Blackouts and Black Dogs: The Son of Sam Murders
It’s a fact that almost no murderers get Spike Lee joints written about them, which proves the grip the Son of Sam had over New York City in the late ‘70s. David Berkowitz violently descended on the city eight times between the summers of 1976 and 1977, and after he was caught through a bizarre set of coincidences, the story only got weirder.
Berkowitz’s life before murder was fairly unremarkable except in that he was adopted and had a whole complex about it. He was certain his biological mother could give him the tidy family he wanted, which was weird because children aren’t usually surrendered by happy couples. It turned out she couldn’t, as she was a married woman who was abandoned by her husband and his biological father was a man with a very un-abandoned wife, and this, for some reason, led him to resent women and not men. Ironically, he was a mail sorter at the time of the murders.
He Botched His First Attempt
The Son of Sam killings stretched from July 1976 to July 1977, but the Son of Sam assaults began on Christmas Eve 1975, when Berkowitz stabbed two women who, as far as anyone knows, recovered from their injuries. Berkowitz was so frustrated, complaining that “I kept stabbing and nothing would happen,” that he gave up on knives and switched to guns.
The Son of Sam Murders
Berkowitz killed six people -- Donna Lauria, Christine Freund, Virginia Voskerichian, Valentina Suriani, Alexander Esau, and Stacy Moskowitz -- over a series of eight attacks, usually targeting couples or pairs of women in parked cars. By the third attack, police realized the cases were connected because they were all done with a .44 caliber gun and gave the killer the incredibly unimaginative nickname “the .44 Caliber Killer.”
The Son of Sam Letters
Berkowitz must have thought so, too, because at the scene of his sixth attack, he left a note identifying himself as the “Son of Sam,” who commands him to “Go out and kill.” He later sent another letter to Jimmy Breslin, a reporter for the New York Daily News, which reprinted portions of the letter in what would be their highest-selling edition ever. The letters were largely the nonsense ravings of a mad man because, well, that’s what they were.
He Left a Lot of Witnesses
Six deaths over the course of eight attacks sounds like a pretty high rate of error, and indeed, Berkowitz left more victims alive than he killed. The problem was that the surviving witnesses either hadn’t gotten a good look at their attacker or gave bizarrely inconsistent descriptions, possibly because Berkowitz wore disguises (or, even more dubiously, was part of a vast network of Satanic murderers, but we’ll get there).
Grasping at Straws
Police had so little to go on beyond the common weapon that they entertained every “what if?” that entered their minds. After noticing that the handwriting on the letters looked a little too good, they brought them to DC Comics to ask if it could be one of their guys. (DC editor Bob Rozakis, who they consulted, pointed out that the lettering was actually janky A.F.) They also watched Wicker Man on the off chance that the Son of Sam’s self-reference as “Wicked King Wicker” wasn’t just psychotic babbling and gleaned nothing except confirmation that Christopher Lee ruled.
This, as you might imagine, did not inspire great confidence in the public. Since the killer seemed particularly interested in women with long, dark hair, the women of New York City scrambled to bleach and cut their hair, which was just as well, as the summer of 1977 was a brutal one. It was even more punishing, though, for the committed brunettes who started buying up all the blonde wigs in the city. The heat wave also famously caused a massive blackout in July 1977, which sent everyone’s anxiety levels into Kevin French territory, but only one person was murdered during the blackout, and it had nothing to do with the Son of Sam.
The Killings Continue
After his letters were published, the Son of Sam struck twice more. Having apparently entered a feedback loop with the public, his last victim was a woman with blonde hair because keeping women in a state of terror took priority over any genuine preference.
Caught From a Parking Ticket
Berkowitz finally made a mistake during his last attack: illegal parking. A witness remembered that the attacker fled in a car with a parking ticket on the windshield, which narrowed it down to just a few guys, who got narrowed down even further when police found Berkowitz with weapons and maps of the crime scenes in his car. He confessed immediately, explaining that his neighbor’s dog had been possessed by a demon who commanded him to kill. Like, what else do you do in that scenario?
The Weirdest Coincidence
When the name “David Berkowitz” first popped up on the NYPD’s radar, they phoned it in to the department in his jurisdiction, and the call was answered by a woman named Wheat Carr, who was like, “Hey, I know that guy. He’s my neighbor. Shot my dad’s dog. Real weirdo.” But the fact that she knew him wasn’t the weird part. Her dad’s name? Sam Carr. Oh, shit! She was the Son of Sam! Okay, not really. But she was a child of the Sam.
Who Was Sam?
Contrary to all reasonable assumption, as Berkowitz claimed in his letters to be taking orders from someone named Sam and in his confession from a dog, Sam was not the dog. The dog, a black Labrador, was named Harvey, which is arguably a way better demonic serial killer dog name. Berkowitz clarified that Sam Carr was a demon who sent messages through the dog, which is such a complicated possession scheme that it’s even more obviously made up.
The Dog Hoax
Berkowitz later recanted his claim that his neighbor’s dog ordered him to kill, insisting there were “no real demons, no talking dogs, no satanic henchmen.” It’s likely that he made it up in a bid for an insanity defense but dropped the facade when it became clear his best option was a guilty plea. He was a perfectly normal, sane serial killer.
The Son of Sam Laws
Because the media are ghouls, Berkowitz fielded many offers to buy his story and even successfully published a book about his inevitable in-prison religious awakening, but this case was so deplorable that the law finally did something about it. Most states now have “Son of Sam laws” preventing criminals from profiting from their crimes by selling books, interviews, weird sculptures, etc.
He Confessed to a Whole Different Crime
A few years after he was arrested, Berkowitz claimed to have been involved with the murder of Arliss Perry, who was killed a year before his first attacks on the other side of the country at Stanford University. When police interviewed him, though, they determined that he didn’t have any real information for them and was “just kind of jerking around.” Perry’s killer was later identified as a university security guard with no known ties to Berkowitz or any satanic cult like the one Berkowitz described.
The Son of Sam Cult
Berkowitz has claimed at various times since his conviction that the “satanic henchmen” weren’t totally a hoax and Perry’s murder was carried out by a supernatural cult whose members he couldn’t name except Wheat Carr’s brothers John and Michael, the real sons of Sam. Though the evidence is flimsy, many believe John and Michael Carr also participated in the Son of Sam murders, accounting for the conflicting descriptions given by eyewitnesses and references to the family in the Son of Sam letters, though the Carr family has steadfastly denied any involvement. John and Michael Carr both soon died in suspicious “accidents.” The whole thing may very well have been an elaborate frame-up job of a family who may have let their dog bark a little too much.
Top image: Mac Gaither/Unsplash