David Berkowitz, who became infamously known as the ‘Son of Sam’, first struck on the morning of 29 July 1976. It was the beginning of many brutal attacks that were to terrorise New York City’s citizens over a one-year period. During the summer of 1977 at the height of the killer’s notoriety and with the city in a collective panic over who was going to be his next victim, bars and nightclubs were deserted. It seemed that the efforts of the NYPD and special task teams couldn’t bring the serial killer, who indiscriminately shot his victims with a 44-calibre handgun, to justice. Today, Berkowitz, former Son of Sam and now devout Christian, languishes behind bars and is unlikely ever to be released.Berkowitz was brought up by middle class adoptive parents. However, his birth mother Betty Broder, grew up in Brooklyn, a poor single Jewish mother trying to cope with bringing up a young daughter. She later had a relationship with Joseph Kleinman and became pregnant by him. Kleinman wasn’t happy about the idea of another child and so when David was born on 1 June 1953, Betty put him up for adoption.David was taken in by Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz who were devoted to him. There was nothing in his childhood to indicate that he would become a violent serial killer. However, as classic serial killer profiles go, he was a loner and isolated from his peers. Like many children and teenagers he felt unattractive and, although neighbours remember him as being a ‘nice-looking’ boy, he tended to display an aggressive, violent streak and often bullied other children. His parents found it difficult to cope with his hyperactive behaviour.
One event that is said to have disturbed him, and perhaps made him bitter about life, was losing his adopted mother to cancer when he was still a teenager. Pearl Berkowitz succumbed to the illness in 1967 at the time when the family were meant to relocate into a new residential home. Instead of moving into the Co-Op development together as a family, just David and his father ended up sharing the apartment.It was after Pearl’s death that Berkowitz became more mentally unstable. He developed a sense of self-persecution, as if the world was conspiring against him. By the time his father remarried and moved away to Florida, eighteen-year-old Berkowitz had become increasingly isolated and cut off from society. At the same time as his sense of alienation grew, so did his capacity for fantasy and self-delusion.In the summer of 1971 he joined the army where he excelled as a proficient marksman. It was this kind of disturbing skill that was to be his tool for killing in such a cold callous manner a few years later on the streets of Queens and Brooklyn.
Originally Berkowitz had been religious, but his faith was shaken after the death of his mother and later he delved into Judaism and the Baptist faith. Eventually he lost interest in religion altogether. Also, despite Berkowitz later claiming that his anger and resentment had been fuelled by his mother’s rejection of him, he did actually contact her during the early 70s and developed a relationship with her and his half sister, Roslyn. The family, far from being hostile, were open and welcoming. However, for some unknown reason David eventually lost interest in them and stopped visiting.He was still a virgin when he joined the army and his only sexual experience during his three-year service was with a prostitute. The incident gave him a venereal disease and gradually his anger and frustration with women became acute. It was then that he developed a taste for arson, setting hundreds of fires in the city.This destructive path of setting fire to buildings was soon to metamorphose to something more sinister – the killing and maiming of innocent people. There is an indication of how his psychotic mind was heading when he wrote a letter to his father that illustrates an acute sense of paranoia and neurosis: "The people, they are developing a hatred for me. You wouldn't believe how much some people hate me. Many of them want to kill me. I don't even know these people, but still they hate me. Most of them are young. I walk down the street and they spit and kick at me. The girls call me ugly and they bother me the most. The guys just laugh. Anyhow, things will soon change for the better."
