Casefiles

New York City’s Son of Sam: David Berkowitz

David Berkowitz
During 1976-77 a series of shootings took place in and around New York City, shooting which appeared to be targeting teenagers in their cars.  The use of a .44 caliber weapon in each case prompted the media to label this killer the ‘.44 caliber killer’, a label which was quickly replaced when a letter was found at one crime scene.  A letter from the killer, ranting and rambling signed The Son of Sam.

In 1977 after another attempted shooting, police got a break through vehicle checks and David Berkowitz was arrested.  He soon confessed to the shootings claiming he was told to kill by his neighbor Sam’s dog called Harvey. A claim which did not stand up in court and has since been dismissed after his own admissions of its untruth.  David Berkowitz terrorized this area for almost a year before being stopped.  He is currently serving a life sentence with little to no chance of ever being released from prison.

  • With young women appearing to be the target of this ruthless shooter, fear swept around New York with no one knowing where he would strike next.
  • David Berkowitz liked to creep up on his unsuspecting victims before opening fire and escaping the scene.
  • Left uncaptured for almost a year, he was gaining in confidence and becoming more bold in his attacks.
  • When finally caught, David Berkowitz famously claimed he heard voices, specifically from his neighbor’s dog who told him to kill.

Background

Adopted as a young child, David Berkowitz grew up in the Bronx, New York. Described as a difficult child he showed behavioral disturbances from a young age, bullying other children and finding it difficult to share and mix socially.

Berkowitz made it through high school without any serious incidents and enrolled in the US Army aged 18 in 1971. He left the Army with an honorable discharge in 1974 and a decision to locate his birth mother and find the details of his real family are what many consider to be the point which changed the life of David Berkowitz.

Discovering he was an illegitimate child disturbed him and was a fact he found particularly difficult to deal with.  He maintained employment in after his Army discharge and at the time of his arrest he was working for the US Postal Service.

An Emerging Serial Killer: The Son of Sam Shootings

The suburbs of New York began to be rocked by a series of shootings in July 1976.  Two teenagers, Donna Lauria (18) and Jody Velenti (19) were approached in their car by a man who took out a gun, crouched down and began shooting.

Donna Lauria was killed instantly and her friend Jody was shot in the thigh.  Jody Valenti was able to give a description of her attacker. She described him as a white male in his thirties with a fair complexion, standing about 5 feet 9 inches and weighing about 160 lb. His hair was short, dark, and curly in a “mod style.”

Three months later a similar attack occurred in Queens, New York with Carl Denaro (20) and Rosemary Keenan (18) being shot at through their car window.  Without any view of who was shooting at them they managed to start the engine and escape saving their lives, despite Carl Denaro receiving a bullet wound to his head.  Unable to give any description of the shooter, once again police were left at a loss as to who was carrying out these attacks.

The shootings continued with teenage girls seemingly being the prime targets.  On November 27 1976, Donna DeMasi (16) and Joanne Lomino (18) were fired at while walking home shortly after midnight.  Once again a man appeared from nowhere and took aim.  Donna DeMasi received a bullet wound to her neck and Joanne Lomino to her back which rendered her a paraplegic.

Despite shootings being eerily similar in nature police did not initially connect them as related incidents.  Taking place in different boroughs and with the high number of shooting related incidents in and around New York, they did not realise these cases were the work of the same individual.

Related: The Los Angeles Grim Sleeper: Lonnie Franklin Jr

The New Year brought further attacks. Christine Freund (26) and John Diel (30) were fired upon in their car on 30th January, killing Freund. March 1977 saw Virginia Voskerichian (19) shot and killed as she was walking home from University not far from the scene of the shooting two months earlier.

After five shootings, police made the first public acknowledgment that the January 1977 Freund–Diel shooting was similar to earlier incidents, and that the crimes might be connected. All the victims had been struck with .44 caliber bullets, and the shootings seemed to focus on young women with long, dark hair. NYPD sergeant Richard Conlon stated that police were “leaning towards a connection in all these cases.

