When people get called out for doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, sometimes they use the excuse that the devil made them do it. However, one New York serial killer claimed that a dog had something to do with his criminal actions. This week on True Crime Corner, who was the Son of Sam?
David Berkowitz (born Richard David Falco) was adopted by a loving childless couple when he was days old. His mother stayed at home with him while his father supported his family through a retail position, a job that kept him out of the home most days of the week. Although he had what could be considered a normal upbringing, some of his peers wouldn’t allow him to forget that he was adopted. This fact was a source of shame for the boy. Young Berkowitz was closer to his adoptive mother than his father (due to his work schedule), and was devastated when she succumbed to cancer when he was just a teen.
Following his high school graduation, Berkowitz joined the military. He was raised Jewish, but was later baptized in the Baptist Church before eventually turning to Satanism. Upon his discharge from the service, his father remarried and relocated to another state. This upset the fragile young man even more, as he was on his own in New York.
All he was told about his biological parents was that his natural mother died in childbirth. Because of this, Berkowitz feared that his biological father would somehow come after him, seeking to kill him for causing his wife’s death. Berkowitz investigated his roots to discover that his birth mother was very much alive, and that he was the product of her affair with a married man and not the person he believed was his biological father. Realizing that he began life unwanted, he became even more troubled about his adoption. He discovered that he had a half-sister with whom he was close until the murderous thoughts emerged. He distanced himself from her and her children to protect them from possible harm.
Berkowitz’s early attempt at murder in 1975 didn’t go as planned. He tried to stab a teen girl, but his blade was unable to penetrate her thick coat, and he wound up cutting himself instead in the process while the girl got away. That would be the first and last time he used a knife as a weapon. Subsequent crimes were committed using a .44 caliber gun, earning him the nickname of the .44 Caliber Killer before the Son of Sam moniker.
His first murder was in July 1976. Over the next several months, a killer terrorized the people of New York. The shooter would attack couples and friends in cars, as well as innocent citizens on the street. Some thought he was targeting women with long dark hair. As a result, women cut their hair or wore it up, dyeing it blonde to make them less of a target for the gunman. Letters intended for the authorities and the media were written from someone claiming to be a monster known only as “Son of Sam,” adding to the terror.
Not everyone who was targeted was killed. Some survivors gave a description of their assailant, and police matched bullets found at the scenes, believing the crimes to be the work of one gunman. Berkowitz’s crime wave came to an end when he received a ticket for parking too close to a fire hydrant. A witness saw him enter the vehicle and speed away, after what would be the final shooting in 1977. Police records tied Berkowitz to the vehicle the witness saw. (He also paid the fine for the ticket he was issued). A further look into the suspect revealed that he had written harassing letters to people, with one person even accusing him of shooting his dog. When he was arrested at home, his car contained a firearm and a Son of Sam letter. Berkowitz did not resist arrest, in fact, he wondered what took the police so long to catch him.
So who was Sam? Sam was Berkowitz’s neighbor who owned a Labrador retriever. The dog’s barking annoyed him so much that he wrote letters to the dog’s owner in an effort to stop the noise. Berkowitz believed the dog was possessed by demons. He thought somehow the neighbor was sending him messages through his dog to kill people. Berkowitz attempted to kill the animal, but it survived despite being shot.
Berkowitz was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to multiple murders. He remains incarcerated today at age 64.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Son of Sam laws. This law was enacted in several states to prevent people from profiting from their crimes. It originated in New York with Berkowitz, hence the name. It was intended that any proceeds from selling their story would go to a fund for the crime victims, rather than to the perpetrator.
If you’re looking for a book on Berkowitz, there’s Son of Sam by Lawrence D. Klausner. There’s also Confessions of Son of Sam by David Abrahamsen, M.D.
As far as videos go, America’s Serial Killers: Portraits in Evil has a segment on Berkowitz. This is a two-disc set that I recommend for anyone interested in true crime. I’ve also heard good things about Spike Lee’s 1999 film Summer of Sam if you’re looking for a full-length movie on the subject.