Over Forty years ago, on August 10th 1977, New Yorkers were shocked to see the face of the Son of Sam killer captured on the cover of the New York Daily News. We were shocked for two reasons. The first one was obvious. We were shocked that the New York City Police Department had finally captured the feared Son of Sam killer. That’s not a knock on the police department. It was simply shocking that they got him because he had been on the loose for over a year. If it was not for a parking ticket, who knows how long the murders would have went on. If you were living in the city at that time, It seemed as if the murders would continue on endlessly. The second reason we were shocked was the photo of the killer. With all the demonic ritual notes and brutal murders that David Berkowitz had committed as the Son of Sam killer, we all pictured a Charles Manson type look, or something even worse. Yet, there was Berkowitz on the cover of the Daily New looking like the postal worker who lived next door, which is exactly what he was.
For an entire year from July 26th 1976, to August 10th 1977, David Berkowitz had terrorized New York City. The man was known originally as the 45.caliber killer, and eventually because of the letters left behind, Berkowitz assumed the label of Son of Sam. David Berkowitz was living in Yonkers and driving just a few miles south into the boroughs of New York City committing murders that left us all looking over our shoulders on a nightly basis.
I was sixteen at the time and living in the Bronx. At night, my friends and I would hang out on the street corners and parks of the Bronx. You don’t keep teenagers in their apartments in the city, especially during the summer no matter what is happening. We would hang out on park benches that lined Mosholu Parkway listening to music, talking and doing what teenagers did in the seventies. I remember those summer nights in 1977 vividly. Son of Sam was on our minds, but it did not stop us from going out. It did however keep us on our toes. Every time we would be sitting on a bench and hear a voice or some footsteps from behind, we all would jump. Everyone was on edge. We were constantly saying to friends who approached from behind on the dark streets “whoa I thought you were Son of Sam.” It wasn’t funny, it was a scary time. David Berkowitz had been mainly targeting couples parked in cars, but we hung out on the hoods of cars. There is usually an alley located on every Bronx city block. We watched those alleys closely. Bronx neighborhood streets are dark at night. There were no bright led lamps in the seventies.
No one knew who Son of Sam was, but it was not like we looking at friends and neighbors as suspects. The letters that were published in the Daily News seem to depict a murderer who looked ghastly in our imagination. No one who was committing such horrible murders and writing letters that bled with such demonic prose could look normal.
As much as the threat of Son of Sam lurked over us, there were so many other things going on in the city that helped divert our attention from the killings. The summer of 77 was a special time in the city. Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd had all played Madison Square Garden that summer. Bands like Boston, Heart and Foreigner had also released their first albums between 76 and 77. The punk scene was flourishing. The New York Yankees were battling for a pennant that would eventually earn them their first World Series victory since 1962. The great blackout occurred on July 13th. The city was broke and Ed Koch was in a furious race against Mario Cuomo to become the next mayor of New York City. Koch was a brazen figure that seemed to appear on television every night. It was a hot summer, action packed and tension filled.
In the nineteen seventies, most people that lived in the city had televisions with antennas that received only the broadcast networks and local channels which were 2, 4, 5 ,7 ,9 and 11. There were no cable channels, no all news networks. The networks and local affiliates only broadcast the news at 6 and 11 pm. For the most part, New York City residents received most of their news from the city’s big three papers. Those papers were the New York Times, New York Post and The New York Daily News. Newspaper columnist were the voice of the people. The New York papers employed some of the best writers the world of media has ever known. If you have ever read a column by Pete Hamill, Dick Young, Mike Lupica and of course Jimmy Breslin, you would understand the emotional connection these writers had with their readers. It was that emotional connection that led David Berkowitz to reach out to the Daily News legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin.
David Berkowitz was a fan of Jimmy Breslin’s columns. Berkowitz had begun writing letters to Breslin telling the journalist that had had read his columns daily and found them very informative. Breslin began publishing excerpts from the Berkowitz letters in his columns. The words that Berkowitz wrote were spine chilling and only led to greater fear of the Son Of Sam killer. Breslin continued the correspondence with David Berkowitz with hopes of convincing the killer to reveal his identity. Jimmy Breslin wrote that the killer could be relieved from his torment by turning himself into Breslin. Those columns had a profound effect on those of us who lived in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Everyone brought newspapers back then. People read them together in the streets, at work and in school. The messages that Berkowitz wrote to Breslin installed a terrible fear in the city
When David Berkowitz was caught, detectives revealed that they had discovered evidence that David Berkowitz had been planning to reach beyond the boroughs of New York City out into the suburbs of Long Island. Who know what else would have happened f it was not for the witness that saw a car drive away quickly at the scene of the last murder with a parking ticket on the windshield.
The New York City Detectives were shocked by how David Berkowitz instantly admitted to the killings when he was first caught. The Detectives realized that they had their man when Berkowitz began describing the details of the murders that only the killer would know. Berkowitz’s yearning to talk about the murders may have been the trigger that would have eventually gave him away if he not been caught.
There have been a few movies released about the Son of Sam murders. Spike Lee’s Summer Of Sam film was the most popular one released. However, I never liked that film. I love many of Spike Lee’s films, but he didn’t capture the real feel of the city on that one. The Bronx is Burning was a book that eventually was turned into a television mini series. However that book was written by a writer who group up on the West Coast and was nowhere near the city during those years. If you want to truly understand how a city felt, you need to talk to the people who lived there. And if you can’t find anyone, then its best to search the archives of the city newspapers and read the columns by the writers who lived it. I was there, and it’s a time period and a place that I will never forget.