The First Son of Sam Letter

April 1977 saw another devastating shooting and one which would prompt the police to receive a letter claiming to be the person responsible and calling himself the Son of Sam.

Alexander Esau (20) and Valentina Suriani (18) were each shot twice on 17th April 1977 while sitting in their car in the Bronx, only a few blocks from the scene of the Lauria–Valenti shooting. Suriani died at the scene, and Esau died in hospital several hours later. Police said that the weapon used in the crime was the same as the one which they had suspected in the earlier shootings.

In the days afterwards, they repeated their theory that only one man was responsible for the .44 murders. Police discovered a handwritten letter near the bodies of Esau and Suriani. With this letter, David 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 signature weapon. The letter was initially withheld from public view, but some of its contents leaked to the press, and the name Son of Sam rapidly eclipsed the old name.

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.

On 30th May, 1977, Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin received a handwritten letter from someone who claimed to be the .44 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 the 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

On 26th June, 1977, there was another shooting. Sal Lupo (20) and Judy Placido (17) were shot at sitting in their car. Both survived their injuries. On 31st July, 1977, Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante, both 20, were in Violante’s car, when a man began shooting striking both victims in the head before he escaped into the park. Moskowitz died several hours later in the hospital. Violante survived, though one of his eyes was destroyed and he retains very limited vision in the other eye.

A witness to the shooting described the attacker as 25 to 30 years old, of average height—5 ft 7 in to 5 ft 9 in, with shaggy hair that was dark blond or light brown. Zaino said that the shooter’s hair “looked like a wig.”

Related: The 1946 ‘Lipstick Killer’ William Heirens: Was He Innocent?

Arrest and Trial

David Berkowitz was caught after a young woman reported shots being fired at her near the scene of the Moskowitz and Violante shooting. Remembering she saw a car being ticketed in the area just before the shooting, police used this as their key lead.  After checking all the cars in the area at that time, the car belonging to David Berkowitz was among them.

David Berkowitz was arrested on 10th August, 1977 in his car outside his apartment.  His car contained a rifle, a duffel bag filled with ammunition, maps of the crime scenes, and a threatening letter addressed to Sgt. Dowd of the Omega task force, along with a paper bag later found to contain a .44-caliber revolver of the type used in the shootings.

Berkowitz was interrogated for about thirty minutes in the early morning of 11th August. 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‘.

“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.” – New York City Mayor Abe Beame

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.

On 12th June, 1978, Berkowitz was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for each murder, to be served consecutively. He was ordered to serve his time in infamous Attica Correctional Facility, the upstate New York supermax prison.  Berkowitz has been denied parole repeatedly since his incarceration and is next due for a parole hearing this year.

A Profile of the Son of Sam

After consulting with several psychiatrists, police released a psychological profile of their suspect on 26th May, 1977 a month after the Esau -Suriani shootings. He was described as neurotic and probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and believed himself to be a victim of demonic possession.

Berkowitz declared at a press conference in February 1979 that his previous claims of demonic possession were a hoax. Furthermore, Berkowitz admitted in a series of meetings with his special court-appointed psychiatrist David Abrahamsen, that he had long contemplated murder to lash out at a world that he felt had rejected and hurt him.

David Berkowitz felt particular anger over his lack of success with women and thus singled out attractive young women as victims. He later admitted in an interview conducted by FBI veteran Robert Ressler in prison that he had pretended to be insane to get a lighter punishment and that he actually killed out of resentment towards his mother and contempt for women in general. His M.O. suggests that he was highly disorganized in manner, using blitz attacks and leaving victims alive.

Berkowitz has so far not attended any of his parole hearings in person, refusing to do so. In recent years, he has granted interviews with some newspapers and Professor of Criminology Dr. Scott Bonn for research for his book ‘Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.‘  You can read about these interviews on Dr Bonn’s blog at Psychology Today here.

This article uses material from the “David Berkowitz” articles at wikipedia.org and criminalminds.wikia and is licensed under CC-BY-SA

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