The mid-1970s were a time of excess—raging unemployment and skyrocketing inflation, religious cults, high violent crime rates and copious drug use, and serial killers strangling and bashing and slashing their way across the land.
New York City epitomized 1970s decadence in overdrive: municipal bankruptcy scares, trash strikes that had garbage piled up to the sun, and ghettos that went on for miles that were so impoverished they looked like they’d been bombed.
Amid this apocalyptic chaos emerged one shadowy figure who struck at night, mostly walking up to couples as they sat in their cars and blasting them with .44-caliber bullets from his revolver. No one knew who he was or why he did it. But as the attacks escalated, “Son of Sam” terrified the nation’s largest metro area. He had wormed his way so deeply into the city’s consciousness that in two of the attacks, the victims were talking about Son of Sam right as he started shooting at them.
Early Life: An Adopted Misfit
David Richard Berkowitz was born Richard David Falco in 1953 to Betty Falco, an unmarried and impoverished woman who gave him up for adoption before he was even born. He was adopted by a middle-class Jewish couple, Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz, who switched around the first and middle names his birth mother had given him.
Oversized and somewhat odd-looking, he never fit in with other kids in his neighborhood, but rather than being bullied, he earned a reputation as a violent bully.
He started hearing voices and setting fires as a child. According to notes that police recovered after his arrest, he claimed to have set over 1,400 fires in New York City as an adult.
His mother died when he was young. At age 18, his father remarried. Dad’s new wife did not like young David, and the couple relocated to Florida, leaving him alone in New York City.
He spent a few years in the Army. In Korea he had sex with a prostitute and contracted an STD. It was the only time in his life he’d ever have sex with a woman.
Back in the States in the mid-1970s he drifted from one menial job to the next, his increasing isolation and delusional ideation becoming sorely aggravated by a burgeoning interest in Satanism and the occult.
The ‘Son Of Sam’ Attacks: December 1975-July 1977
One of Berkowitz’s many sources of mental agony was the fact that he was a light sleeper, a condition which was made far worse by the constantly barking dogs in his neighborhood.
He would eventually become embroiled in a dispute with neighbor Sam Carr over the barking of Carr’s dog Harvey. After sending Carr a letter threatening to kill him, Berkowitz instead shot Harvey, wounding him.
Upon his arrest when asked to explain his crimes, he claimed that Harvey was demon-possessed and that his demons instructed Berkowitz to kill.
To everyone’s flabbergasted shock, it turned out that the “Son of Sam” was Sam Carr’s black Labrador, Harvey.
December 24, 1975: Michelle Forman and one other girl stabbed
When serial arson didn’t prove sufficiently satisfying, Berkowitz instead turned to serial murder. He would later tell psychiatrists that he reasoned if he listened to his demons and started killing people, they would cease tormenting him.
On Christmas Eve, 1975, Berkowitz grabbed a huge hunting knife and headed into the dark, cold streets of The Bronx.
He claims he followed a woman walking out of a grocery store and plunged his knife deep in her back: “I stabbed her and she didn’t do anything. She just turned and looked at me.” Berkowitz claims that the woman then screamed and fled. Her identity remains unknown.
That same night, he stabbed 15-year-old Michelle Forman in the back of the head. She was wounded but fought back. When she began screaming, Berkowitz was the one who fled.
Both of Berkowitz’s Christmas Eve stabbing victims survived.
Satisfied with the night’s violence, Berkowitz said he then went out to eat a burger and fries.
July 29, 1976: Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti shot
It was another seven months before Berkowitz struck again. Deciding that guns were much more efficient than knives, he went into the night armed with a .44-caliber revolver. This would be the first of eight “Son of Sam” shooting attacks.
On July 28, 1976, Berkowitz quit his security-guard job and started working as a taxi driver.
The next night at 1AM, two teenaged girls, Jody Valenti, and Donna Lauria, were sitting in Jody’s car outside Lauria’s Bronx apartment building. Out of nowhere a man approached, squatted in front of the car window, pulled his gun out of a paper bag, and fired five shots into the car. Donna was immediately killed. Jodi was struck in the thigh and fell flat on her steering wheel, causing her car horn to start blaring. Her father, who was already on his way out of the apartment building to walk the dog, rescued his daughter. But by now, the gunman was already gone.
October 23, 1976: Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan shot
For his next attack, Berkowitz moved on to the giant sprawling borough of Queens. Again he struck a couple sitting in a parked car. At 2:30 in the morning, teenagers Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan were talking in a var near her home when Berkowitz appeared on the passenger’s side and fired five bullets into the car. Although Denaro required a metal plate in his head, both victims survived.
November 27, 1976: Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino shot
A month later, teenagers Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino were walking home after a late movie. Berkowitz trailed them from behind. He then walked up and began asking them “Do you know where—“ then abruptly pulled a gun from his jacket an fired at them. Both girls survived, although Donna became a paraplegic.
