upstate Clinton Correctional Facility for psychiatric and physical examinations.[83] Two more months were spent at the Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy before his admission to Attica prison.[83] Berkowitz served about a decade in Attica until he was relocated (c. 1990) to Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, where he remained for many years until he was transferred to Shawangunk Correctional Facility. Berkowitz described life in Attica as a "nightmare".[11] In 1979, there was an attempt on Berkowitz's life in which the left side of his neck was slashed from front to back, resulting in a wound that required more than fifty stitches to close.[89] Berkowitz refused to identify his assailant, and he only claimed that he was grateful for the attack—it brought a sense of justice or, in Berkowitz's own words, "the punishment I deserve".[89]

Conversion to born-again Christianity[edit]

In 1987, Berkowitz became an evangelical Christian in prison. According to his personal testimony, his moment of conversion occurred after reading Psalm 34:6 from a Bible given to him by a fellow inmate. He says he is no longer to be referred to as the "Son of Sam" but the "Son of Hope".[90]

Parole hearings[edit]

Before his first parole hearing in 2002, Berkowitz sent a letter to New York GovernorGeorge Pataki asking that it be canceled. He wrote, "In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have, with God's help, long ago come to terms with my situation and I have accepted my punishment."[91][92] Officials at the Sullivan facility duly rejected his case.[91]

Berkowitz is entitled to a parole hearing every two years as mandated by state law, but he has consistently refused to ask for his release, sometimes skipping the hearings altogether.[93][94][95] In his 2016 hearing at Shawangunk, Berkowitz stated that while parole was "unrealistic", he felt he had improved himself behind bars, adding "I feel I am no risk, whatsoever".[96] His lawyer, Mark Heller, noted that prison staff considered Berkowitz to be a "model prisoner", but commissioners once again denied a parole.[96]

Other activities[edit]

Soon after his imprisonment, Berkowitz invited Malachi Martin, an exorcist, to help him compose an autobiography, but the offer was not accepted.[97][98] During later years, Berkowitz developed his memoirs with assistance from evangelical Christians. His statements were released as an interview video, Son of Hope, during 1998,[9] with a more extensive work released in book form, entitled Son of Hope: The Prison Journals of David Berkowitz (2006).[99] Berkowitz does not receive any royalties or profit from any sales of his works. He has continued to write essays on faith and repentance for Christian websites. His own official website is maintained on his behalf by a church group, since he is not allowed access to a computer.[90] Berkowitz stays involved with prison ministry, and regularly counsels troubled inmates.[100] While in the Sullivan facility, he pursued education and graduated with honors from Sullivan Community College.[96]

During June 2005, Berkowitz sued one of his previous lawyers for the misappropriation of a large number of letters, photographs, and other personal possessions.[101] Hugo Harmatz, a New Jersey attorney, had represented Berkowitz in an earlier legal effort to prevent the National Enquirer from buying one of his letters.[101] Harmatz then self-published his own collection of letters and memorabilia—Dear David (2005)—which he had obtained from Berkowitz during their consultations.[101] Berkowitz stated that he would only drop the lawsuit if the attorney signed over all the money he made to the victims' families. In October 2006, Berkowitz and Harmatz settled out of court, with Harmatz agreeing to return the disputed items and to donate part of his book profits to the New York State Crime Victims Board.[102]

Satanic cult claims[edit]

In 1979, Berkowitz mailed a book about witchcraft to police in North Dakota. He had underlined several passages and written a few marginal notes, including the phrase: "Arliss [sic] Perry, Hunted, Stalked and Slain. Followed to Calif. Stanford University."[103] The reference was to Arlis Perry, a 19-year-old North Dakota newlywed who had been murdered at Stanford on October 12, 1974. Her death, and the notorious abuse of her corpse in a Christian chapel on campus, was a widely reported case. Berkowitz mentioned the Perry attack in other letters, suggesting that he knew details of it from the perpetrator himself. Local police investigators interviewed him but they "now [2004] believe he has nothing of value to offer" and the Perry case remains unsolved.[104]

After his admission to Sullivan prison, Berkowitz began to claim that he had joined a Sataniccult in the spring of 1975.[citation needed] In 1993, Berkowitz made these claims known when he announced to the press that he had only killed three of the Son of Sam victims: Donna Lauria, Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani.[105] In his revised version of the events, Berkowitz said that other shooters were involved and that he fired the gun only in the first attack (Lauria and Valenti)[106] and the sixth (Esau and Suriani).[107] He said that he and several other cult members were involved in every incident by planning the events, providing early surveillance of the victims, and acting as lookouts and drivers at the crime scenes.[106] Berkowitz stated that he could not divulge the names of most of his accomplices without putting his family directly at risk.[26]

Among Berkowitz's alleged unnamed associates was a female cult member whom he claims fired the gun at Denaro and Keenan, both of whom survived, Berkowitz said, because the alleged accomplice was unfamiliar with the powerful recoil of a .44 Bulldog.[31] Berkowitz declared that "at least five" cult members were at the scene of the Freund–Diel shooting, but the actual shooter was a prominent cult associate who had been brought in from outside New York with an unspecified motive—a cult member whom he identified only by his nickname, "Manson II".[31] Another unnamed person was the gunman in the Moskowitz–Violante case, a male cult member who had arrived from North Dakota for the occasion, also without explanation.[108]

