In the summer of 1976, New Yorkers were terrified: a murderer was at large, stabbing and shooting a number of mainly young women. The perpetrator was later found out to be 22-year-old David Berkowitz, who through letters left at the crime scenes mythologised himself as the “Son of Sam”.
It’s something the media also latched on to, shifting their narrative from calling him the .44 Caliber Killer (due to the gun he used in his attacks) to using the same nickname in their headlines. As well as cementing him as a name in the true-crime hall fame of fame, the moniker also served almost to remove him from his heinous crimes, especially as Berkowitz was fantastically claiming that it was Sam, his neighbour’s dog, who had been taken over by a demonic force and was ordering him to carry out the killings.
If the bizarre story sounds familiar, well, that’s because the case of Berkowitz has been covered many times in popular culture before. From Mindhunter’s second series and Spike Lee’s 1999 film Summer of Sam through to a running gag in Seinfeld and music by The Beastie Boys and Krizz Kaliko, Son of Sam has become something of a cultural touch point for Americans - most notably New Yorkers - since Berkowitz’s crimes were first revealed.
Now a new Netflix documentary series, The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, re-examines the case, focusing on one theory that suggests Berkowitz didn't work alone and that he was part of a satanic cult. Is this falsely adding to the myth of the Son of Sam? Quite possibly – so in the meantime, here’s the true story behind the Berkowitz murders:
Who is Berkowitz and what were his crimes?
David Berkowitz was born Richard David Falco in 1953 in Brooklyn, but his birth mother gave him up for adoption when he was a baby. Growing up, he was repeatedly in trouble for arson and petty larceny, and joined the army aged 17, serving in South Korea.
He was honourably discharged in 1974, and on returning to America, discovered his biological mother and the true story of his abandonment, something which according to forensic anthropologist Elliot Leyton in his book Hunting Humans: The Rise Of The Modern Multiple Murderer, was greatly disturbing to him, and was “a revelation that shattered his sense of identity”.
From late 1975, Berkowitz began his violent crime spree. He stabbed two young women - who survived - on Christmas Eve, and seven months later on 29 July, he shot 18-year-old Donna Lauria and 19-year-old jody Valenti, who had been sitting in a car in the Bronx. Lauria died, but Valenti survived to give the police a description of the gunman.
In October, Berkowitz shot another couple in a car in Queens, Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan. Both sustained injuries - Denaro needed a metal plate to replace part of his skull - but neither saw Berkowitz to identify him. In November, he shot high school students Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino, and in January 1976, he struck again, shooting John Diel and killing his fiancee, Christine Freund. By this point, NYPD were beginning to place together a pattern in the murders, notably that all crimes were using a .44 caliber gun. But what little witness identification there was, was unreliable, as one witness claimed the shooter had blonde hair, while another said he had black hair, leading some police to believe they were dealing with several different criminals.
On 8 March, Columbia University student Virginia Voskerichian was shot in the head and died instantly, while in April Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani were both struck and killed. But by their bodies, Berkowitz left his first letter, a mainly gibberish stream of consciousness that first referred to himself as Son of Sam and also said: “I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon [sic] hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the "Son of Sam."...When father Sam gets drunk he gets mean...Sam loves to drink blood. "Go out and kill" commands father Sam...I am 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.”
Despite the letters being printed in the New York Daily News and an appeal for any information, the year anniversary of Berkowitz’s first assault came around - and in June and July, he shot four more people: Sal Lupo and Judy Placido, Robert Violante and Stacy Moskowitz, who later died.
How was Berkowitz caught?
Cacilia Davis unwittingly walked past the Violante and Moskowitz crime scene, and past Berkowitz himself and his car, and she tipped off the police and the officer who had been ticketing cars in the area that night, including Berkowitz’s. He was arrested on 10 August, and in his car they found a rifle, a bag of ammunition, maps of the crime scene and further threatening letters. Then, the police uncovered the .44 gun. According to reports at the time, Berkowitz said with a smile on his face: “Well, you got me”.
He confessed to all the killings while in police custody, and it was here when he first pedalled the idea of him being controlled by a demonic dog called Sam. In Geographic Profiling, by Detective D. Kim Rossmo, he said: “Berkowitz claimed that Harvey, his neighbour’s black Labrador Retriever, was possessed by an ancient demon called Sam and that it issued irresistible commands that Berkowitz must kill people”.
This further satanic panic was fuelled by a letter written to the New York Post in which Berkowitz added to his story of demonic possession, warning "There are other Sons out there, God help the world." Despite Berkowitz then revealing two years later that the whole demonic satanic intervention was a hoax, it led to a theory that he was part of a wider Satanic sect, which is where the Netflix documentary picks up.
Before his admission that this was all fake news, he had sent a book on witchcraft to police in North Dakota, claiming he was behind the murder of a young woman there - a case in which the police later found the real culprit. He later then changed his story again, claiming he was part of a cult, with two of the sons of his neighbour, who were both now dead. He switched between claiming he was behind some of the killings, while other accomplices from the cult - including a man known as “Manson II” carried out some of the crimes.
Journalist Maury Terry expanded on these cult claims - and the disbelief from some of the NYPD and victim’s families that Berkowitz had acted alone - in his 1987 book, The Ultimate Evil: The Search For The Sons of Sam, which feeds into the conspiracy theory of the documentary.
Despite the case being briefly re-opened by Yonkers police in 1996, it hasn’t amounted to anything, and there is a large amount of skepticism around the cult claims. As NYPD psychologist Dr. Harvey Schlossberg states in the documentary Against The Law: “The Satanic cult claims are nothing but a fantasy concocted by Berkowitz to absolve himself of the crimes”. Former FBI profiler, John E. Douglas, who interviewed Berkowitz said he was an "introverted loner, not capable of being involved in group activity", while Leyton added: “recent journalistic attempts to abridge—or even deny—Berkowitz's guilt have lacked all credibility."
What happened to Berkowitz and where is he now?
Berkowitz was assessed as competent to stand trial - even though he refused to enter a plea of not guilty by reasons of insanity by his lawyers - and he pleaded guilty, in a sort of reverse Catch-22; in which Joseph Heller’s protagonist needs to prove that he is mentally unstable, but the act of asking to be excused would show that he is sane. In Berkowitz’s trial, he tried to jump out of a window of the courtroom, and wrote “I am not well, not well at all” in a sketch pad, but despite this, he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison for each murder, to be served consecutively.
Berkowitz is currently still serving time in Shawangunk prison, upstate New York, and has become a born-again Christian and asks to be called The Son of Hope, rather than The Son of Sam. Alongside writing essays on evangelical Christian websites, he has also released his memoirs in 2006, Son of Hope: The Prison Journals of David Berkowitz. On his own website, he now writes: “I am deeply sorry for the pain, suffering and sorrow I have brought upon the victims of my crimes. I grieve for those who are wounded, and for the family members of those who lost a loved one because of my selfish actions. I regret what I've done and I'm haunted by it.”
The satanic cult theory might be a convenient segue into a gripping, speculative four-part crime documentary - in which the public find it easier to cast evil-doers as part of a monstrous devil-worshipping collective, rather than just the normal looking man next door - but the truth is most probably far simpler: David Berkowitz was a deeply troubled man who carried out these horrific murders.
The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is streaming on Netflix now.
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