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Berkowitz's mug shots on August 11, 1977
|Born||Richard David Falco
June 1, 1953
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Other names||Son of Sam
The .44 Caliber Killer
David Richard Berkowitz
|Criminal penalty||Six life sentences|
|Conviction(s)||Murder in the second degree
Attempted murder in the second degree
|Victims||6 killed, 7 wounded|
Span of killings
|Weapons||.44 caliber Bulldog revolver|
|August 10, 1977|
David Richard Berkowitz (born Richard David Falco; June 1, 1953), known also as the Son of Sam and the .44 Caliber Killer, is an American serial killer who was convicted of 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.
Berkowitz was taken into custody by New York City police homicide detectives in front of his Yonkers apartment building on the evening of August 10, 1977, and was indicted for eight shooting incidents. He confessed to all of them, and 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. In the course of further police investigation, 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 imprisoned 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 Satanic cult that orchestrated the incidents as ritual murder. He remains the only person ever charged with the shootings, yet some law enforcement authorities have questioned whether Berkowitz's claims are credible. A new investigation of the murders began during 1996, but was suspended indefinitely after inconclusive findings.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Crimes begin
- 3 Crimes continue
- 4 Arrest in Yonkers
- 5 Prison life
- 6 Satanic cult claims
- 7 Legacy
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Berkowitz's mother, Elizabeth "Betty" Broder, grew up as part of an impoverished Jewish family and married Tony Falco, an Italian-American Catholic, in 1936. After a marriage of less than four years, Falco left her for another woman. About a decade later in 1950, Broder gained a new partner, a married man named Joseph Klineman. Three years later she became pregnant with a child to whom she chose to give the surname Falco—Richard David Falco was born on June 1, 1953 in Brooklyn, New York. Within a few days of his birth, she gave the child away. Although her reasons for doing so are unknown, later writers have surmised that Klineman threatened to abandon her if she kept the baby and used his name.
The infant boy was adopted by Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz of the Bronx. 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.
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 began an infatuation with petty larceny and pyromania." Neighbors and relatives would recall Berkowitz as difficult, spoiled and bullying—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. Berkowitz's adoptive mother died of breast cancer when he was fourteen years old, and his home life became strained during later years, particularly because he disliked his adoptive father's second wife.
At age 18 in 1971, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the United States and South Korea. 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. 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. His communication with his birth mother later lapsed, but remained for a time 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.
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. 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. He exhibited an enduring enjoyment of his activities, often returning to the scenes of his crimes.
Michelle Forman stabbing
Berkowitz claimed that his first attack was committed 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. Berkowitz was not suspected of these crimes, and soon afterward he relocated to an apartment in Yonkers, New York, just slightly north of the New York City borderline.
Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti shooting
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 Rochelle discotheque. 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 ..." 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. Lauria was struck by one bullet that killed her instantly. Valenti was shot in her thigh, and a third bullet missed both women. The shooter turned and walked away quickly, without saying a word.
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." 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.
Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan shooting
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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. 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.
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.
Denaro had shoulder-length hair, and police later speculated that the shooter had mistaken him for a girl. 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
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.
In a high-pitched voice he said, "Can you tell me how to get ..." but then quickly produced a revolver. 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; she was ultimately rendered a paraplegic.
Christine Freund and John Diel shooting
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. 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." 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.
Virginia Voskerichian shooting
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. 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.
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. 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. There were no direct witnesses to the Voskerichian murder.
Press and publicity
In a March 10, 1977, press conference, NYPD officials and New York City Mayor Abraham Beame declared that the same .44 Bulldog revolver had fired the shots that killed Lauria and Voskerichian. 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.
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. 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.
Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani shooting
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. 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. 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.
Crime scene letters
Son of Sam letter
Police discovered a handwritten letter near the bodies of Esau and Suriani, written mostly in block capital letters with some lower-case letters, and addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borrelli. With this letter, Berkowitz revealed the name "Son of Sam" for the first time. The press had previously dubbed the killer "the .44 Caliber Killer" because of his weapon of choice. 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.
The letter expressed the killer's determination to continue his work, and taunted police for their fruitless efforts to capture him. In full, with misspellings intact, the letter read:
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a women 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
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. 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."
