At about 1:10 a.m. on the night of July 29, 1976, Donna Lauria, a young woman of 18, was sitting with her friend Jody Valenti, 19, in Valenti’s parked car in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx, talking about their night at a discotheque. When she opened the car door to leave, she saw a man rapidly approaching. The look of anger on his face alarmed her, but before she could do anything, he took a handgun out of a paper sack, crouched, braced one elbow on his knee, aimed his weapon with both hands, and fired. One bullet hit Lauria and killed her instantly; a second hit Valenti in the thighs; a third missed. The attacker, having spoken not a single word, then quickly walked away.
Jody Valenti survived the attack and described the killer as a white male in his 30s with short, dark, curly hair and a fair complexion, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, and weighing about 160 pounds. Neighbors reported seeing an unfamiliar yellow compact car cruising in the area for hours prior to the attack. Ballistics tests identified the murder weapon as a Charter Arms .44 caliber Bulldog model, a five-shot revolver meant for use in close quarters. The police speculated that the murderer might be a spurned suitor of Lauria, or, since the neighborhood had recently witnessed mob activity, that the shooting was a case of mistaken identity.
|A Charter Arms Bulldog|
On the night of October 23, 1976, Carl Denaro, 25, and Rosemary Keenan, 28, were sitting in Denaro’s parked car in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, when the car windows were suddenly shattered. Denaro quickly started the car and sped off for help, unaware that he was bleeding from a bullet wound in the head; Keenan had only superficial wounds from the broken glass. Neither had seen the attacker.
The police determined that the bullets embedded in the car were .44 caliber, but too damaged to be linked to a particular weapon. There was no apparent motive for the crime, nor was it linked to the previous shooting in another borough. They later noted that Denaro had shoulder-length hair and might have been mistaken for a girl.
Shortly after midnight on November 27, 1976, Donna DeMasi, 16, and her friend Joanne Lomino, having walked home from a movie, were chatting on the porch of Lomino’s home on a quiet residential street in the Bellerose section of Queens, when a man in military fatigues approached and in a high-pitched voice began to ask for directions. But then he whipped out a revolver, shot each girl once and, as they fell to the ground, fired several more shots that struck the apartment building before he ran away. Hearing the shots, a neighbor rushed out and saw a blond man rush by, a pistol in his left hand.
DeMasi had a shot in her neck but survived. Hit in the back, Lomino was hospitalized in serious condition and became a paraplegic. The police produced several composite sketches of the blond shooter based on the descriptions given by the victims and their neighbor. Once again, the bullets were .44 caliber but too deformed to be linked to a particular weapon.
Early in the morning of January 30, 1977, an engaged couple, Christine Freund, 26, and John Diel, 30, were sitting in Diel’s car in the Forest Hills section of Queens; having seen a movie, they were planning to go to a dance hall. Suddenly three gunshots ripped into the car. Terrified, Diel drove away for help. He had only superficial wounds, but Freund had been shot twice and died several hours later in a hospital. Neither had seen their assailant.
The police now acknowledged that this crime resembled the earlier shootings and might be the work of the same attacker. All the victims had been shot with .44 caliber bullets, and young women with long, dark hair seemed to be the preferred victims. Composite sketches of the black-haired Lauria-Valenti attacker and the blond Lomino-DeMasi attacker were released to the public, with word that the police were looking for not one but multiple suspects.
At around 7:30 p.m. on March 8, 1977, Barnard College student Virginia Voskerichian, 19, was walking home on a quiet street in Forest Hills, Queens, only a block away from where Christine Freund had been shot. Suddenly she was confronted by an armed man. In desperation she placed her textbooks between her and the man, but he fired a shot that went right through them, struck her head, and killed her.
No one had witnessed the murder, but a neighbor reported seeing a chubby teenager sprinting away from the scene. Others reported seeing both a teenager and an older man loitering separately in the area an hour before the shooting. The media repeated police claims that a “chubby teenager” was the suspect. This crime differed from the preceding incidents, in that the other victims were couples and were shot on weekends.
By now it was clear: a serial killer was on the loose. At a press conference on March 10, police officials and Mayor Abe Beame announced that the same .44 caliber revolver had killed Lauria and Voskerichian. That same day saw the launching of the 50-man Operation Omega task force, charged solely with investigating the .44 caliber murders, with Deputy Inspector Timothy Joseph Dowd in charge. Baffled by the lack of an obvious motive, the police speculated that the killer had a vendetta against women, possibly resulting from social rejection, but viewed the “chubby teenager” as a witness and not a suspect in the Voskerichian murder.
