On This Day in Brooklyn History: Son of Sam’s Reign of Terror Begins

Mug shot of David Berkowitz, taken August 11, 1977 (via Wikipedia)

Nearly 40 years into his 365-year prison sentence, notorious serial killer-turned-born again Christian David Berkowitz, AKA Son of Sam, is back in the news this week: The identity of the fellow inmate who slashed Berkowitz’s throat in an attempted murder in 1979 has finally been revealed. The news coincides with the 39th anniversary of the so-called Summer of Sam. Beginning July 29th, 1976, New York City was gripped with fear of this self-proclaimed “monster… prowling the streets looking for fair game,” as Son of Sam wrote in one of many deranged anonymous letters to Daily News reporter Jimmy Breslin. Berkowitz would become the most infamous serial killer in New York City history, and his name still evokes the fear of living in the crime-ridden, derelict city of the late 70s.

On July 29th, 1976, Donna Lauria, 18, was talking with Jody Valenti, 19, in a parked car in the Bronx, when a stranger approached, pulled a gun from paper bag, and shot them both five times. Valenti was seriously wounded; Lauria died. Berkowitz, also dubbed “the .44 Caliber Killer,” would go on to murder six New Yorkers and wound seven others in a year-long reign of terror. This Brooklyn-born, Yonkers-based postal worker later claimed he’d been taking orders from “Sam,” an agent of the devil, who spoke to him via his pet labrador.

Former Mayor Ed Koch attributes his 1977 election to the Son of Sam hysteria that swept the city that year. “The reason I believe I ultimately won was because of the fear in the city — and what should be done about it,” Koch said at a symposium in 2007. “The fear was palpable.” It’s difficult for contemporary New Yorkers to fathom the terror that led women to don wigs or hats to deter the killer (he targeted young women with long, dark hair) and to avoid going out at night.

In the decades since Summer of Sam, crime solving has changed drastically. If such a criminal were on the loose today, “they would have caught him earlier,” Joseph Borrelli, the former chief of detectives who aided the search for Berkowitz, told the New York Times in 2011. Today’s use of DNA evidence and more advanced fingerprint identification likely would have done him in without the need for the vigilante manhunts that cropped up around the city during his spree. While cops had been using fingerprints to help solve crimes for decades by the late 70s, they used a primitive system, matching prints on evidence by individually comparing them with those of suspects. It wasn’t until 1999 that the FBI released a computer system that let investigators search for unknown prints against every print in the FBI’s records. Borrelli had part of a fingerprint from letters Berkowitz had sent to the NYPD and to columnist Jimmy Breslin. Since the government had taken Berkowitz’s prints when hiring him as a postal worker, contemporary detectives likely could have identified him with this fingerprint alone, Borrelli suggested.

But since such techniques weren’t around in the 70s, Son of Sam’s legacy now eclipses that of most other lone New York City criminals. A kind of grisly mythology has come to surround him in the popular imagination. Berkowitz’s crimes inspired the enacting of the “Son of Sam Laws,” aimed at preventing criminals from profiting monetarily from their crimes; as well as Son of Sam, a novelized account of the murders by reporter Jimmy Breslin; and a Spike Lee film, Summer of Sam, in 1999. Film crews and morbidly fascinated tourists still visit Berkowitz’s former home in Yonkers, dubbed “Satan’s Lair” by the tabloids.

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On July 31st, 1977, Son of Sam shot his last two victims, a couple kissing in a parked car in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. One died. After a year of vigilante manhunts and dead-end police investigations, Berkowitz was finally arrested on August 7th.

In the end, he was caught not because of the hundreds of roadblocks cops set up around the July 31st crime scene, but because of that most mundane of New York misdemeanors: An unpaid parking ticket. An eyewitness told investigators she’d seen a man with a gun near the scene of Berkowitz’s last crime, and that two police officers had been writing parking tickets on her street that night. A search of tickets issued eventually turned up Berkowitz’s car. Son of Sam was sentenced to 365 years in prison. After converting to Christianity, Berkowitz now calls himself “Son of Hope.”

Follow Carey Dunne on Twitter @CareyDunne

 

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