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David Berkowitz terrorized New York in the 70s. "Son of Sam" claimed his neighbor’s dog Sam was possessed by Satan and commanded Berkowitz to kill.

David Berkowitz: The Son of Sam murders’ most insane details

While COVID-19 is keeping us all indoors, the global panic and fear is reminding true crime buffs of something similar that swept New York in the 1970s: the Son of Sam killings. This spree would send the city that never sleeps on a tense and fearful lockdown.

Between 1976 and 1977, David Berkowitz terrorized New York as he gunned down young people in their cars. Berkowitz, upon his arrest, would claim that his neighbor’s dog Sam was possessed by Satan and commanded Berkowitz to kill. 

Sound wild? Well, it was. Here are all the basics of the infamous Son of Sam case. 

David Berkowitz’s background

Born Richard David Falco to unwed parents in 1953, he would later be given up to adoption after his parents separated. While his last name was Falco at the time of his birth, his mother, Betty, admitted that Berkowitz was a product of an affair between her and a married man named Joseph Klineman. 

He was then adopted by the Berkowitz family and later renamed David Berkowitz. Berkowitz, while of above average intelligence, was a troubled kid who was described as having “violent tendencies”. 

Neighbors and relatives of Berkowitz would later describe him as spoiled and a bully. While Berkowitz’s parents did consult a psychotherapist, nothing Berkowitz did as a child resulted in legal intervention or a black mark on his school records. Some of his actions, however, definitely reads as troubling to anyone whose seen at least an episode of Criminal Minds: setting fires, harm to animals, and destruction of property.

Berkowitz’s adopted mother would die from cancer when he was fourteen. Things after that would become strained with his adopted father as Berkowitz did not like his father’s second wife. In 1971, Berkowitz would join the United States Army and serve in the US and South Korea. He would be honorably discharged in 1974. 

After being discharged, Berkowitz would track down his birth mother, who eventually gave him the true story of the circumstances surrounding his birth, which disturbed Berkowitz greatly. 

Reign of Son of Sam

Prior to his Son of Sam shootings, Berkowitz attacked two young women on Christmas Eve 1975. He reportedly stabbed both of them. While one of the victims was never identified, the other was Michelle Forman, a teenager who would require hospitalization for her injuries. Berkowitz was never suspected in the case until he confessed his involvement to police. 

The Son of Sam killings began on July 29, 1976 in the Pelham Bay area of the Bronx. Donna Lauria and her friend Jody Valenti were sitting in Valenti’s car discussing their evening at a disco when a man approached them. 

Berkowitz shot both Lauria and Valenti once with a third bullet missing the women. Lauria would be killed instantly. While Valenti, who was shot in the thigh, would survive her injury and give police a description of the man who attacked them. Neighbors in the area reported seeing an unfamiliar compact yellow car that had been driving in the area hours before the shooting. 

On Oct. 23, 1976, Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan were sitting in Keenan’s car at a secluded location in Flushings, Queens when, suddenly, someone shot out the back window of Keenan’s car. Due to Keenan’s quick thinking, the pair were able to drive away. Both survived the incident. Denaro, however, would need a metal plate in his head to replace a portion of his skull. 

While .44 caliber bullets were found in Keenan’s car, they were too deformed to be of any use to police. Due to Keenan’s father being a veteran detective of the NYPD, the investigation surrounding the attack was intense. 

Denaro and Keenan, however, never saw the shooter. While the similarities to the Bronx shooting of Lauria and Valenti were very similar, police did not make the connection right away as the shooting took place in different boroughs. 

The next attack would occur on Nov. 27, 1976 were Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino were chatting on the porch of Lomino’s home in Bellerose, Queens. A man in military fatigues approached the bar, beginning to ask a question to get their attention, and then shooting them. DeMasi would be shot in the neck, but would survive. Lomino was shot in the back and rendered paraplegic due to her injuries. 

The next attack would occur on Jan. 30, 1977 when Christine Freund and her fiance John Diel were shot while sitting in Diel’s car at the Forest Hills LIRR station in Queens. Three gunshots penetrated the car, hitting Freund twice. Diel would survive the attack, but Freund would die hours later at the hospital. 

With this shooting, police finally admitted to the pattern. Saying that the attacker was targeting women with long dark hair (or people he believed to be women as Denaro also had long dark hair). Police, however, believed that they were looking for multiple suspects. 

The first single victim was attacked on March 8, 1977. Virginia Voskerichian, a Columbia University student, was walking home when confronted by an arm man. Voskerichian attempted to shield herself with her textbooks to no avail. She was shot and killed. She lived only a little bit away from where Freund died. 

Following the Voskerichian shooting, media presence and coverage began to ramp up with New York Post and the Daily News competing for the more gruesome coverage and speculation. The case was also attracting international attention during this time. 

On April 17, 1977, Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani were sitting in Suriani’s car. Suriani lived near the crime scene of the Lauria-Valenti shooting. Esau and Suriani were both shot twice. Suriani died at the scene while Esau died hours later at the hospital. Like all the other shootings, police found .44 caliber casings for a Bulldog revolver. 

Son of Sam letters

The Esau-Suriani shooting also marked the first “Son of Sam” letter, which was found near the bodies and addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borrelli. 

Here’s the letter below, misspellings and all.

I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon 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 his 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. 

“Go out and kill” commands father Sam. Behind our house some rest. Mostly young—raped and slaughtered—their blood drained—just bones now. Papa Sam keeps me locked in the attic, too. I can’t get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by. I feel like an outsider. 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. Keep out of my way or you will die! Papa Sam is old now. He needs some blood to preserve his youth. He has had too many heart attacks. Too many heart attacks. “Ugh, me hoot it urts sonny boy.” 