A task force of 50 officers to track down a single killer: this case had assumed major proportions. The New York area media discussed it daily, and the world press carried many of the reports. For the city, burdened already with a high crime rate and a mounting fiscal crisis, word of a serial killer seemed to dramatize a city in desperate straits. Newly established in our apartment, my partner Bob and I had window gates guarding all the windows, and a police lock on the door, and Bob, returning home one night from the opera, narrowly escaped being mugged in the vestibule downstairs. But for us in Manhattan, the .44 caliber killer off in the outer boroughs seemed remote.
Early in the morning of April 17, 1977, Alexander Esau, 20, and Valentina Suriani, 18, were sitting in Esau’s parked car near her home in the Baychester section of the Bronx, but a few blocks from the scene of the Lauria-Valenti shooting. Suddenly, about 3:00 a.m., another car pulled up beside them, shots rang out, and each of them was wounded twice. Suriani died on the scene, and Esau died several hours later in the hospital without being able to describe the assailant.
This crime was obviously similar to preceding ones, and the police declared that the .44 caliber weapon involved was the same as in the earlier attacks. They continued to assume that the chubby teenager of the Voskerichian case was only a witness, the suspect being the dark-haired man of the Lauria-Valenti case.
What the police didn’t tell the public was that a lengthy handwritten letter had been left by the killer at the site of this attack. Written mostly in capital letters, the rambling letter was addressed to Captain Joseph Borelli of the task force and began by protesting that the killer was not a “wemon hater” but a monster, the “Son of Sam.” Father Sam, it explained, abused him when drunk and ordered him to “Go out and kill.” “To stop me you must kill me,” the writer insisted. “I love to hunt,” he added; prowling the streets, he looked for “fair game.” “Blood for papa.” He ended by wishing everyone a Happy Easter, then added these words:
I SAY GOODBYE AND
POLICE: LET ME
HAUNT YOU WITH THESE
I’LL BE BACK!
I’LL BE BACK!
TO BE INTERRPRETED
AS – BANG BANG BANG,
BANK, BANG – UGH!!
Selections from the letter were soon leaked to the press, and the .44 caliber killer was quickly rechristened “Son of Sam.” The case was now receiving frenzied attention, being reported worldwide. The New York Post, recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch, offered sensationalist coverage, but the story appeared also in the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano, the Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv, and the Soviet Izvestia, which probably cited it as further evidence of the decadence of capitalism. Son of Sam was known worldwide, and his warning “I’ll be back!” haunted everyone.
Psychologists who were consulted explained that serial killers derive great satisfaction from manipulating their pursuers and exercising control over the media, the police, and the population generally. The police then released a psychological portrait of the suspect, describing him as a neurotic probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and believing himself to be a victim of demonic possession.
On May 30, 1977, Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who had written about the case, received a handwritten letter from someone claiming to be the .44 shooter. Neatly printed on the back of the envelope were the words
Blood and Family
Darkness and Death
The letter inside said “Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood,” then went on to inform “J.B.” that he appreciated his interest in the killings, but that Sam was a thirsty lad who wouldn’t stop killing until he got his fill of blood. Wishing all the detectives on the case the best of luck, he promised, when captured, to buy each of them a new pair of shoes.
Breslin informed the police, who, noting the difference between this more sophisticated letter and crudely written first one, speculated that it came, not from Son of Sam (as it was signed), but from someone with knowledge of the shootings. A week later, after consulting the police and agreeing to withhold certain portions of the text, the Daily News published the letter, along with Breslin’s plea to the killer to turn himself in; over 1.1 million copies of the issue were sold. As a result, the police received thousands of useless tips, and women with long, dark hair began cutting their hair short or dyeing it a lighter color, and there was a run on beauty supply stores for wigs. For many it was a reign of terror, and the tabloids stoked their fear.
Early on the morning of June 26, 1977, another couple, Sal Lupo, 20, and Judy Placido, 17, having left a discotheque in the Bayside section of Queens, were sitting in their car when, at about 3:00 a.m., three gunshots ripped through the car. Though both were wounded, their injuries were minor and they survived. Neither had seen the attacker, but witnesses reported a tall, stocky, dark-haired man running from the scene.
By now the police had questioned the owners of 56 Bulldog revolvers legally registered in the city and tested each weapon, but none of them proved to be the weapon in question. On orders from Mayor Beame, the police were chasing couples from known lovers’ lanes. Detectives were patrolling the Bronx and Queens in unmarked cars, and female officers with long, dark hair sat as decoys in cars outside discos and singles bars. But the detectives assigned to Operation Omega were serving long hours that resulted in frayed nerves and put a strain on relationships with their families. Cots were installed at the headquarters so they could get a few hours of sleep before resuming the search. With a madman running loose, the city was in a frenzy and the police were desperate.
