The Son of Sam serial killer case in late 1970s New York City was one of the most publicized serial killer cases in U.S. history. However, the case of David Berkowitz may not be as open and shut as NYC police authorities would have us to believe. I am including the Netflix trailer for the Sons of Sam documentary released in May 2021. Normally, I would post a full documentary, but I am including the Netflix trailer here instead because I hope that you will heed my advice and watch it! As the title indicates, Berkowitz may have not been the only one involved in the murders for which he was convicted. Who are these “Sons” of Sam?
The Son of Sam killings in New York City gained world-wide notoriety in the late 1970s. Coming right on the heels of Ted Bundy’s reign of terror, these slayings probably gained more widespread attention simply because of the location. In the City That Never Sleeps, fear and paranoia would run high as it was eventually revealed that the series of shootings were related and the police suspected that one person was likely responsible. New York had a serial killer in its midst.
Early on in the case, the NYPD denied that there was any connection between the shootings, but once it was discovered that a .44 caliber revolver was the weapon of choice used in each of the shootings, they were forced to go public with the findings. The result was mass hysteria. In all, 13 people were shot but six were killed. The other seven survived, but some were maimed and faced significant lifelong injuries. The police were on the hunt for the “.44 Caliber Killer.”
A simple retelling of the Son of Sam killings will not suffice to gain an adequate understanding of this particular case. This article seeks to understand the motivations of the Son of Sam and context in which his actions took place. Mid-1970s New York City was teeming with life as usual, but the urban sprawl coupled with post-Vietnam War culture and the struggles of the United States both domestically and abroad made life difficult for the average person. News of a killer on the loose would only heighten tensions and put people on edge.
Who was David Berkowitz?
Born Richard David Falco, June 1, 1953, David Berkowitz was a relatively unremarkable person with a fairly unremarkable upbringing. Berkowitz the killer would only emerge some time later at the age of 23 when David himself became dissatisfied with the trajectory of this life. Seeking to be someone more noteworthy than he had been thus far, Berkowitz set out on his life of crime until he was apprehended in August of 1977. Unlike the Bundy murders, Berkowitz’s reign of terror would last just over a year, but his crimes against humanity had started at an earlier date. The first shootings did not occur until July of 1976, but Berkowitz had already carried out an earlier attack the previous December. His first lashing out came in December, 1975, when he stabbed 15-year-old Michelle Forman and a friend, who was never identified, with a hunting knife. Forman survived but was hospitalized with six stab wounds. Berkowitz the monster was born.
What was festering and brooding in the soul of young 22-year-old David Berkowitz that made him attack these girls? There are various theories about Berkowitz’s motives and it’s probably best to see all of these theories as complementary rather than competing. The Son of Sam did not suddenly appear as if from nothing. He was born, created and transformed into the monster that terrorized 7.5 million people.
Berkowitz was adopted in 1953, just days after his birth, by Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz, an American Jewish couple living in the Bronx. His adoption was never a secret and Berkowitz was told that he was adopted because his biological mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Broder (Falco) died during childbirth. Berkowitz would not know the identity of his biological mother or father until later in life, though. Instead, Berkowitz lived his life with this gap in his knowledge and an overwhelming sense of guilt that he carried with him on into adulthood. It was his fault that his mother had died.
Some speculate that his guilt over his mother’s death and the loss itself, left him feeling a sense of meaninglessness in his life. This may be why he felt very strongly attached to Pearl Berkowitz. Maybe not wanting to lose another mother or simply trying to make the most of every moment he had with her, David continually pined for his adoptive mother’s attention. Later in life he would admit that he was so jealous of anyone who took her attention away from him, that he poisoned her favorite pet parrot so that he could have her all to himself. Berkowitz’s relationship with his adoptive father was not as intense. Nathan Berkowitz owned a hardware store and generally threw himself into working six days per week to support his family. He and David never had a strained relationship per se, but they were not close.
Berkowitz would lose Pearl Berkowitz when he was just 14 years old. Over time their relationship had experienced some strain as David continued to fight his guilt. Berkowitz recounts that he had an argument with Pearl on the last night he saw her alive. Little did he or any of the rest of her family know that Pearl had been dying from breast cancer, which was now in its final stage. As their argument concluded, David screamed at Pearl telling her that he hated her and wished that she were dead. Pearl collapsed later that evening and died soon thereafter from the cancer. It was coincidental, but it only served to double the guilt that Berkowitz was already carrying around.
In order to get away from it all, Berkowitz enlisted in the army, hoping to go to Vietnam to die for his country. He knew that he could give his life some meaning if he could die for a higher cause. Little did he know, the army had other plans and instead sent him on a peacekeeping mission in Korea. Unhappy with his situation, Berkowitz became increasingly subversive to superiors and was eventually discharged. He did manage one major accomplishment during his service term. David learned to shoot and was eventually elevated to the rank of marksman. He liked to shoot.
