New Yorkers are accustomed to reports of violent death in every form, from the mundane to the bizarre. They take it all in stride, accepting civic carnage as a price for living in the largest, richest city in America. But residents were unprepared for the commencement of an all-out reign of terror in July 1976. For thirteen months, New York would be a city under siege, it’s female citizens afraid to venture out by night while an apparent homicidal maniac was waiting, seeking prey.
The terror came with darkness, on July 29, 1976. Two young women, Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti, had parked their car on Buhre Avenue, remaining in the vehicle and passing time in conversation. If they saw the solitary male pedestrian at all, he didn’t register. In any case, they never saw the pistol that he raised to pump five shots directly through the windshield. Donna Lauria was killed immediately; her companion got off “easy,” with a bullet in the thigh.
The shooting was a tragic incident, but in itself was not unusual for New York City. There was scattered sympathy, but no alarm among the residents of New York’s urban combat zone… until the next attack.
On October 23, Cal Denaro and Rosemary Keenan parked outside a bar in Flushing, Queens. Again, the gunman went unnoticed as he crouched to fire a single bullet through the car’s rear window. Wounded, Carl Denaro would survive. A .44-caliber bullet was found on the floor of the car, and detectives would match it with slugs from the Lauria murder.
Just over one month later, on November 26, Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino were sitting together on the stoop of a house in the Floral Park section of Queens. A man approached them from the sidewalk, asking for directions, but before he could complete the question he had drawn a pistol, blasting at the startled women. Both were wounded, Donna paralyzed forever with a bullet in her spine.
Again the slugs were readily identified, and now detectives knew they had a random killer on their hands. The gunman seemed to favor girls with long, dark hair, and there was speculation that the shooting of Denaro in October may have been “an accident.” The young man’s hair was dark and shoulder-length; a gunman closing on him from behind might have mistaken Carl Denaro for a woman in the darkness.
Christmas season passed without another shooting, but the gunman had not given up his hunt. On January 30,1977, John Diel and Christine Freund were parked and necking in the Ridgewood section of New York, when bullets hammered out their windshield. Freund was killed on impact, while her date was physically unscathed.
March 8th. Virginia Voskerichian, an Armenian exchange student, was walking toward her home in Forest Hills when a man approached and shot her in the face, killing her instantly. Detectives noted that she had been slain within 30 years of the January murder scene.
On April 17, Alexander Esau and his date, Valentina Suriani, were parked in the Bronx, a few blocks from the site of the Lauria-Valenti shooting. Caught up in each other, they may not have seen the gunman coming; certainly they never heard the fusillade of shots that killed them both immediately, fired from pointblank range.
Detectives found a crudely-printed letter in the middle of the street, near Esau’s car. Addressed to the captain in charge of New York’s hottest manhunt, the note contained a chilling message.
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a woman-hater (sic).
I am not. But I am a monster. I am the Son of Sam… I love to
Hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game – tasty meat. The
woman (sic) of Queens are the prettyest (sic) of all…
The note described “Sam” as a drunken brute who beat the members of his family and sent his son out hunting “tasty meat,” compelling him to kill. There would be other letters from the gunman, some addressed to newsman Jimmy Breslin, hinting at more crimes to come and fueling the hysteria that had already gripped New York. The writer was apparently irrational, but no less dangerous for that, and homicide investigators had no clue to his identity.
On June 26, Salvatore Lupo and girlfriend Judy Placido were parked in Bayside, Queens, when four shots pierced the windshield of their car. Both were wounded; both survived.
On July 31, Robert Violante and Stacy Moskowitz went parking near the Brooklyn shore. The killer found them there and squeezed off four shots at their huddled silhouettes, striking both young people in the head. Stacy Moskowitz died instantly; her date survived, but damage from his wounds left Robert Violante blind for life.
It was the last attack, but homicide detectives didn’t know that, yet. A woman walking near the final murder scene recalled two traffic officers writing a ticket for a car parked close beside a hydrant; moments later, she had seen a man approach the car, climb in, and pull away with squealing tires. A check of parking ticket records traced on old Ford Galaxy belonging to one David Berkowitz, of Pine Street, Yonkers. Staking out the address, officers discovered that the car was parked outside; a semi-automatic rifle lay in plain view on the seat, together with a note that had been written in the “Son of Sam’s” distinctive, awkward style. When Berkowitz emerged from his apartment, he was instantly arrested and confessed his role in New York’s reign of terror.
