Forty years ago this week one of the most notorious killers in NYC history was finally captured ending a reign of terror that had lasted for one year. The random nature of the crimes, the bizarre nature of the perpetrator, and the intense, sensationalized news coverage by the local media captured the imagination of not only New Yorkers, but also of people around the world.
Richard David Falco was born on June 1, 1953. His childhood was not without turmoil. He was born out of wedlock to a Jewish mother and a married man who wanted nothing to do with him. Shortly after birth, his mother gave him up for adoption. The adoptive parents, Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz, were a middle class Jewish couple from The Bronx who owned a hardware store. They changed his name to David Richard Berkowitz and raised him as their own child.
Young David had, in the words of journalist John Vincent Sanders, a “troubled childhood.” Later, neighbors and relatives would recall him as “bullying,” “spoiled,” and generally “difficult.” Also, he exhibited an unhealthy interest in petty larceny and pyromania and was in and out of trouble frequently. It appeared that his parents tried to help him. On at least one occasion, they retained the services of a psychotherapist to no avail. Nevertheless, there is no indication that his actions resulted in any trouble with either his school administrators or the juvenile authorities.
When Berkowitz was 14 his life endured another upheaval. His adoptive mother died, his father remarried, and David did not get along with his step-mother. At 18 David joined the army. He served without incident and was discharged honorably in 1974.
Officially, Berkowitz’s first murder occurred on July 29,1976. In what was to become his typical fashion he approached two persons in a parked car, opened fire with a .44 caliber handgun, and killed one of the two female occupants. According to the police, over the next year until caught he was involved in eight separate shooting incidents, which resulted in six murders and seven others wounded.
Berkowitz proved to be elusive. He left no usable clues, and no witnesses could identify him. DNA analysis did not exist. In addition, he delighted in taunting and mocking the police. At one crime scene, he left a handwritten letter addressed to an NYPD captain in which he taunted the police and belittled their fruitless efforts to capture him. In addition, he described himself as the “Son of Sam,” claiming he was being directed by his neighbor’s possessed dog, Sam.
As I said, media coverage was intense, unrelenting and sensationalized. In particular, the NY Post and NY Daily News had a field day. This type of crime spree was in their wheelhouse, and they maximized coverage every day. The public was captivated by the murders, and the Post and News wanted to sell newspapers. In addition, many foreign publications, such as Izvestia (Russia) and Maariv (Israel) covered the story. Berkowitz even felt the need to taunt the press. At one point he sent a rambling, inane letter to News columnist Jimmy Breslin, which further mocked the police’s and the press’ efforts to stop him.
Ultimately, despite a yearlong intense police hunt, Berkowitz was caught due to, of all things, a parking ticket. A local Yonkers resident was walking her dog when she noticed a police officer ticketing a car that was parked illegally. Moments, later, after the cop had left she saw a young man walk by near the car holding a “dark object.” The encounter unsettled her, so she hurried home. Moments later, she heard what sounded like gun shots. Four days later, she contacted the Yonkers police. The police investigated every car that had been ticketed on that street that night and, eventually, tracked down Berkowitz.
As it turned out, when the police located Berkowitz’ car it had a rifle in plain sight in the back seat, which enabled the police to search it without a warrant. The contents of the car, including ammunition, maps of the crime scenes, and another threatening letter addressed to the NYPD, constituted sufficient grounds for a warrant for his apartment. They arrested him as he was leaving the building. A search of the apartment yielded additional incriminating evidence, including a diary.
Author Lawrence Klausner in his novel, Son of Sam, described the following exchange between Berkowitz and the arresting officer, Detective John Falotico:
JF – “Now that I’ve got you, who have I got?
DB – “You know.”
JF – “No, I don’t. You tell me.”
DB – “I’m Sam.”
JF – You’re Sam? Sam who?
BD – “Sam. David Berkowitz.”
And so, ended one of the most bizarre manhunts in NYPD history. Berkowitz pleaded guilty to all six murders, plus an additional one committed in December 1975. He was adjudged competent to stand trial. He was convicted and sentenced to six consecutive life sentences.
To this day, there are those who believe that Berkowitz was part of a satanic cult and may not have acted alone. No hard evidence, however, has ever been discovered to support this theory.
One lasting legacy attributable to Berkowitz is the so-called “Son of Sam” law. This law was necessitated by the fact that Berkowitz stood to earn substantial amounts of money from various books and movies based on his crimes. Briefly, it precludes a convicted perpetrator of a crime , as well as his family members, from profiting from such crime. So, for example, the proceeds of any books, movies or any other revenues would be distributed to the victims. New York was the first state to pass such a law, but many other states have since followed suit.
Berkowitz’ crimes had such an impact on society that even today, 40 years later, those of us who were alive then remember them well, and the moniker, “Son of Sam” remains synonymous with the label, serial killer.