It was after he returned home from his tour of duty that Berkowitz learned the truth about his birth mother. Still struggling with his adoption, David joined a support group for adoptees and told them his story of how his mother died during childbirth. He was essentially laughed at and mocked by this peer group when they revealed to him that almost all of them too had the same story. Berkowitz finally realized that his adoptive parents had lied to him and simply used the conventional adoption story that most adoptive parents used during that era. When confronted about the truth, Nathan Berkowitz eventually relented and revealed the truth to David.
Once David tracked down his birth mother and learned that he also had a half-sister, he felt somewhat relieved that had finally rid himself of his guilt over his mother’s death. He would, however, continue to carry the guilt of what he said before his adoptive mother died. He would also quickly become disappointed with what he discovered about his birth parents. Berkowitz was conceived as an illegitimate by-product of an affair that his mother once had. His father was no longer in the picture and he didn’t much care for his mother’s new husband. On top of that, his half-sister served as a source of jealousy, as she had been able to live the life David had longed for throughout his childhood.
The Son of Sam Emerges
By the time Berkowitz committed the Forman stabbing, he was already on a downward spiral. The disappointment of his life seemed too much to bear. Berkowitz seemed to have found some solace and a sense of belonging, though, when he apparently joined a local satanic cult. Linking Berkowitz to the cult is somewhat difficult. Berkowitz would only admit to being a part of this cult much later in later, after he had been sentenced.
We know that the satanic cult was real and was operational in and around New York during this timeframe. There is some question as to whether or not it had connections to the cult of Charles Manson of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the Neflix Documentary referenced above, author and journalist, Maury Terry’s crusade to connect the dots between Berkowitz, the New York cult and the Manson cult is the primary theme.
According to Terry, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Berkowitz was not only influenced by this cult, but may have also acted in concert with other members of the cult. Terry made his case to the New York City Police Department prior to the closing of the case, but as the documentary clearly shows, the police wanted nothing to do with Terry’s conclusions. Instead, they focused on Berkowitz and Berkowitz alone. It was their desire to bring in the shooter and put the case to bed as quickly as possible. Terry’s meddling would only muddy the waters and prevent them from accomplishing their goal of ending the killings and regaining the confidence of an already panicked NYC population. You can feel Terry’s frustration if you watch the documentary because the evidence seems to be there. The unwillingness of the police to follow all of the evidence feels like a slap in the face to justice, on the one hand, but proved to be quite pragmatic, on the other. It is noteworthy that, whether there was anyone else involved or not, that the shootings stopped immediately following the arrest of Berkowitz. Either the police had the right man, the only one, or they didn’t but scared everyone else involved sufficiently enough to bring the slayings to an end.
Berkowitz was eventually arrested as a result of a concerted effort by the authorities to rely on eye-witness testimony and circumstantial evidence that would eventually lead them to his front door. A series of sketches and other evidence allowed police to put together the pieces of the puzzle. When Berkowitz was apprehended, he almost seemed relieved and proud at the same time. Whether or not he acted with the help of other, he quickly confessed to the crimes and entered into police custody with prideful smirk on his face. He would stick to his story that he acted alone until later on in life when admitted that the members of the cult may have played a role too.
Herein lies one of the greatest problems with the Son of Sam murders. Berkowitz changed his story as often as it suited him to do so. In the beginning, he claimed to act alone. Why would he implicate only himself and no one else who might have been involved? One theory is that Berkowitz was afraid of what might happen to him or his family if he disclosed that information. One thing that is all too clear about Berkowitz is that he was deathly afraid of death for himself, which is why he probably confessed to the crimes so quickly. Even though there was no death penalty in New York at this time, Berkowitz believed that someone might get to him on the inside. He also feared that they would target his family, so he took all of the blame upon himself. It was only later, when it seemed that the buzz from his actions seemed to be wearing off, that Berkowitz started talking about the cult connection. Even then, he never gave any names or specifics.
So where then does the moniker “Son of Sam” come from? Here’s where things get interesting. As we know, Berkowitz had returned from Korea, disappointed once again with how his life was going. Meeting his birth family did little to improve that and Berkowitz wandered around from menial job to menial job while living alone. At one point, he worked as a security guard on third shift, while living next to a family whose dogs barked repeatedly throughout the day, keeping him awake. This may have contributed to his mental decline as he was lacking sleep, depressed and disillusioned. During the time the murders were going on, Berkowitz wrote on more than one occasion to a local columnist that he read regularly and admired. Berkowitz’s first Son of Sam letter seemed to be a response to the profile that the NYPD had released to the public through the media. That had claimed that he was likely a woman hater, targeting women with certain physical characteristics (maybe those that reminded him of his mother). Berkowitz wanted the press to know that he had other motives:
“I am deeply hurt by your calling me a women 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.”