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. 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.
Letter to Jimmy Breslin
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
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. 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. 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. The "Wicked King Wicker" reference caused police to arrange a private screening of The Wicker Man, a 1973 horror movie.
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. Police received thousands of tips based on references in the publicized portions of the letter, all of which proved useless. 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.
Sal Lupo and Judy Placido shooting
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. 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. Lupo told police that the young couple had been discussing the Son of Sam case only moments before the shooting.
Neither Lupo nor Placido had seen their attacker(s), 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. 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.
Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante shooting
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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.
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. 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. 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."
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. Other witnesses included a woman who saw a light car speed away from the park about 20 seconds after the gunshots, and at least two witnesses who described a yellow Volkswagen driving quickly from the neighborhood with its headlights off. 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.
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. 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 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 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.
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. 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. 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. Detective 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.
Arrest in Yonkers
Suspicion and capture
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. She felt concerned that 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. Berkowitz's 1970 four-door yellow Ford Galaxie was among the cars that they investigated. Despite their claims to the contrary, police initially considered Berkowitz a possible witness rather than a suspect. Not until August 9, 1977, did NYPD detective James Justis telephone 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.
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.
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 backseat, 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 inches from the temple of the person of interest, while Detective Sgt. William Gardella pointed his gun from the passenger's side.
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?"
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?" Detective John Falotico was officially credited by the New York City Police Department as the arresting officer of the Son of Sam.
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. Some sources allege that this number might be over 1,400. 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. At about 1:00 a.m., Mayor Abraham Beame arrived to see the suspect personally. 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."
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.
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."
Three separate mental health examinations determined that Berkowitz was competent to stand trial. Despite this, defense lawyers advised Berkowitz to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but Berkowitz refused. He appeared calm in court on May 8, 1978, as he pleaded guilty to all of the shootings.
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." 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”. Nonetheless, Berkowitz was again found competent to stand trial.
On June 12, 1978, Berkowitz was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison for each murder, to be served consecutively. He was ordered to serve time in Attica Correctional Facility, an upstate New York supermax prison. Despite prosecutors' objections, the terms of Berkowitz's guilty plea made him eligible for parole in 25 years.
Retraction of claims of possession
Berkowitz declared at a press conference during February 1979 that his previous claims of demonic possession were a hoax. 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. Berkowitz claimed he felt particular anger due to his lack of success with women and thus singled out attractive young women as victims.
After his arrest, Berkowitz was initially confined to a psychiatric ward in Kings County Hospital where staff reported that he seemed remarkably untroubled by his new environment. 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. Two more months were spent at the Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy before his admission to Attica prison. 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. Life in Attica was described by Berkowitz as a "nightmare". During 1979, there was an attempt on Berkowitz's life in which the left side of his neck was slashed from front to back, a wound that required more than fifty stitches to close. Berkowitz refused to identify his assailant, and 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".
Conversion to born-again Christianity
During 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".
Before his first parole hearing in 2002, Berkowitz sent a letter to New York Governor George 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." Officials at the Sullivan facility duly rejected his case.
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. 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". His lawyer, Mark Heller, noted that prison staff considered Berkowitz to be a "model prisoner", but commissioners once again denied a parole.
Soon after his imprisonment, Berkowitz invited Malachi Martin, an exorcist, to help him compose an autobiography, but the offer was not accepted. 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, with a more extensive work released in book form, entitled Son of Hope: The Prison Journals of David Berkowitz (2006). 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. Berkowitz stays involved with prison ministry and regularly counsels troubled inmates. While in the Sullivan facility, he pursued education and graduated with honors from Sullivan Community College.
During June 2005, Berkowitz sued one of his previous lawyers for the misappropriation of a large number of letters, photographs, and other personal possessions. 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. Harmatz then self-published his own collection of letters and memorabilia—Dear David (2005)—which he had obtained from Berkowitz during their consultations. 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.
Satanic cult claims
During 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." 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 "now  believe he has nothing of value to offer" and the Perry case remains unsolved.
