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Mindhunter’s second season was so packed with true crime stories that even a figure as infamous as Charles Manson was only awarded a single scene. Another well-known serial murderer briefly featured in the show is David Berkowitz, the killer better known by his self-appointed nickname “Son of Sam.” Berkowitz, played by Oliver Cooper on the show, terrorized New York in the late seventies. Here’s everything you need to know.
Who is David Berkowitz?
At the time of his arrest in 1977, David Berkowitz was a 24-year-old postal worker and Army veteran. Born in Brooklyn in 1953, he had been placed for adoption as a toddler and raised in the Bronx by Nathan and Pearl Berkowitz, who owned a hardware store.
His childhood was troubled—his mother died when he was 14, he was a serial fire starter, those who knew him described him as a bully and Berkowtitz allegedly poisoned his mother’s parakeet. He enlisted after high school, and after three years in the Army returned home to New York and moved into an apartment in Yonkers.
What were the “Son of Sam” murders?
Between 1976 and 1977, Berkowitz murdered six people and injured seven more in shootings across the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. He targeted young women and young couples, including, most famously, couples parked in cars at night.
On July 29th, 1976, he shot Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti while they sat in a parked car in the Bronx, killing Lauria and injuring Valenti. That October, he shot and wounded Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan as they sat parked in Keenan’s car in Queens. He went on to shoot Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino, John Diel and Christine Freund, Virginia Voskerichian, Alexander Esau and Valentina Suriani, and Sal Lupo and Judy Placido. His final attack occurred on the 31st of July 1977, when he shot Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante in Brooklyn. Freund, Voskerichian, Esau, Suriani, and Moskowitz all died.
At first, reporters dubbed the murderer the “.44 Caliber Killer” after the ammunition used in the attacks. But left near Esau and Suriani’s bodies was a rambling, disturbing letter in which the killer identified himself as the “Son of Sam.” The murderer also sent missives to police and to famed columnist Jimmy Breslin.
The attacks terrified New York City. Many of his victims were young women with long dark hair, and the height of panic around the killings allegedly found wig sales skyrocketing. The search for the killer was the largest manhunt in New York history.
Berkowitz was eventually identified after a witness near his final shooting told authorities that she had seen a police officer ticket a car parked illegally near the scene of the attack, which lead detectives to Berkowitz’s vehicle. When confronted by police, Berkowitz confessed and reportedly asked the detective “what took [him] so long” to apprehend him.
Why did Berkowitz commit the murders?
After his arrest, Berkowitz famously claimed to have committed the murders under the instruction of Harvey, a demon-possessed Labrador owned by his neighbor, Sam. Still, the confessed killer declined to plead not-guilty by reason of insanity, and instead pled guilty to the murders.
Berkowitz called a press conference in 1979 to announce that he had fabricated the demonic possession story. After this revelation, Dr. David Abramson, a psychologist who assessed Berkowitz while he was still telling the demon dog story and found that he was sane, wrote an account for The New York Times.
Berkowitz was “devoted to the tale of the demons,” wrote Abramson, “which was itself revealing. People who have hallucinations are usually frightened enough to take no joy in discussing them.”
“After just a single interview, it was clear to me that Berkowitz did not exhibit the symptoms of schizophrenia,” wrote the psychiatrist. “And the clear‐headed cunning with which he had selected the time and place of his killings and eluded for a whole year the greatest police manhunt in recent memory hardly seemed to be typical psychotic behavior.”
Abramson also came to a conclusion about the killings that Agent Ford echoed in Mindhunter:
The signal, the command to kill which he said he received from the demons, I finally concluded, had in fact been his invention. It was a command dictated by strong, repressed sexual urges. He was afraid of women and afraid of being rebuffed by them; he didn’t dare approach them to satisfy his sexual desires. Yet to counteract his conscious and unconscious fears, he still had to show them that he was powerful. His gun was the solution: He could overwhelmingly demonstrate his power without touching them, without being rebuffed.
Where is David Berkowitz today?
More than 40 years after the murders, David Berkowitz is imprisoned at New York’s Shawangunk Correctional Facility.
Berkowitz has always been fond of attention. Just as he courted press with letters to authorities during his crime spree, he has sought publicity during his years behind bars. To pre-empt any attempt on his part to profit from his killings, the New York State Legislature passed what would be called the “Son of Sam Law” to prevent him from profiting from his crimes. The law inspired similar measures in other states.
Years after the crimes, Berkowitz was still revising his story. These days he’s a born-again Christian who credits his murders to an obsession with the occult and determination to serve Satan. He ministers to fellow prisoners, and re-christened himself the “Son of Hope.”