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Remembering The Terrifying Summer That Son Of Sam Was At Large

The sunny summers of 1976 and 1977 were far from carefree for the residents of Queens and the Bronx in New York City. A killer was on the loose, inciting fear and panic, and lacing the lazy days of summer with violence and murder.

Before he was finally apprehended, David Berkowitz shot and killed six people, and wounded seven, using a Bulldog .44 special revolver. His killing sprees in ’76 and ’77 would forever become known as the summers of Son of Sam.

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Berkowitz’s Beginnings

David Berkowitz was given up for adoption at birth; early on in his childhood, he displayed questionable and troubling behaviors such as starting fires, destroying property, killing animals, and stealing. His social life appeared very limited, and at 18 he enlisted in the United States Army. He became an infantryman, qualified as a sharpshooter, and eventually was posted in the demilitarized zone in Korea, but was demoted after two punctuality infractions. Following his three-year stint in the service and an honorable discharge, he returned to Fort Knox and began working as a mailman.

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The First Victim

Berkowitz eventually moved into an apartment in Yonkers, New York, and shortly thereafter located his biological mother, who he believed was no longer alive. His mother made it clear she was not interested in developing a relationship with him. Around this time, Berkowitz began to display disturbing signs of mental health difficulties.

On Christmas Eve, 1975, Berkowitz stabbed two teenage girls in the back; both survived the attack. After moving into a two-family home in Yonkers, he purchased the .44 revolver and used it to kill his first victim on July 29, 1976. He fired several shots into a parked car, killing his first victim, Donna Lauria, and wounding Jody Valenti.

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The Search 

In April 1977, following his sixth attack, Berkowitz began writing letters to the New York City Police Department and to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. The letters, which were disturbing in nature, resulted in him becoming known as the “Son of Sam.” In one of the letters, Berkowitz wrote, “To stop me you must kill me. Sam’s a thirsty lad and he won’t let me stop killing until he gets full of blood.” 

He also wrote threatening letters to his neighbors and landlords; although they reported the letters to the authorities, their concerns were lost among the numerous tips the police received.

All of the attacks perpetrated by Berkowitz occurred at night; six of the shootings involved couples sitting in parked cars. As terror throughout the city increased, women who were fearful of becoming the next victim, cut their hair, purchased wigs, or dyed their hair blonde in response to reports that several of Berkowitz’s victims had long dark hair.

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A Ticket Leads To The End Of Terror

On July 31, 1977, Berkowitz killed Stacy Moskowitz and blinded Robert Violante – but this time there was a witness who reported seeing a man holding a “dark object” and removing a parking ticket from his car, which was parked by a fire hydrant. Authorities used the information to track Berkowitz to his apartment, where they found his car stocked with a rifle, ammunition, crime scene maps, and another letter. As Berkowitz was being led from his apartment, the arresting officer asked Berkowitz, “Now that I’ve got you, who have I got?” Without flinching, Berkowitz replied, “I’m Sam.” A subsequent search of his apartment revealed evidence of the many crimes he had committed.

On August 10, 1977, Berkowitz was arrested and indicted for eight shootings. He confessed to committing all of the crimes but claimed he was simply obeying the commands of a demon that had taken the form of his neighbor Sam’s dog. Despite this seemingly insane justification for his actions, he was found competent to stand trial and later admitted that the dog story was nothing more than a hoax. 

Berkowitz was sentenced to 25 consecutive life sentences for the murders he committed. Throughout the legal proceedings, it became clear that he seemed to enjoy the attention and notoriety that his killing spree engendered; as a result, the New York State Legislature enacted the “Son of Sam” laws that prohibit criminals from profiting financially from any publicity related to their crimes.