January 30, 1977: Christine Freund and John Diel shot
After attending a viewing of the film Rocky and then leaving a bar in Queens around midnight, 26-year-old Christine Freund and her fiancé John Diel were sitting in a parked car together when two .44-caliber bullets suddenly ripped through the windshield. Both bullets hit Freund, killing her.
March 8, 1977: Virginia Voskerichian shot
While walking home from class only a block from where Christine Freund was killed, Barnard College honor student Virginia Voskerichian was approached by Berkowitz. Sensing danger, she raised a book to protect her face. However, the .44-caliber bullet pierced the book and killed her instantly.
April 17, 1977: Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani shot
While the teenaged lovers were sitting in Suriani’s car in the Bronx, a man suddenly appeared and shot them both dead. Near the crime scene Berkowitz left a letter signed “Son of Sam” taunting NYC police detective Joseph Borelli. (The letter is reprinted below.)
June 26, 1977: Sal Lupo and Judy Placido shot
Berkowitz’s last two shootings occurred at a point where the city was so gripped by fear of “Son of Sam,” both couples were talking about him as he attacked.
While sitting outside a Queens discotheque, teenagers Sal Lupo and Judy Placido were getting ready to drive home when Judy told Sal, “This Son of Sam is really scary.The way that guy comes out of nowhere. You never know where he’ll hit next.”
Within moments, three loud gunshots blasted into their car. Both were hit, but neither suffered serious injuries. Placido later recalled:
All of a sudden, I heard echoing in the car. There wasn’t any pain, just ringing in my ears. I looked at Sal, and his eyes were open wide, just like his mouth. There were no screams. I don’t know why I didn’t scream.
“All the windows had been closed. I couldn’t understand what this pounding noise was. After that, I felt disoriented, dazed.
July 31, 1977: Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante shot
In late May, Berkowitz sent a letter to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin (reprinted below) which noted that the one-year anniversary of Donna Lauria was fast approaching. The city’s paranoia went into warp speed as everyone tensed up awaiting for another murder on July 29.
Berkowitz waited two more days.
This time he struck in Brooklyn. The teenaged couple Bobby Violante and Stacy Moskowitz were parked near Gravesend Bay when Violante suggested they take a walk.
“What if the Son of Sam is there?” a frightened Moskowitz asked.
Violante reassured her that Son of Sam only struck in Queens and The Bronx.
While walking, they stopped to kiss near some park swings when Moskowitz said, “Someone’s looking at us.”
They returned to their car. Stacy insisted on leaving, but Bobby wanted to hang out a little more to kiss. According to Violante:
All of a sudden, I heard like a humming sound. First I thought I heard glass break. Then I didn’t hear Stacy anymore. I didn’t feel anything, but I saw her fall away from me. I don’t know who got shot first, her or me.
Moskowitz was shot in the head and died more than a day later. Violante had one eyeball shattered and was almost completely blinded in the other.
Taunting The Police And Media
Like so many other serial murderers—Jack the Ripper, Zodiac Killer, and BTK—David Berkowitz enjoyed taunting the terrified public as they searched in vain to capture him. It was these letters that caused the press and public to stop calling him “The .44 Caliber Killer” and instead to use his name of choice, “Son of Sam.”
Letters are reprinted in their original form with none of the misspellings changed.
Dear Captain Joseph Borelli:
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a weman-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 our 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….Police: Let me haunt you with these words: I’ll be back. I’ll be back. To be interpreted as – bang, bang, bang, bang – ugh. Yours in murder, Mr. Monster.
—Note left by Berkowitz at the murder scene of Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani in April 1977. It was addressed to Detective Joe Borelli, head of the task force assigned to capturing Berkowitz.
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….
—On May 30, 1977, New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin received a handwritten letter from someone who claimed to be the .44 caliber shooter. The letter was postmarked early that same day in Englewood, New Jersey. Breslin, who forwarded the letter to the police, would remark that Berkowitz was a talented writer and the only killer he’d ever encountered who knew how to use a semicolon.
Arrest and Imprisonment
Ten days after killing Stacy Moskowitz, Berkowitz was arrested. A simple parking ticket proved to be his demise—although police made note of the ticket because they initially thought he was a suspect, a pair of Yonkers cops realized that Berkowitz had been the subject of criminal complaints by Sam Carr for sending threatening letters and shooting his dog.
A routine search of his car outside his Yonkers apartment yielded not only a rifle, but the .44-caliber revolver used in all six Son of Sam murders.
As the legend goes, this was the dialogue when Detective John Falotico and other police apprehended Berkowitz after he exited his building and sat in his car:
Berkowitz: “Well, you got me. How come it took you such a long time?”
Falotico: “Now that I’ve got you, who have I got?”