1967: Berkowitz’s adopted mother dies 1971: Joins the army December 1975: First assaults with a knife on two girls 29/7/1976: Berkowitz’s first victim killed by 22-calibre handgun 23/10/1976: 2nd shooting (Carl Denaro) 26/11/1976: 3rd shooting (Donna DeMasi/Joanne Lumino) 30/1/1977: 4th shooting (Christine Freund/John Diel) 8/3/1977: 5th shooting (Virginia Voskerichian) 17/4/1977: 6th shooting (Valentina Suriani/Alexander Esau) 26/6/1977: 7th shooting (Judy Placido/Sal Lupo) 31/7/77: 8th shooting (Stacy Moskowitz/Bobby Violante) 10/8/1977: Berkowitz arrested. Pleads guilty at trial
The Key Figures
Betty Broder: Berkowitz’s biological mother.Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz (Berkowitz adoptive parents)Captain Joe Borrelli (set up Omega task force) & Det Sergeant Joe CoffeyChamberlain & Intervallo: Two Yonkers police officers who investigated letters sent to Cassaro and Carr families from Berkowitz.The Victims (all killed otherwise stated)Donna Laurie and Jody Valenti (Valenti survived)Carl Denaro (survived)Donna De Masi & Joanne Lumino (both survived but Lumino left a paraplegic)Christine Freund & John Diel (Diel survived)Virginia VoskerichianValentina Suriani & Alexander EsauJudy Placido & Sal Lupo (both survived)Stacy Moskowitz & Bobby Violante (Violante survived but left blinded)
Get well soon
Jack Cassara, a resident of New Rochelle, received a strange ‘get well' note in his mailbox. The well wisher described how he hoped he was getting better after a fall and also included a picture a German Shepherd dog. It was signed from a Mr Carr and his wife in the district of Yonkers.The odd thing was that Cassara hadn’t injured himself nor could he recall who the writer was. He called the Carrs who immediately revealed that they too had been receiving strange letters. They also had a German Shepherd that had been found shot. The couples got together. Cassara’s teenage son then remembered that they once had a lodger who had left and never came back for his deposit. He had also not taken to the family dog. The Carrs' daughter who worked for the Yonkers police department suggested she bring someone in to investigate.It later transpired that a man called Craig Glassman, who was a deputy sheriff and neighbour of Berkowitz, had received an anonymous letter ranting on about him and the Cassaras/Carr families as being part of a devil worshipping ‘demon’ coven. Although this was odd behaviour it did not prove that Berkowitz was a killer and his name simply went down on a computer file.
His victims this time were young lovers Stacy Moskowitz and Bobby Violante. They had just been to see a movie and then drove to a quiet spot near Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn. Eventually they got out and went for a walk towards some swings, but when Stacy saw a suspicious character hanging around she insisted they head back towards their car. Despite Stacy’s desire to leave there and then, Bobby convinced her to stay for a while longer. It was to be a dreadful mistake.Moments later gunshots fired out and the car’s windows were shattered. Stacy was shot and fell away from Bobby who had been shot twice in the face. Bobby managed to crawl out of the car and cry for help. Stacey’s injuries were severe and she died in hospital while Bobby was left blinded in one eye and with only 20% vision in his other.Following this incident two officers, Chamberlain and Intervallo from the Yonkers district decided to investigate the letters that were originally sent to the Carrs and Cassaras families. They also looked into the fact that two dogs, one belonging to the Carrs, had been shot. Checking on Berkowitz through the police computer files they realised that he was similar to the description given by witnesses.Berkowitz lived at 35 Pine Street and the officers discovered that he was a quiet tenant who worked for a security firm in Queens. He had then quit in July 1976 and gone to work for a cab company. Chamberlain and Intervallo then spent days ringing hundreds of cab companies in the Bronx and surrounding areas in order to find his employer. Nothing turned up, but the two officers still took their findings and the letters to New York City Detective Richard Salvesen.A series of other fortunate developments occurred over the next few days. First a witness who lived near the area where the shooting of Stacy Moskowitz and Bobby Violante took place came forward with a description of a man she had seen at the time. Her sketch of the suspect bore an uncanny resemblance to Berkowitz. Then shortly afterwards news came through that a suspected arson had taken place at the building block where Berkowitz lived.When the police arrived at the scene they questioned Craig Glassman, a male nurse. Glassman was one of the names mentioned in Berkowitz rambling letters describing him as being part of a demonic coven. But what astounded the officers was the fact that the arsonist had tried to set off bullets placed by Glassman’s door with the fire. Glassman was able to show the police several 22-calibre bullets plus several letters he had received from Berkowitz. The police noticed that they were written in the same hand as those sent to the Carrs/Cassaras families.Mr Carr had been so frustrated with the police lack of action regarding his disclosure of Berkowitz’s letters and the shooting of his dog that he went down to the police headquarters where the Omega task force were based. When it was pointed out to him that he was just one of hundreds of people who were convinced that they knew the identity of the Son of Sam killer, Carr let it go.More vital evidence cropped up. Several traffic tickets that had been written in the same area as the shooting of Moskowitz and Violante had turned up nothing, except one, which belonged to Berkowitz. It was then that the police started to take seriously the statements from the Carr family whose dog, they assumed, had been shot by Berkowitz. With all the accumulated evidence, including the photo sketch by a witness, the arson attack and 22-calibre bullets found in Berkowitz’s apartment block plus the letters sent to the families and Glassman, it is baffling to think why it took some time for these coincidences to be seriously investigated.