Berkowitz did name two of the cult members: John and Michael Carr. The two men were sons of the dog-owner Sam Carr and they lived on nearby Warburton Avenue.[26][109] Both of these other "sons of Sam" were long dead: John Carr had been killed by a shooting judged a suicide in North Dakota during 1978,[31][110] and Michael Carr had been in a fatal car accident in 1979.[12][31] Berkowitz claimed that the actual perpetrator of the DeMasi–Lomino shooting was John Carr, and he added that a Yonkers police officer, also a cult member, was involved in this crime.[31] He claimed that Michael Carr fired the shots at Lupo and Placido.[111]

Case reopened[edit]

Journalist John Hockenberry asserts that, even aside from the Satanic cult claims, many officials doubted the single-shooter theory, writing, "what most don't know about the Son of Sam case is that from the beginning, not everyone bought the idea that Berkowitz acted alone." John Santucci, Queens District Attorney at the time of the killings, and police investigator Mike Novotny both expressed their convictions that Berkowitz had accomplices. NYPD officer Richard Johnson, involved in the original investigations, has opined that unresolved discrepancies in statements from witnesses and surviving victims indicate Berkowitz did not act alone: "Why are there three [suspect] cars, five different [suspect] descriptions, different heights, different shapes, different sizes of the perpetrator? Somebody else was there." [112]

Other contemporaries have voiced their belief in the Satanic cult theory including Donna Lauria's father,[105] and Carl Denaro who stated his opinion that "more than one person was involved" but admitted he could not prove the cult theory.[26] Denaro's conclusion rests on his criticism of Berkowitz's statement to police as "totally false."[113] Denaro's recollection is that he physically bumped into Berkowitz outside the Wine Gallery restaurant as he and Keenan departed and walked to his car where the shooting occurred; Berkowitz, in contrast, told police that he passed within a few feet of Denaro and Keenan shortly before they entered the car. Denaro contends he and Keenan passed no one on their way to the car and further that the placement of the car parked at the curb would have made it impossible for Berkowitz to have sneaked up on them in the few minutes between their encounter outside restaurant and the shooting at the car. Denaro thus reasons he was shot by someone other than Berkowitz.[114]

Hockenberry's own report was broadcast by network news and given much exposure by Dateline NBC (2004). In it, he discusses another journalist, Maury Terry, who had begun investigating the Son of Sam shootings before Berkowitz was arrested. Terry published a series of investigative articles in the Gannett newspapers in 1979 which challenged the official explanation of a lone gunman.[115]

Vigorously denied by police at the time, Terry's articles were widely read and discussed;[115] they were later assembled in book form as The Ultimate Evil (1987; expanded second edition 1999). Largely impelled by these reports of accomplices and Satanic cult activity, the Son of Sam case was reopened by Yonkers police during 1996, but no new charges were filed.[116] Due to a lack of findings, the investigation was eventually suspended but remains unclosed.[26]


Berkowitz's later claims are dismissed by many. Breslin rejected his story of Satanic cult accomplices, stating that "when they talked to David Berkowitz that night, he recalled everything step by step by step. The guy has 1,000 percent recall and that's it. He's the guy and there's nothing else to look at."[26]

Skeptics include a former FBI profiler, John E. Douglas, who spent hours interviewing Berkowitz. He states that he was convinced Berkowitz acted alone and was an "introverted loner, not capable of being involved in group activity."[26] Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, a NYPD psychologist, states in Against The Law, a documentary about the Son of Sam case, that he believes that the Satanic cult claims are nothing but a fantasy concocted by Berkowitz to absolve himself of the crimes. In his book Hunting Humans (2001), Elliott Leyton argued that "recent journalistic attempts to abridge—or even deny—Berkowitz's guilt have lacked all credibility."[117]

The case in Yonkers has never been brought before a grand jury, nor has Berkowitz ever testified to his Satanic cult claims under oath or been cross-examined about his version of events in a trial.[citation needed]


Decades after his arrest, the name "Son of Sam" remains widely recognized as that of a notorious serial killer.[118] Many manifestations in popular culture have helped perpetuate this notoriety, while Berkowitz himself continues to express remorse on Christian websites.[119]

Neysa Moskowitz, who previously had not hidden her hatred of Berkowitz,[118] wrote him a letter shortly before her own death in 2006, forgiving him for killing her daughter, Stacy.[120]

Legal impact[edit]

Main article: Son of Sam law

After rampant speculation about publishers offering Berkowitz large sums of money for his story, the New York State Legislature swiftly passed a new law that prevented convicted criminals (and their relatives) from making any financial profit from books, movies, or other enterprises related to the stories of their crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the so-called "Son of Sam law" for violating the First Amendment's right of free expression in the 1991 case of Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Crime Victims Board, but New York produced a constitutionally revised version of the law in the following year.[121][122] Similar laws have since been enacted in 41 states and at the federal level.[121]

In popular culture[edit]

Jimmy Breslin, in collaboration with writer Dick Schaap, published a novelized account of the murders, .44 (1978), less than a year after Berkowitz's arrest.[123] The highly fictionalized plot recounts the exploits of a Berkowitz-based character dubbed "Bernard Rosenfeld". Outside of North America, the book was renamed Son of Sam.

Pelham Bay area of the Bronx
Forest Hills Gardens, Queens. Most of Berkowitz's activity was in Queens, though he lived farther north in Yonkers.
Final page of the first Son of Sam letter.
Bath Beach section of Brooklyn where the final killing occurred.
Berkowitz lived on Pine Street in Yonkers at the time of his arrest.

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