Berkowitz: “You know.”
Falotico: “No I don’t. You tell me.”
Berkowitz: “I’m Sam.”
Falotico: “You’re Sam? Sam who?”
Berkowitz: “Sam. David Berkowitz.”
Son of Sam’s reign of terror had ended. A police search of Berkowitz’s apartment found it in shambles, with “occult” graffiti on the wall and a notebook wherein Berkowitz described many of his arson attacks throughout the city.
New Yorkers breathed a collective sigh of relief as this chubby mail sorter with the bushy hair and Elvis sideburns was paraded before cameras, an odd serenity on his face and a grin that suggested he’d just been awarded free tickets to Disneyland.
Berkowitz immediately confessed and used his “Sam” alibi—that Sam Carr’s dog was demon-possessed and instructed him to carry out the killings. But FBI forensics expert Robert Ressler, who interviewed Berkowitz, claimed the killer told him the “Sam” excuse was concocted to make him appear crazy and provide the groundwork for an insanity defense. Ressler says that Berkowitz confessed that his real motive was revenge against his biological mother for abandoning him and against women in general for rejecting him.
He was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences. About a year after his arrest and while he was confined at Attica State Prison, another inmate slashed Berkowitz from ear to ear, which required fifty stitches but didn’t kill him.
Berkowitz has been incarcerated and for the past couple decades has claimed to be a born-again Christian who has renounced his satanic past and is going to heaven.
The “Son of Sam” murders: One Man or a Satanic Cult?
After years of imprisonment, Berkowitz changed his stories: Instead of previous explanations, which were that a demon-possessed dog told him to kill and then a more honest explanation that he was spurred by a hatred of women, he claimed he was part of a Satanic organization that sought to terrorize New York by committing one hundred murders.
Several experts believed him. After all, witness descriptions of the killer varied wildly.
According to NYPD officer Richard Johnson, who was involved in the original “Son of Sam” task force:
Why are there three [suspect] cars, five different [suspect] descriptions, different heights, different shapes, different sizes of the perpetrator? Somebody else was there.
In his 1987 Son of Sam book Ultimate Evil, author Maury Terry links the killings to the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a notorious cult whose ideology fused Jesus Christ and Satan.
Within a year of Berkowitz’s arrest, two of Sam Carr’s sons died. One was murdered in North Dakota, and “666” was allegedly scrawled in his own blood on his hand.
Others, such as Jimmy Breslin and detective Joseph Coffey, noted that Berkowitz recalled every single detail of every murder and thereby ruled out the possibility of accomplices. A psychologist noted that Berkowitz was deeply antisocial and couldn’t have functioned as a member of a killer cult.
Unlike his victims, David Berkowitz is still alive and knows the truth.
The Killer In His Own Words
These and other David Berkowitz quotes are at Quote Catalog.
Ever since I was a small child, my life seemed to be filled with torment. I would often have seizures in which I would roll on the floor. Sometimes furniture would get knocked over. When these attacks came, it felt as if something was entering me.
Thoughts of suicide often came into my mind. Sometimes I spent time sitting on a window ledge with my legs dangling over the side. We lived on the 6th floor of an old apartment building. When my dad saw me doing this he would yell at me to get back inside….I also felt powerful urges to step in front of moving cars or throw myself in front of subway trains. At times those urges were so strong that my body actually trembled.
My parents could not reach me, not even with all of their love. Many times I saw them break down and cry because they saw that I was such a tormented person.
During this period of my life I was also plagued with bouts of severe depression. When this feeling came over me, I would hide under my bed for hours. I would also lock myself in a closet and sit in total darkness from morning until afternoon. I had a craving for the darkness and I felt an urge to flee away from people.
Occasionally this same evil force would come upon me in the middle of the night. When this would happen I felt an urge to sneak out of the house and wander the dark streets. I roamed the neighborhood like an alley cat and would creep back into the house by climbing the fire escape. My parents would never know that I was gone.
Eventually I crossed that invisible line of no return. After years of mental torment, behavioral problems, deep inner struggles and my own rebellious ways, I became the criminal that, at the time, it seemed as if it was my destiny to become.
I just—at this time I had made a pact with the Devil, I had allowed this satanic thing to control me, and I felt these paranormal powers.
Yes, there were several times that at the beginning, when I first came to prison, I was very suicidal. And I saw no hope in living. I was disgusted with my life. I was angry at a lot of people. I felt betrayed, confused, and I saw no hope. So there were some times when I did try to commit suicide.
Yes, in 1979, another inmate—I guess to make a name for himself—tried to take my life. And he stuck me when I wasn’t looking with a razor and opened up the whole side of my neck. And it was a miracle that I survived. When I went down to the prison infirmary, I walked down there on my own and I didn’t really lose much blood. So I could just walk down there. And they sewed me up.