On 10 August 1977, 35 Pine St was put under surveillance. The first man to come out of the apartment block and head towards Berkowitz’s car turned out to be a false start when the man was revealed to be Craig Glassman himself.Several hours later another man appeared carrying a paper bag. It was Berkowitz. He got inside the suspect’s car but didn’t see the police running up behind him. Immediately he was told to ‘freeze’ and slowly get out. When asked who he was Berkowitz grimaced inanely and said “I’m Sam. David Berkowitz."Sergeant Coffey was the first to interview Berkowitz who calmly told him about the shootings in great detail. There was no mistaking that he was the killer. Coffey was amazed and baffled by Berkowitz’s calm demeanour. The man was clearly emotionally detached from the horror of his murderous actions.Berkowitz’s pre-murder obsession with howling dogs - canine conduits for the demons’ voices - indicates that he had developed acute psychosis during that time. Before he had actually murdered anyone he had indeed shot the Carrs' German Shepherd after initially trying to poison it.Sam, he told detectives, was a father-like devil - a blood monster - who lived in the bodies of people he knew and who needed his blood lust sating by the killing of innocent people. Certainly this confession appears to be the authentic workings of a schizoid and deluded mind that had tipped over the line, blurring reality with extreme fantasy.
Berkowitz didn’t take to using his trademark 44-calibre handgun at first. In 1975, as he had become for the most part a recluse, only venturing out to buy food, his behaviour became more psychotic as his paranoia grew about the outside world. He claimed later to psychiatrists that this was when he first began to hear ‘demons’ urging him to kill. By Christmas 1975 he mentally imploded. During one evening he took a large hunting knife and cruised around the city looking for young girls. Two women, one just fifteen years old, were attacked. Miraculously both girls survived.On 29 July 1976 Berkowitz went back out on the prowl. By this time he had moved into a family home in the Bronx. That night two young girls, eighteen-year-old Donna Laurie and nineteen-year-old Jody Valenti were talking in Jody’s parked car outside Laurie’s family apartment. Her parents arrived and cautioned her to go in due to the late hour. Shortly after they had gone inside a man appeared at the side of the passenger door of the car. The girls were startled and in seconds the man pulled out a 44 Bulldog handgun from a paper bag and fired five times. Jody was shot in the thigh and leaned on the horn as the man continued firing, empting the chamber. Donna was killed immediately. Her distressed father, still wearing his pyjamas rushed his young daughter to hospital, but she was pronounced dead.
The police at the time had no indication that this was the work of a would-be serial killer. Little did they know that David Berkowitz had chosen his weapon of preference and intended to kill and maim many more citizens.Three months later on the night of 23 October, twenty-year old Carl Denaro was chatting to college girl Rosemary Keenan in a bar. They both left the venue after 2.30am and drove in his car to her house. As they were talking Berkowitz suddenly appeared at the passenger window and once again fired five times. Carl was wounded in the head, but Rosemary was able to drive away and rush him to hospital. He survived the ordeal but had to have a metal plate inserted in his skull.On 26 November 1976, two young girls were returning home after having been to the movies. Sixteen-year-old Donna DeMasi and her friend, eighteen-year-old Joanne Lomino, stopped at her house. When she noticed a man hovering nearby Joanne urged Donna to quicken their step. This time Berkowitz spoke, asking them where he was. He didn’t even give them time to reply as he pulled out a gun and fired, hitting them both. Berkowitz then fired at a house as he ran away. Joanne’s parents rushed out to the tragic scene. Although Donna was lucky as the bullet had exited her body, Joanne’s spine was shattered. She was left a paraplegic.The police still didn’t realise that these separate attacks taking place in Brooklyn and Queens were linked. Only one bullet was recovered from the scene of the crime. The following year Berkowitz carried out his cowardly attacks again. On 30 January 1977, twenty-six-year-old Christine Freund and her fiancée John Diel were walking back to their car after a night in a Queens wine bar. It was 12.10am as they sat chatting in the vehicle. Two shots shattered the windshield hitting Christine in the head. John lay her down on the driver’s seat while he ran for help. Christine died in hospital.The police were now waking up to the disturbing realisation that they may have a serial killer on their hands.Two forceful police figures, Captain Joe Borrelli and Detective Sergeant Joe Coffey were now working on this latest homicide and looking at the previous attacks. The first thing that stood out about the shootings was the unusual kind of gun used, a large calibre firearm. Soon they realised that Christine’s murder matched those of the previous