The story told by Berkowitz seemed tailor-made for an insanity defense in court. The “Sam” referred to in his letters was a neighbor, one Sam Carr, whose Labrador retriever was allegedly possessed by ancient demons, beaming out commands for Berkowitz to kill and kill again. On one occasion, he had tried to kill the dog, but it was useless; demons spoiled his aim, and when the dog recovered from its wounds, the nightly torment had redoubled its intensity. A number of psychiatrists describe the suspect as a paranoid schizophrenic, suffering from delusions and therefore incompetent to stand trial. The lone exception was Dr. David Abrahamson, who found that Berkowitz was sane and capable of understanding that his actions had been criminal. The court agreed with Abrahamson and ordered Berkowitz to trial. The gunman filed a plea of guilty at his court appearance and was sentenced to 365 years in prison.
Ironically, Berkowitz seemed grateful to Dr. Abrahamson for his sanity ruling, and later agreed to a series of interviews that Abrahamson has published in a book, Confessions of Son of Sam. The interviews revealed that Berkowitz had tried to kill two women during 1975, attacking them with knives, but he turned squeamish when they screamed and tried to fight him off. “I didn’t want to hurt them,” he explained, confused. “I only wanted to kill them.” A virgin at the time of his arrest, Berkowitz was prone to fabricate elaborate lies about his bedroom prowess, all the while intent upon revenge against the women who habitually rejected him. When not engaged in stalking female victims, Berkowitz reportedly was an accomplished arsonist; a secret journal lists the details of 300 fires for which he was allegedly responsible around New York. In his conclusion, Dr. Abrahamson describes his subject as a homicidal exhibitionist with fantasies of “dying for a cause.”
There is another side to David Berkowitz, however, and it surfaced shortly after his arrest, with allegations of his membership in a Satanic cult. In letters mailed from prison, Berkowitz described participation in a New York cult affiliated with the lethal “Four Pi Movement,” based in California. He revealed persuasive inside knowledge of a California homicide, unsolved since 1974, and wrote that “There are other Sons out there – God help the world.”
According to the story told by Berkowitz in prison, two of neighbor Sam Carr’s sons were also members of the killer cult that specialized in skinning dogs alive and gunning victims down on darkened streets. One suspect, John Wheat Carr, was said to be the same “John Wheaties” mentioned in a letter penned by Berkowitz, containing other clues that point to cult involvement in the random murders. Carr had been in Houston, Texas, on June 12, 1976 – the day Berkowitz purchased his .44 revolver there – and six months after Berkowitz was captured, Carr “committed suicide” in Minot, North Dakota, under circumstances that police now view as willful murder.
Another Carr – John’s brother Michael – died in New York City on October 4, 1979, after crashing his car into a streetlamp at 75 miles per hour. An autopsy found Carr to be heavily intoxicated, in spite of his well known religious aversion to alcohol. Following his death, the “Sam” case was officially reopened, with investigations continuing to this day.
Newsman Maury Terry, after six years on the case, believes there were at least five different gunners in the “Sam” attacks, including Berkowitz, John Carr, and several suspects – one a woman – who have yet to be indicted. Terry also notes that six of the seven shootings fell in close proximity to recognized Satanic holidays, the March 8 Voskerichian attack emerging as a sole exception to the “pattern.” In the journalist’s opinion, Berkowitz was chosen as a scapegoat by the other members of his cult, who then set out to “decorate” his flat with graffiti, whipping up a bogus “arson ledger” – which includes peculiar out-of-order entries – to support a plea of innocent by reason of insanity.
On July 10, 1979, David Berkowitz was assaulted by persons unknown in the segregation block at Attica prison, his throat slashed from behind in a near-fatal attack that left him with 56 stitches. Less talkative since his brush with death, he remains in prison, and the case remains technically “open,” awaiting development of new evidence that may bring other suspects to trial.
Berkowitz has become a devote Christian. House Upon the Rock Christian Church has a website on his behalf called “Forgiven for life,” that can be reached by going to www.forgivenforlife.com. The site claims that he has been forgiven by God and is now the brother of The Lord. Berkowitz has accepted that he will be jailed for life for his crimes, and in July 2002 refused parole hearings. His journal as well as his “personal testimony” and his thoughts on the D.C. Sniper can be viewed on the above website.