After his admission to Sullivan prison, Berkowitz began to claim that he had joined a Satanic cult during the spring of 1975. He had met some of its members at a party, and initially thought the group was involved only in occult activities such as séances and fortune telling; the group, however, gradually introduced him to drug use, sadism, crime and murder. Berkowitz states that he knew roughly two dozen core members in New York—the "twenty-two disciples of hell" mentioned by the Breslin letter—and that the group had associates across the USA for drug smuggling and other illegal activities.
During 1993, Berkowitz first made these claims known when he announced to the press that he had killed only three of the Son of Sam victims: Donna Lauria, Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani. In this revised confession, Berkowitz says that there were other shooters involved and that he personally fired the gun only in the first attack (Lauria and Valenti) and the sixth (Esau and Suriani). He says that he and several other cult members were involved with every incident by planning the events, providing early surveillance of the victims, and acting as lookouts and drivers at the crime scenes. Berkowitz states that he cannot divulge the names of most of his accomplices without putting his family directly at risk.
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. 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". Another unnamed person was the gunman of the Moskowitz–Violante case, a male cult member who had arrived from North Dakota for the occasion, also without explanation.
Berkowitz did name two of the cult members: John and Michael Carr. The two men were sons of the dog-owner Sam Carr and lived on nearby Warburton Avenue. Both of these other "sons of Sam" were long dead: John had been killed by a shooting judged a suicide in North Dakota during 1978, and Michael had been in a fatal car accident during 1979. Berkowitz claimed that the actual perpetrator of the DeMasi–Lomino shooting was John Carr, and added that a Yonkers police officer, also a cult member, was involved with this crime. He claimed that Michael Carr fired the shots at Lupo and Placido.
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. Other contemporaries have voiced their belief in the Satanic cult theory, including Carl Denaro and Donna Lauria's father.
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.
Vigorously denied by police at the time, Terry's articles were widely read and discussed; they were later assembled in book form as The Ultimate Evil (1987). 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. Due to a lack of findings, the investigation was eventually suspended but remains unclosed.
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."
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." Dr. Harvey Schlossberg, a NYPD psychologist, states in the Against The Law documentary on 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. Forensic anthropologist Elliott Leyton argued that "recent journalistic attempts to abridge—or even deny—Berkowitz's guilt have lacked all credibility."
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.
Decades after his arrest, the name "Son of Sam" remains widely recognized as that a notorious serial killer. Many manifestations in popular culture have helped perpetuate this notoriety, while Berkowitz himself continues to express remorse on Christian websites.
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. Similar laws have since been enacted in 41 states and at the federal level.
In popular culture
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. 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.
The Spike Lee drama Summer of Sam was released during 1999 with actor Michael Badalucco in the role of Son of Sam. The movie depicts the tensions that develop in a Bronx neighborhood during the shootings, and Berkowitz's part is largely symbolic. A minor character in the script, he functions "mostly as a berserk metaphor for Lee's view of the seventies as a period of amoral excess". Berkowitz was reported to be disturbed by what he called exploitation of "the ugliness of the past". Other movie portrayals of Berkowitz include the Ulli Lommel DVD release Son of Sam (2008) and the CBS television movie Out of the Darkness (1985). The character of Son of Sam played a significant minor role in the miniseries The Bronx Is Burning (2007).
Son of Sam has been popularly (and mistakenly) associated with the contemporaneous song "Psycho Killer" (1977) by Talking Heads; compositions more directly inspired by the events include "Son of Sam" (1978) by The Dead Boys, and "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun" (1989) by Beastie Boys. Guitarist Scott Putesky used the stage name "Daisy Berkowitz" while playing with Marilyn Manson in the 1990s, additionally, Manson's song "Sam, son of man" is quite conspicuously describing Berkowitz; several other rock musicians established a full ensemble named Son of Sam during 2000.
A cartoon composite of Berkowitz and the breakfast cereal icon Toucan Sam was featured in Green Jellÿ's comedy rock video Cereal Killer (1992) by the name of "Toucan Son of Sam", but was later removed under threat of a copyright lawsuit by the Kellogg Company.
The 2016 book Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina is set in New York during 1977, when Berkowitz was captured. Her book depicts how fear of being one of the Son of Sam victims affected the daily lives of people living in New York City during this time.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to David Berkowitz.|
- Arise and Shine, official website