The police were focused on the Bronx and Queens, but the next shooting, near the anniversary of the first, came in Brooklyn. At about 2:35 a.m. on the night of July 31, 1977, Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante, both 20, were sitting in Violante’s car, parked under a streetlight near a park in the Bath Beach section. They were kissing when a man approached, fired four shots, and disappeared into the park. Both were hit in the head; Moskowitz died several hours later in the hospital; Violante survived, but with the loss of one eye and limited vision in the other. This crime was a departure from the others, since Moskowitz had short, curly blond hair, and the shooting occurred in Brooklyn.
This time there were witnesses. A young man parked with his date nearby saw the crime in his car mirror and described the criminal as a man 25 to 30 years old with shaggy dark blond or light brown hair that looked like a wig. Another witness, a woman sitting with her boyfriend in a car nearby, saw a white male wearing a “cheap nylon wig” dash out of the park, get into a small auto, and drive away. Other witnesses mentioned a yellow Volkswagen leaving the area with its headlights off. Informed of the incident, the police at once set up roadblocks in the area and questioned drivers, but without results. Inspector Dowd observed that the case was complicated because of the lack of an apparent motive; his job was to “prepare to be lucky.”
Finally he was. Four days later a resident of the area contacted them. On the night of the shooting she had been walking her dog, when she noticed the police ticketing a car parked near a hydrant. Moments later a young man holding a “dark object” in his hand walked past her from the vicinity of the car and seemed to study her with interest. Alarmed, she ran home. Once inside, she heard what might have been shots in the distance. The police then checked every car ticketed that night in the area and discovered a yellow four-door Ford Galaxy belonging to a postal worker named David Berkowitz living in Yonkers, who they at first thought might be a witness. Not until August 9 did a New York detective contact the Yonkers police about Berkowitz. Because of reports coming to them from neighbors, the Yonkers police had already begun to view Berkowitz with suspicion.
On August 10, 1977, several New York City detectives investigated Berkowitz’s car parked on the street outside his apartment, and in it observed a semiautomatic rifle. Then or later (accounts differ) they also found a duffel bag filled with ammunition, maps of the crime scenes, and a threatening letter addressed to Inspector Dowd of the Omega task force, all of which confirmed that Berkowitz was the perpetrator.
The police decided to wait till Berkowitz came out, so as to avoid a violent encounter in the building’s narrow hallway, and to give them time to obtain a warrant for searching the car. The warrant still had not arrived when Berkowitz came out at 10:00 p.m., carrying a paper bag. As soon as he got in the car the police surrounded him, and one of them put the barrel of his gun against Berkowitz’s head and shouted, “Freeze!” Berkowitz turned quietly toward them and smiled.
“Well, you got me. How come it took you such a long time?”
In the paper sack on the seat beside him they found his .44 caliber handgun.
Berkowitz’s apartment had Satanic graffiti on the walls, and diaries he had kept since age 21 meticulously recording the hundreds of fires he claimed to have set throughout New York City. He was soon transferred to the police precinct in Coney Island where the Omega task force was located. Mayor Beame himself came about 1:00 a.m. and, after a brief and wordless encounter with Berkowitz, 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.” CAUGHT! screamed the New York Post headline the next day, with a picture of the killer.
And whom had they caught? A pudgy 24-year-old postal worker who had a boyish face, short black hair and eyebrows and sideburns, and full, sensual lips and an impish grin. Expecting a sadistic monster, the detectives were amazed to find a wimp: a calm, courteous, mild-mannered man who seemed emotionally detached from the horror of his crimes, and who, far from offering resistance, cooperated from the very start. One recalls Hannah Arendt’s comment about “the banality of evil.” But this was a troubled man, a loner with grandiose fantasies and a persecution complex.
|Berkowitz's mug shot at the time of his arrest.|
Interrogated for a half hour early on the morning of August 11, 1977, Berkowitz confessed the shootings, claiming that a neighbor’s dog possessed by a demon had prompted him to kill. Arraigned in Brooklyn in a courtroom that was packed to the rafters, Berkowitz was quickly sent to the Kings County Hospital psychiatric ward, where the staff reported that he seemed surprisingly untroubled by his confinement. Declared unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity, on June 12, 1978, he was sentenced to 25 years to life for each of his six murders, to be served consecutively in the state’s maximum security prison at Attica.
In a 1979 press conference Berkowitz retracted his claims of demonic possession, calling them a hoax. He told a court-appointed psychiatrist that he had long contemplated murder to be revenged on a world that had rejected him, and out of anger over his lack of success with women. Stalking and shooting women had sexually aroused him, and afterward he would masturbate. This could well be, but whether his earlier belief in demonic possession was simply a hoax seems doubtful.
