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19 February 2007
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Case Closed: Infamous Criminals

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David Berkowitz, Son of Sam

Serial killers are a subject of fascination for many and there are numerous websites dedicated to the gruesome exploits of Jack The Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Boston Strangler.


But David Berkowitz, who has been incarcerated now for 25 years, is one of the few serial killers to have his own personal website, which he uses mainly to spread his message of remorse and faith.

David Berkowitz

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365 years in prison ...

The prisons of America are full of men and women who have committed horrific crimes but now claim to be born-again Christians. Cynics claim these people are using religion to gain parole or, like Karla Faye Tucker, to escape execution.

Berkowitz, who was jailed for 365 years in 1977, insists he does not want his freedom. Every June he is entitled to a parole hearing. Yet Berkowitz states in a letter to New York Governor George Pataki that he is disappointed there is going to be a hearing and adds, "I have absolutely no interest in parole."

He writes: "Frankly, I can give you no good reason why I should even be considered for parole. I can, however, give you many reasons why I should not be. The loss of six lives and the wounding of even more are reasons enough."

A quarter of a century after his arrest, Berkowitz remains an enigmatic character who is regularly interviewed on US television and continues to make front page news in The Big Apple.

His victims, as is often the case, are forgotten by all except their close relatives. Mike Lauria, whose teenage daughter Donna was his first victim, said recently of Berkowitz: "He claims he's a born-again Christian, but I don't believe God has forgiven him. I haven't forgiven him."

Low key start

Donna Lauria's murder on 29 July 1976, one of around 20,000 murders in the United States that year, did not get a great deal of attention in New York especially as it happened in an area of the Bronx in which the Mafia held sway. The city's cynical journalists paid little heed to the killing, assuming perhaps that she had seen something or said something which had annoyed La Cosa Nostra.

Two more murders were committed and several other people seriously injured, before the penny finally dropped. At a press conference at the NYPD's headquarters at One Police Plaza on 10 March 1977 a posse of crime reporters were informed that the same .44 calibre revolver had been responsible for the murders of Donna Lauria and Virginia Voskerichian, a 19-year-old Armenian-American, who had been killed two days before.

Police Commissioner Mike Codd said the gun, a Charter Arms Bulldog, had also been used to murder Christine Freund and in two other shootings in the Bronx and neighbouring Queens. The New York tabloid press seized on the story and within days everyone in the city was aware of the existence of the man known at the time as "The .44 Killer".

The letters

As serial killers go it was not the most stimulating of sobriquets and Berkowitz, a desperate attention-seeker, seemed to realise that his audience wanted more. In the early hours of 17 April 1977 he blasted to death young lovers Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani. He left a handwritten letter in the middle of the street nearby, addressed to Captain Joe Borelli, the deputy chief of the Omega task force, which had been set up the previous month to hunt down "The .44 Killer".

Son of Sam letter

The sender of the letter claimed he had been ordered to kill by his father, Sam, who he said was a vampire. The letter was not released to the public and only a handful of journalists were told of its contents. One of them was New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who dropped several hints about it in his articles. On 30 May 1977 Berkowitz sent Breslin a letter and, after teasing for almost a week, the Daily News finally published it and dubbed the killer "Son of Sam".

Long hot summer

The summer of 1977 was sweltering and the heat only helped to raise the tension on the streets. In the early hours of 26 June a young Italian-American, Sal Lupo, left the Elephas disco in Queens, with 17-year-old Judy Placido. They sat in Sal's car nearby and Judy was saying: "This Son of Sam is really scary - the way that guy comes out of nowhere. You never know where he'll hit next."

Suddenly the car's window exploded and they were hit by three bullets from a .44 revolver. Sal staggered out of the car and ran to the disco for help as the killer fled. Miraculously neither Sal nor Judy was badly injured. Four weeks passed with no further incidents and detectives were no nearer finding out the killer's identity.

On the night of 31 July 1977 Stacy Moskowitz went out on a first date with handsome Bobby Violante to see the movie New York, New York. Son of Sam's hunting grounds were Bronx and Queens so the young couple thought they were safe when they pulled up under a streetlight in a lovers' lane in south Brooklyn just before 2am.