I miss my pretty princess most of all. She’s resting in our ladies house but I’ll see her soon. I am the “Monster”—”Beelzebub”—the “Chubby Behemouth.” I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game—tasty meat. The wemon of Queens are z prettyist of all. I must be the water they drink. I live for the hunt—my life. Blood for papa. Mr. Borrelli, sir, I dont want to kill anymore no sir, no more but I must, “honour thy father.” 

I want to make love to the world. I love people. I don’t belong on Earth. Return me to yahoos. To the people of Queens, I love you. And I wa want to wish all of you a happy Easter. May God bless you in this life and in the next and for now I say goodbye and goodnight. Police—Let me haunt you with these words; I’ll be back! I’ll be back! To be interrpreted as—bang, bang, bang, bank, bang—ugh!! Yours in murder Mr. Monster.

Based on the letter, police were able to construct a psychological profile with help of psychologists and psychiatrists. This was released on May 26, 1977. They believed that the newly monikered “Son of Sam” was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed that he was demonically possessed. 

A few days later on May 30, Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin received a letter from the Son of Sam. Unlike the first letter, however, the letter to Breslin was neatly written and sophisticated in writing and presentation. 

The letter read as follows: 

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. 

J.B., I’m just dropping you a line to let you know that I appreciate your interest in those recent and horrendous .44 killings. I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and I find it quite informative. Tell me Jim, what will you have for July twenty-ninth? You can forget about me if you like because I don’t care for publicity. 

However you must not forget Donna Lauria and you cannot let the people forget her either. She was a very, very sweet girl but Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood. Mr. Breslin, sir, don’t think that because you haven’t heard from me for a while that I went to sleep. 

No, rather, I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam. I love my work. Now, the void has been filled. Perhaps we shall meet face to face someday or perhaps I will be blown away by cops with smoking .38’s. 

Whatever, if I shall be fortunate enough to meet you I will tell you all about Sam if you like and I will introduce you to him. His name is “Sam the terrible.” Not knowing what the future holds I shall say farewell and I will see you at the next job. Or should I say you will see my handiwork at the next job? 

Remember Ms. Lauria. Thank you. In their blood and from the gutter “Sam’s creation” .44 Here are some names to help you along. Forward them to the inspector for use by N.C.I.C: “The Duke of Death” “The Wicked King Wicker” “The Twenty Two Disciples of Hell” “John ‘Wheaties’ – Rapist and Suffocator of Young Girls. 

PS: Please inform all the detectives working the slaying to remain. 

P.S: JB, Please inform all the detectives working the case that I wish them the best of luck. “Keep ’em digging, drive on, think positive, get off your butts, knock on coffins, etc.” Upon my capture I promise to buy all the guys working the case a new pair of shoes if I can get up the money. Son of Sam”

Daily News would release portions of the letter a week later with Breslin himself writing to the Son of Sam and asking him to surrender himself to police. They were particularly worried about the question pertaining to the anniversary of the first shooting on July 29. 

There would be, however, four more Son of Sam victims before Berkowitz was arrested. 

Final Son of Sam shootings

On June 26, 1977, Sal Lupo and Judy Placido left a disco in Bayside, Queens and were sitting in Lupo’s car when three shots hit the vehicle. Lupo and Placido were both injured in the attack, but would survive their injuries. While Lupo and Placido never saw their attacker, two witnesses would come forward. One even had a partial license plate number. 

On July 31, 1977, after the one year anniversary of the first Son of Sam shooting, Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante were sitting in Violante’s car under a streetlight in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. The pair were kissing when a man approached the vehicle and shot at the car four times. Moskowitz would die from her injuries and Violante would lose an eye.

Detective John Falotico was given two weeks to solve the case before it would be handed over to the Son of Sam task force. 

Arrest 

Cacilia Davis was walking her dog near the Moskowitz and Violante shooting when she notice an officer giving tickets to cars in the area. She later would run into a strange man who eyed her with interest and had a dark object in hand. While the man would shot at Davis, she was able to escape. A couple days later, she reported her encounter to police. 

Checking the parking tickets led police to Berkowitz’s 1970 yellow Ford Galaxie. This led to NYPD detective James Justis telephoning the Yonkers police about Berkowitz. Yonkers police were already suspicious about Berkowitz.

When investigating the car on Aug. 10, 1977, police saw a rifle and ammunition in the backseat of the car. They applied for a search warrant, but had to act when Berkowitz was leaving his home and entered the car. Falotico along with NYPD Sergeant William Gardella surrounded Berkowitz.

In the car, they found the paper bag containing the .44 Bulldog revolver. 

Falotico was officially credited with the arrest of Son of Sam by the NYPD. Berkowitz would confess to his crimes on Aug. 11, 1977. He claimed that his neighbor’s black lab, Harvey, was possessed by an ancient demon who gave him the instructions to kill. 

Sentencing

Berkowitz would be found competent to stand trial after three separate mental health examinations. While Berkowitz’s lawyer wanted to try for an insanity defense, Berkowitz declined. He would plead guilty to all the shootings on May 8, 1978. 

Things would be thrown into chaos when Berkowitz attempted to jump out of a seventh-floor window while at his sentencing hearing. After another mental health evaluation, Berkowitz was found competent again.

Berkowitz was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for each murder, to be served consecutively with an eligibility of parole after 25 years, despite objections from prosecution.

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