‘Son of Sam’ killer was arrested 40 years ago this week
NEW YORK (AP) — For a year, David Berkowitz terrorized New York.
The papers called him the ”.44 Caliber Killer.” In taunting notes to police and a journalist, he called himself “Mr. Monster,” the “Son of Sam.”
When the police finally got him, 40 years ago Thursday, the man behind the killings was unmasked as a schlubby civil servant with a boyish face and a dopey smile.
“I remember the courtroom was packed to the rafters. And it was almost like the air was taken out of the room when he walked in,” said Richard A. Brown, who was the judge who presided over Berkowitz’s first court appearance, the day after his 1977 arrest.
The room fell silent, except for a wailing cry from the mother of victim Stacy Moskowitz.
Brown looked at Berkowitz and was surprised.
“He was sad sack,” said Brown, now the Queens district attorney.
A pretrial report had recommended Berkowitz be released without bail because he had a steady job as a postal worker and ties to the community.
“Request wasn’t granted,” Brown said as he paged through his yellowed personal file on the case this week.
Six people died and seven were wounded, sometimes horribly, as Berkowitz stalked the city, targeting young women and couples sitting in cars.
Fanned by news reports, and Berkowitz’s own loquacious letters sent to newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, the “Son of Sam” saga whipped up fear. Young people turned down dates or parties to stay home. Since the killer appeared to favor women with long, dark hair, women cut or dyed their hair.
Brown, who lived in Queens, said his own two daughters were scared to leave the house.
“The city was just gripped with fear. Stores were closed early, there was no one on the street, it was like nothing anyone had seen,” he said.
Donna Lauria was the first victim, shot and killed July 29, 1976, in the Bronx. But it wasn’t until after the fifth attack, on March 8, 1977, that police put the pattern together; ballistics tests confirmed that one gunman was responsible for all five shootings. By then, three young people were dead and four others had been wounded.
“I am a monster,” the killer had written. “I am the ‘Son of Sam.’”
The New York Police Department formed a 200-person task force to solve the crime. Many undercover officers worked all night on the streets, hoping to catch the shooter in the act.
But it was routine police work that cracked the case.
When a witness reported a strange man on the street near the final shooting, police checked traffic tickets that had been issued in the area and traced them to Berkowitz’s car and Yonkers home. He was arrested Aug. 10, 1977.
“You, sir, are David Berkowitz?” Brown asked, according to a transcript of the hearing.
“Yes, sir,” Berkowitz replied, the only time he spoke. He wasn’t required to enter a plea and was sent to Kings County Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
Berkowitz later pleaded guilty to the crimes and was sentenced to life in prison.
Victim Carl Denaro, who was 20 when he was struck in the head Oct. 23, 1976, by a .44-caliber bullet while sitting in a Volkswagen, said he heard about the arrest on the news.
Denaro needed a steel plate in his head and was hospitalized for weeks. He had to forgo a post in the U.S. Air Force. Still, Denaro, now 61, said he doesn’t feel embittered and he’s had a good life, a successful career and a lovely daughter, now 24.
“I’m the luckiest man alive, I really am,” he said. “And while I live with this, I don’t think I let it define me. I’ve had a great life.”
Denaro stayed in New York City for most of his life, except for a brief stint in California, where he went to escape the fame of being a “Son of Sam” victim.
“After a while, it was wherever I went, everyone would just stop and it would be just dead silent, and then you’d hear the whispers, ‘That’s the guy who got shot by ’Son of Sam.” it got to the point where I felt like I was losing my identity.”
After a couple of years, though, he missed his family and the city, and he came back. He says he doesn’t have a problem now; while the story is notorious, the victims have largely faded from public eye. Most rarely, if ever, talk about their ordeal.
Denaro, like others over the years, doesn’t believe Berkowitz acted alone. While he believes Berkowitz was at the scene of his shooting, he believes the person who pulled the trigger was a woman, part of a cult that included Berkowitz and others.
According to news reports from the early 1980s, a lawyer for two of the victims said Berkowitz admitted he was part of a murderous cult. A prosecutor reopened the case after Berkowitz reportedly said more than one person was involved in the killings, but the investigation never gained steam.
The police department believes Berkowitz acted alone. He told police the “Sam” from his “Son of Sam” nickname was a neighbor who had a dog through which Berkowitz claimed he got the demonic orders to kill.
Berkowitz, now 64, remains in an upstate New York prison, a born-again Christian, and has a website called “Son of Hope.”
“I see that people will never understand where I come from, no matter how much I try to explain it,” he told CBS News in an interview from prison airing Friday. “They wouldn’t understand what it was like to walk in darkness.”