Stacy and Bobby were kissing in the front seat when the windows shattered and she jerked forward. The gunfire had burst Bobby's eardrums and he also lost his left eye and much of the vision in his right eye. But he survived. Stacy was taken to hospital and surgeons fought for 38 hours to save her life, but it was all in vain and she became Son of Sam's sixth victim.

But Berkowitz made a mistake which was to prove his undoing ...

police efit of the Son of Sam

Berkowitz parked his white Ford Galaxie next to a fire hydrant (an offence in most US cities) and was given a parking ticket by an eagle-eyed police officer. When he returned to his car around 2.20am he was spotted by a local woman, Cacilia Davis, as he tore the ticket off his windscreen and threw it in the gutter.

Terrified of the implications Ms Davis, a 49-year-old widow, sat on her evidence for three days. When she did come forward it was initially ignored by police, who had been told by other witnesses that the killer was fair-haired and driving a yellow VW. She was also told no parking tickets had been issued that night.

Confession

But Mrs Davis persevered and 10 days after the shooting police finally unearthed a ticket which had been issued to a Ford Galaxie, registration number 561 XLB. The registered owner was David Berkowitz, who lived at 35 Pine Street in the northern suburb of New York.

When armed police swooped on Berkowitz as he got into his car and demanded to know who he was, he smiled manically and said: "I'm Sam."

He was taken into custody and confessed to all six murders, and several other shootings, during a 30-minute interview. Detectives quizzed him about references he had made in his letters to Sam. He claimed he had been ordered to commit the murders by a near neighbour Sam Carr, but said the messages were passed on by Carr's "demon dog", a black Labrador called Harvey.

The Carr family knew of Berkowitz and suspected he had been responsible for shooting Harvey (who survived) and hurling a Molotov cocktail through the window of their home. Several court-appointed psychiatrists disagreed about whether or not Berkowitz was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

But it did not matter because he pleaded guilty to the murders and was jailed for 365 years.

In July 1979 Berkowitz was attacked in his cell in Attica prison by a fellow inmate who slashed his throat with a razor. He needed 56 stitches for the wound and still carries an eight-inch scar.

Did he act alone?

After his conviction Berkowitz admitted the letters and references to "demon voices" from a dog, were a hoax and attributed the killings to a loathing of women caused by his own sexual frustration. But he has never fully laid to rest another theory which has many proponents, including the mother of his last victim...

Neysa Moskowitz believes Berkowitz was involved in a coven, which carried out the killings as part of an occult ritual.

Son of Sam letter

The theory was given considerable credibility by the findings of investigative journalist Maury Terry.

He believes the coven was called the 22 Disciples of Hell and says it also contained Sam Carr's sons John and Michael, both of whom loathed their father.

Terry pointed to the text of Berkowitz' letter to Capt Borelli, which spoke of the 22 Disciples of Hell and John "Wheaties" Carr, who was referred to as a rapist and a man who suffocated young girls.

Mysterious deaths

John Carr's nickname was "Wheaties" and he closely resembled a composite picture of the gunman involved in one of the shootings. But John Carr was found shot dead in February 1978, before Terry was able to interview him. Scrawled on the skirting board next to his body were the words SSNYC, surely they stood for Son of Sam New York City.

As for Michael Carr he also died mysteriously. In October 1979 his car ploughed into a streetlight as he drove towards Manhattan.

His sister, Wheat Carr, is convinced he was either driven off the road or had his tyre shot out. The District Attorney of Queens, John Santucci, was so interested by Terry's findings that he agreed to reopen the Son of Sam case.

But to date no-one else has ever been charged in connection with the crimes.

Full responsibility

Berkowitz himself will only say of the killings: "There were others who knew about them and urged me on. But I carried out the killings. I take full responsibility for my actions."

In his letter to Governor Pataki, Berkowitz wrote: "In all honesty, I believe that I deserve to be in prison for the rest of my life. I have, with God's help, long ago come to terms with my situation and I have accepted my punishment."


David Berkowitz's victims:

  • 29 July 1976 - Donna Lauria, 18
  • 30 Jan 1977 - Christina Freund, 26
  • 8 Mar 1977 - Virginia Voskerichian, 19
  • 17 Apr 1977 - Alexander Esau, 20, and Valentina Suriani, 18
  • 31 July 1977 - Stacy Moskowitz, 20

This profile of David Berkowitz was written by BBC News Online's Chris Summers.


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