shootings. Ballistics revealed that it was a 44 Charter Arms Bulldog. Borrelli put together a homicide task force, but with no specific leads it appeared that the killings were the random work of a maniac.Virginia Voskerichian, a college student returning home from classes was to be the next victim on the night of 8 March 1977. She was walking in the affluent Forest Hills Gardens when Berkowitz approached her from the opposite direction. He pulled out his gun and Virginia instinctively held up her books to protect her. The single bullet hit her directly in the face killing her immediately. As Berkowitz ran away the psychopath even said ‘Hi’ to a passing man. He may have been caught there and then by a passing patrol car if it wasn’t for the fact that they abandoned chasing what they thought was just a suspicious man. Instead they went straight to the scene of the crime.The magnitude of what the police force was facing was now beginning to sink in. The latest brutal murder of a beautiful young girl with her life ahead of her was a wake up call as to the kind of disturbed mind they were dealing with. A press conference announced details of the killer as being ‘a white male, twenty-five to thirty, six feet tall and with dark hair’.Operation Omega was set up by Dept Inspector Timothy Dowd. Dowd was a highly intelligent and well educated maverick. It wasn’t long before his persistence was to be put to the test with the next murder.On 17 April 1977 close to the area where previous victim Donna Laurie had been murdered, a young couple sat kissing in a parked car. Valentina Suriani was an eighteen-year-old actress and model who was in love with Alexander Esau, her twenty-year-old boyfriend. At 3am a car pulled up alongside them. Berkowitz took out his .44 and shot each one of them twice. Both were killed, Valentina instantly while Alexander later died in hospital.In a manner that reflected the style of Jack The Ripper, Berkowitz left a letter addressed to Captain Borrelli. This was the first time he referred to himself as the 'Son of Sam'.
The police developed a more detailed profile of the killer. They knew he was a paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur who believed he was possessed by demons. There was little doubt that he was a loner and most likely had never experienced a successful relationship.The Omega task force was dealing with hundreds of calls and testimonies from the public. Every call and suspect had to be checked. It was time consuming and the psychological strain on the police force to catch this indiscriminate killer was eating away at their morale.The media attention most likely gave Berkowitz a thrill, making him believe he was now important and an infamous celebrity. He wrote another letter, this time to a reporter at the Daily News. Again it was a rambling pseudo-intellectual rant desperate to appear poetic: ‘Hello from the gutters of NYC, which is filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. Hello from the sewers of NYC which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks’.The incoherent babble included a callous and disturbing reference to one of his previous victims Donna Laurie, describing her as ‘a sweet girl’. The letter ended with a chilling reminder that the writer was going to kill again, “You will see my handiwork at the next job".The police requested that the newspaper withhold some aspects of the letter most likely to make sure they had the means to identify copycat killers or cranks who claimed to be the ‘Son of Sam’.But the next vital lead to the killer’s identity would not come from the Omega task force, but from a member of the public who at the time didn’t realise he once had the killer living under his roof.
A long sentence
In the end it didn’t matter about proving Berkowitz’s state of mind and whether he was responsible for his actions, as he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 365 years in prison.In 1979, Berkowitz was interviewed by FBI veteran Robert Ressler in Attica Prison. Ressler was sceptical about the ‘demon’ claims made by Berkowitz and, after several visits, the prisoner admitted that the real reason why he went out and killed was because of his deep-rooted resentment against women caused by the mother who rejected him. This psychological hang-up was compounded by the fact that he was unable to develop successful relationships with women in general.Considering that his biological mother showed no indication of rejecting him when he found her again as a teenager, the claim appears to be unsubstantiated. But on further probing Berkowitz did admit to deriving sexual pleasure from the killings, experiencing a form of erotic stimulation during and after shooting a victim, which often resulted post-killing masturbation.Most disturbingly of all he even admitted wanting to attend the funerals of his victims but was afraid he would be caught by the police. Now middle-aged and serving his life sentence in Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, N.Y., Berkowitz like many other prisoners guilty of inhuman crimes, demonstrates remorse at irregular parole boards for his cruel actions that destroyed so many lives.