While at Attica there was an attempt on his life that left a long scar on his neck, but he refused to identify the assailant. Though his parents were Jewish, in 1987 he became a born-again Christian and asked to be referred to no longer as Son of Sam, but as Son of Hope; his conversion seems to be profound and sincere. Transferred to the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, he has shown little interest in his parole hearings and remains there to this day. His good behavior has been noted, as well as his completion of a two-year state university program and several prison rehabilitation programs, and his expression of remorse for his crimes. In a 2012 interview with the New York Daily News, Berkowitz, now white-haired and balding, declared, “Society has to take the glory out of guns.”
Years after his arrest Berkowitz claimed that other members of a Satanic cult shared responsibility for some of the killings attributed to him, but the New York police remain convinced that there was only one gunman, since when Berkowitz confessed immediately following his arrest, he remembered all the shootings, giving details that only the killer could know. And what is one to conclude, when he keeps changing his story? Did he really think he was demonically possessed, or was it a hoax from the start? Did he act alone or with others? Even now he seems to be a victim of fantasy and illusion.
|Berkowitz's mug shot, 2003.|
In 1977 New York State passed a “Son of Sam law” to prevent accused or convicted persons from profiting from their crimes by speaking or writing about them, and directing that any such profits, if realized, be used to compensate victims. The law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1991, but a new law passed in 2001 has to date survived constitutional scrutiny. Similar laws have been passed by 41 other states and the federal government.
The Son of Sam murders have also inspired a novel, a film, and several songs, but without Berkowitz’s consent or approval. And Berkowitz has a website of his own, “Arise and Shine with David Berkowitz,” where he shares his testimony of God’s forgiveness, stressing that if God can forgive the Son of Sam killer, he can forgive anyone.
What is a serial killer? A serial killer feels a compulsion to kill, then after a killing experiences a feeling of relief until, as time passes, the compulsion builds up and makes him kill again. (It is usually, but not always, a “him.”) Those who have studied the phenomenon include these traits:
· Lack of normal family life in their childhood
· Lack of remorse or guilt
· Sensation seeking
· A need to exercise control
· A need for attention
· A mask of sanity hiding a psychopathic nature
· Resentment at having been bullied or socially isolated in their childhood or adolescence
· A belief they are driven to crime by some imagined entity such as God or the Devil
To what extent did David Berkowitz exhibit these traits? He was born in Brooklyn in 1953, to a Jewish mother, Betty Broder, and an Italian-American father, Tony Falco, who separated before he was born. When the mother became pregnant with her new boyfriend’s child, and the father threatened to abandon her if she kept it, she put the infant up for adoption, listing Falco as the father. The infant was adopted by Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz, a Jewish couple who ran a hardware store in the Bronx and, being childless in their middle years, wanted a child. Though of above-average intelligence, Berkowitz had a troubled childhood and lost interest in school; neighbors and relatives remembered him as difficult, spoiled, and bullying. When, at age 14, he lost his adoptive mother to cancer, he was devastated and became depressed, imagining that her death was part of a plot to destroy him. When his adoptive father remarried in 1971, David and the new wife didn’t get along, and the couple moved to Florida, leaving him behind. That same year, at age 18, he enlisted in the Army and served for a time in Korea, during which he became an expert shot with a rifle. But his only sex experience was with a Korean prostitute who gave him a venereal disease.
After receiving an honorable discharge in 1974, Berkowitz located his birth mother and was greatly disturbed to learn from her that he was illegitimate. More and more he experienced isolation, fantasies, and paranoid delusions, and apparently began setting fires that he later boasted of. He held a series of blue-collar jobs and at the time of his arrest was working as a letter sorter for the U.S. Postal Service.
In November 1974 he wrote a letter to his father in Florida, saying that people he didn’t even know hated him and spat and kicked at him on the street. Later, after his arrest, he would tell how on Christmas Eve of 1975 his demons made him attack one woman and then another with a knife, though the police were unable to verify the first attack. When the barking dogs of his neighbors disturbed his sleep, he turned their barking into messages from demons ordering him to kill. Moving to a new address in Yonkers, he came to believe that his neighbor Sam Carr’s dog was also possessed, and then that Carr himself was possessed by a demon named Sam, and so was born the name “Son of Sam.” By now he was deep into a world of demons howling for blood, and only a killing could – for a while – bring him relief.
If one combines this brief account of his early years with his behavior as Son of Sam, it seems that Berkowitz exhibited, at least to some extent, all the traits mentioned above and therefore was a classic example of the serial killer. Why some people exhibiting some or all of these traits become serial killers and others do not is a mystery that forensic experts and others are still trying to solve. But the fact that serial killers suddenly emerge, terrifying whole populations and often eluding capture for weeks, months, or years, is as frightening as it is baffling.
Coming soon: Al Sharpton: champion of his people or rabble rouser? From agitator on the streets to insider invited to the White House. And after that, great hotels of the past and present, including one where mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano might have rubbed elbows with an ex-President and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
© Clifford Browder 2015