Some of this letter appears to be cryptic in nature, but some of it may point to Berkowitz’s struggle with his lack of sleep and his neighbors loud dogs, one of which was named “Sam.” Berkowitz would later claim that a demonically possessed dog by the name of Sam was who commanded that he go out and kill. Some of the references in the letter point to possible satanic cult influences, but it may just be that he was using language that he may have been familiar with due to his mingling with cult members. In the process of writing this letter, Berkowitz had essentially decided upon his own name, Son of Sam, rejecting the .44 Caliber Killer title he had been given by the press.
Berkowitz has changed his story several times over the decades following his conviction. His triumphal entry into the courtroom at his trial may give us some indication as to why. Before his arrest and conviction, Berkowitz was a man with zero significance. For someone struggling to find meaning and significance in life, this may have been both troubling and motivational. He was now center stage in one of the most famous serial killing cases in American history. For someone who was borderline suicidal (remember he joined the army to go to Vietnam to die), immortality hinged on the relevance his case. At first, his story about the demonic dog seemed sufficient to place him in the public eye for a considerable period of time. Here was a man who listened to and acted upon the will of demonic entities. He played this up in the courtroom, appearing to channel the voice of Sam while mocking the families of the victims (even though he had been deemed fit to stand trial). Was he simply playing the part of Son of Sam or was he being influenced by forces beyond his control?
Later, Berkowitz would claim that his ties to the satanic cult were the reasons for the shootings. Even though he had confessed to the six murders, he then said that he was responsible for only three and that almost never acted alone. There was always a group present and, on three occasions, someone else pulled the trigger. He would never divulge any names, though, and remains imprisoned on all six counts. The motivation for the killings are also unclear. Berkowitz seemed to indicate that this was part of some initiation rite, as the group eventually graduated from small animal sacrifice to something more sensational. The Netflix documentary alludes to the possibility that there was an even more sinister plot afoot, though. Connecting the NYC cult to the Manson cult, the narrator indicates that the group may have initially set out to shoot 100 or more people, causing widespread panic and chaos.
Even though the Son of Sam case appears to be open and shut, the divergence of evidence seems to suggest that this was the work of more than just one individual. Indeed, police sketches indicate that the witnesses may have seen at least one other person, maybe more. Whether or not this was a group effort remains to be seen as further investigation continues, but it is important to note that once the police brought in Berkowitz and he confessed, the murders stopped. Perhaps the police had actually gotten it right and no amount of meddling by Maury Terry or any others would dissuade them from their prosecutorial path.
Even though Berkowitz seemed to be deeply disturbed individual, he was deemed sane to stand trial. His letter to the press is full of satanic and violent imagery, but he seems to have been responding to the police profiles that had been previously broadcast to the public. Berkowitz wanted to shape the narrative to his liking, even if that meant appearing to be insane. Once caught, he pled guilty fairly quickly, even against the counsel of his own lawyers.
Berkowitz operated out of a deep-seeded anguish that plagued him his entire life. While his mental health/illness remains a matter of debate, it is clear that his guilt and desire for significance were overriding factors in his decision to go down the path that he did. It also appears that his illegitimate birth became something of a factor in his crusade. Berkowitz targeted young women (with similar appearances to his birth mother) sitting in their cars, usually late at night when the bars were either open or just closing down. Sometimes he shot at men, if they were present with the women when he attacked. Berkowitz would eventually indicate that he was on a mission (rather than engaged in satanic rituals) to prevent these girls from doing what his mother had done, having an unwanted baby out of wedlock. At the time of the murders, abortion was illegal in the state of New York, therefore unwanted pregnancies would often result in unwed mothers giving their babies up for adoption. Was Berkowitz simply trying to prevent another child from having to go through his anguish?
Berkowitz’s connection to any satanic cults is plausible given the path that he had already gone down. He was definitely seeking some sense of belonging once he had returned from Korea and his lack of meaningful work led him to work jobs with difficult late night hours. He may have developed some mental health issues due to insomnia and/or sleep deprivation. His search for relevance seems to have been fueled by feelings of inadequacy and being unwanted. The cult may have provided him with the one connection that he felt with other human beings, albeit a connection that allowed his mind to wander down the dark path of murder and destruction.
Today, David Berkowitz professes to be a changed man. Following a religious experience in 1987, he changed his nickname from the Son of Sam to the Son of Hope. He now operates a website that tells his story in his own words. The site also offers bible tracts for the purpose of converting people to belief in the Christian faith. Berkowitz maintains, to this day, that he was heavily involved in Satanism and that it was a major force in his life when he was committing murder. His website also contains the testimony of his conversion and is translated into nine different languages.
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