Why you should care
Because bad behavior and bullets have been with us as long as we’ve had bullets.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975, and all the destabilizing energies that were part and parcel of both that conflict and resistance to that conflict came flooding back home to the United States. By 1975, absent any moderating 1960s falderol about peace or love, and dead center in the Me Decade, there was a certain strangeness afoot. A strangeness that in the summer and fall of 1976 resulted in three seemingly unrelated shootings, one death and six wounded in two boroughs — five brown-haired women and one man with shoulder-length brown hair, possibly mistaken for a woman.
No discernible pattern, no real clear-cut description of the perpetrator, or perpetrators. Placed in a wider context, violent crime in 1976 under Mayor Abe Beame stretched the tape at 134,153, according to New York Police Department records. Data from a police force that had endured layoffs and cutbacks the previous autumn, when President Ford on behalf of the federal government refused to bail the city out. So, in light of all the other weight New York was carrying, this trio of shootings constituted a crime … ripple.
I am on a different wave length then everybody else — programmed too kill. However, to stop me you must kill me. Attention all police: Shoot me first — shoot to kill or else.
David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam
On Jan. 30, 1977, though, something happened. That something? The police made a connection between bullets recovered from a Queens shooting in which a 26-year-old woman was killed and the bullets from the three aforementioned shootings, inspiring the press to create a cognomen for the shooter, or shooters — and the so-called .44 Caliber Killer was born.
Fitting a frame around the killings with a name sent a dark chill through a populace already beset, and sometimes bested, by gang problems, urban decay and drug lunacy. And when it emerged that the killer seemed to target women with long dark hair, all of us with friends who had long dark hair were more than a little edgy.
In April, after two more shootings and three more deaths, a twist: The shooter left a misspelled and grammatically challenged handwritten letter near two of his victims, taunting police and introducing himself as Son of Sam: “I am on a different wave length then everybody else — programmed too kill. However, to stop me you must kill me. Attention all police: Shoot me first — shoot to kill or else.” Son of Sam had taken to shooting men and women, couples, in cars in lovers’ lanes.
The newspapers were publishing wildly varying police sketches of the shooter. Renderings of a narrow-faced, Latino-looking cat soon gave way to a dumpy Belushi-esque driver of a yellow VW Beetle. At the time, I drove a Beetle, an orange Beetle, and was sufficiently panicked enough to stop lovers’ lane-ing it with my dark-haired girlfriend.
The city was cranked up to high alert, and there were eyes everywhere and with the eyes, conflicting descriptions. One shooter. Two shooters. One maybe in a wig. Two types of cars. Some reports mentioned a video camera.
It was a madhouse, and the summer of ’77 fever-pitched when four more people were shot in June and July. One dead. More letters to the press, the famous columnist Jimmy Breslin pulled into the fray. It had started to feel like sport and then, courtesy of a parking ticket that tied back to Yonkers resident David Berkowitz, an arrest, and the real circus started.
While Berkowitz took the ride as the lone gunman who allegedly was ordered to kill by a demon residing in a dog named Harvey that was owned by a neighbor, Sam Carr, the story started to mutate over the years of Berkowitz’s lifetime imprisonment. Berkowitz became a born-again Christian, repudiated the satanic dog story as a plan to draw an insanity plea and made claims that caused the pot to boil: He didn’t act alone.
“No one, and I mean no one, believed he did it alone,” says Dean Kuipers, former West Coast bureau chief for Bob Guccione Jr.’s Spin Magazine, who got pressed into service to follow the threads of an increasingly tortured tale. “But pre-Giuliani, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was much more Serpico,” Kuipers says, referring to the whistle-blowing cop who was almost killed for breaking the thin blue line. “And they had their bad guy.”
But inspired by Ultimate Evil, a breathless book by Maury Terry that picked up on Berkowitz’s claim of conspiracy, Kuipers got in with the cops and worked some sources who knew where the figurative bodies were buried — sources who supported the cult claims and tied them to snuff videotapes and just as quickly panicked and got amnesia when people started getting picked up for questioning on the basis of said claims.
Guccione Jr. killed the story, and so it’s played where it presently lays: Berkowitz’s turn to Christianity has stuck, and he now calls himself the Son of Hope, which will come in handy as he weathers multiple heart ailments after almost four decades locked down, the last stretch as a model prisoner, with a parole hearing slated for this month.
“You know, there were half a dozen credible possibilities as to what else might have happened,” said the recently deceased former New York Daily News editor Vince Cosgrove. “But, in the end, the killings stopped.”