Forty years ago this month, a mental competency hearing was held for David Berkowitz, who basically said the Devil made him do it. It is an odd anniversary to note, but fitting for October — the season of witches and demons.
The consummate bogeyman, Berkowitz pleaded guilty and never did stand trial. He is up for parole in the spring of 2018, but hell will freeze over before he is released from jail — and he knows it. Berkowitz admitted this to me in a letter, which I filed in a manila folder marked “Serial Killers.” He typed the letter in 1999, exactly 21 years after his arrest as the Son of Sam, aka The .44-Caliber Killer, who prowled the streets of the outer boroughs at the dawn of the Disco Era and whose reign of terror brought joy and relief only to the circulation managers of the tabloid press.
He wrote: “I know I will be in prison for the rest of my life as I am doing “consecutive” life sentences which total about 350 years. I can accept this and live with it through God’s help.” I had contacted Berkowitz to request a prison interview. He politely turned me down, but he could’ve just as easily written those words yesterday. “Society,” he wrote, “will never forgive me.”
Behind bars, he found religion. He quotes scripture and believes that Christ is using him to help others who are struggling in life. “I wish with all my heart that those crimes and this terrible tragedy never happened,” he told me. “This is a regret I will have to live with.”
Hallelujah, the Son of Sam now worships the Son of God — all of which is divine and wonderful but will never erase what he did. And what he did was randomly snuff out the lives of six young people, almost killing seven others. The killings lasted more than a year and ended with his capture in the blistering-hot summer of 1977 — the so-called Summer of Sam. If you were around then, you read about it every day. The Son of Sam was in all the papers. The question on everyone’s mind was: Where will Sam strike next? From the paranoid streets of Brooklyn to the jumpy suburbs of Westchester, people were suspicious of loners and oddballs. People thought they saw Sam lurking in every shadow.
In Larchmont, the paranoia that summer was compounded by a brazen serial burglar, dubbed the Wire-cutter Bandit, who broke into a score of homes at night but not before snipping the phone lines. He struck while residents were asleep in bed. Sometimes he would shine a flashlight in the faces of his terrified victims, then go downstairs and casually mix himself a drink.
The burglaries ceased when a detective shot and wounded the suspect, who turned out to be a local sanitation worker. Ten days later, Berkowitz was apprehended without incident in the Bronx.
Berkowitz’s last address was Yonkers — 25 Pine Street, apartment 7E, for which he paid $237 in rent every month. Of course he lived in Yonkers, so the Son of Sam will forever be part of the city’s lore.
Yonkers can never catch a break.
Berkowitz is 64 years old. He resides at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County, his fourth stop in the New York penal system. In his letter to me, he said he could not change the past. “I can apologize for it and be sorry for it. But the past will never change, for it cannot be undone.”
Presumably, he still feels that way. Indeed, he has repeated the sentiment many times to his many prison pen pals. Berkowitz, it seems, gets more mail than Santa Claus. But there is no redemption for the Son of Sam, not in this world of mortals and parole boards.
“For society as a whole I will always be remembered as ‘SOS,’” he told me. “I never even like to hear this term.”
SOS. That was not a cry for help.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email firstname.lastname@example.org