Ask anyone to name the worst serial killers of all time, and the odds are good that David Berkowitz will make the list. Better known by the nickname given to him by himself & the media, Son of Sam, he killed six people and wounded seven during a murderous rampage that took place in New York over the course of a year. Berkowitz attempted an insanity plea and claimed that his neighbor’s dog talked to him and told him to go on his rampage. The insanity plea failed to save him, and Berkowitz found himself sent to prison.The Son of Sam ranks right up there with John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and all the other infamous serial killers throughout history. Though his death toll was lower than those associated with other killers, there is something about his legacy that lives on. Find out more with our list of weird Berkowitz facts.
David Berkowitz had a rough life even as a child. Born in 1953, he was the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. The couple started a business together but experienced a number of problems in their marriage. Both had affairs during her pregnancy, and his mother later embarked on a long term affair with another man. When the man refused to accept her pregnancy, she decided that adoption was her only option.
Unlike other children who sometimes bounce around from family to family, Berkowitz quickly found a new home. Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz were Jewish entrepreneurs living in the Bronx and struggling with their own attempts to have a child. After hearing of a baby up for adoption under the name Richard David, they worked with an agency to adopt him and bring them home. They later renamed him David Richard Berkowitz.
Though Berkowitz was a normal child during his early years, he began lashing out in various ways during his later years. He often stole from other businesses near his home and frequently fought with his parents. Pearl even convinced Nathan to talk with a psychologist to get him help, but nothing they did work. After Pearl passed away and Nathan later remarried, Berkowitz experienced even more problems. Though he later found his birth mother, he ceased all contact with her after learning the details surrounding his birth and discovering his birth father has passed away.
The first date recorded by police of an attack by the Son of Sam killer occurred on July 29, 1976, but Berkowitz himself later admitted that his attacks began much earlier. He claims that he attempted to kill two women on Christmas Eve in 1975. After his arrest, Berkowitz told police that he attacked the women with a knife. Despite an extensive search, police found no evidence of his first attack and believe the woman likely never sought help. The second woman apparently did go to the hospital and later recovered, but she could not describe her attacker. Police did not associate Berkowitz with the crime until he confessed.
Berkowitz claims that he attacked other women and committed other crimes but refused to give police any details. As he lived in the Bronx, Yonkers and other neighborhoods around NYC, some believe he is responsible for dozens of other attacks and possibly even a few murders.
His earlier and later attacks do share some similarities. He primarily attacked women with dark brown or black hair, and he preferred women with long hair. Though he primarily used a knife in his earlier attacks, he later used a gun and preferred a .44 caliber bulldog revolver, which earned him a second nickname as the .44 Killer. Berkowitz initially went after young women who were alone, but he later attacked young women who matched his profile while they were with their boyfriends or significant others.
The New York Police Department scheduled a press conference on March 10, 1977 and announced they believed a link existed between several recent shootings in and around the city. Though they initially claimed that they had evidence that the same shooter used the same gun in all the attacks, insiders later admitted that they only believed it was the same gun and killer and that they actually had little to no evidence. In the hopes of catching the killer, the NYPD launched the Operation Omega Task Force.
Timothy Joseph Dodd, a Deputy Inspector in the NYPD, took over the leadership of the task force. More than 300 uniformed officers in the NPYD volunteered their services. Despite intensive investigation into the murders and attacks, the Son of Sam struck again.
A little over a month after the task force started, Berkowitz attacked a young couple in the Bronx. Ironically, the attacked occurred just a short distance from an earlier attack that police investigated. Eighteen-year-old Valentina Suriani died before help arrived from injuries sustained during the attack. Her 20-year-old boyfriend Alexander Esau was alert when police arrived and immediately went to the hospital for help. He died from his injuries without giving police any information about the attack.
The unexpected violence of the attack shocked many in the community and left them fearful of the future. Despite the task force working hard to stop him, Berkowitz would later taunt them with a series of letters.
Serial killers often receive nicknames from the media. Benjamin Atkins, a serial killer active in Michigan during the 1990s, earned the nickname of The Woodward Corrider Killer due to the location of his killings. Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Junior, the two cousins who ravaged Boston, found themselves called The Hillside Strangler in the media before police realized the two worked together. Even John Wayne Gacy picked up the nickname of The Killer Clown due to his work as a clown in the past. David Berkowitz ranks as one of the only serial killers who gave himself a nickname.
When Berkowitz began his killing streak, the media dubbed him the .44 Caliber Killer or the .44 Killer. The nickname was so common that the task force investigating his crimes even used those nicknames themselves. Berkowitz apparently wasn’t too happy with the moniker because he later started calling himself the Son of Sam.
The first mention of the name came in a letter that Berkowitz himself wrote and sent to the NYPD. The letter, which featured a number of misspelled words and colloquialisms not commonly used in the United States, mentioned details of the murders that only the killer would know. The police released sections of the letter in the hopes that someone would recognize some of the phrases or the handwriting. The New York Daily News and other publications ran stories devoted to the letter and printed portions of the letter for readers to examine. As Berkowitz signed the letter Son of Sam, media outlets quickly shifted from calling him the .44 Caliber Killer to calling him Son of Sam.
David Berkowitz’s Ford Galaxie Gave Him Away
Despite taunting the police with a letter and shooting at least four people after sending the letter, Berkowitz came very close to getting away with the attacks. During the early stages of the investigation, police believed that the killer had some connection to the NYPD or another police department due to the way he held his gun. There were a few early reports that indicated police believed the shooter was actually two men. As there were some differences in the early attacks, police thought that they attacks were not connected. After identifying the murder weapon, they thought those differences indicated two men working together.
Berkowitz also came close to walking away free and clear later in the investigation. A young woman came forward to speak with police about a man she spotted near one of the last murders and about the eerie way that he looked at her. Police identified a 1970 Ford Galaxie as being one of the cars on the street that night. A representative from the NYPD spoke with officers working for the Yonkers Police Department and uncovered some startling facts.
YPD officers admitted that they had their doubts about Berkowitz and that some of the crimes he committed in the past were similar to crimes mentioned in the infamous Son of Sam letter. Officers later found weapons and ammunition inside his car. After a warrant allowed them to search his car, they found additional proof of his crimes. Upon arriving at his home to serve him a warrant, Berkowitz gave up on the spot. His insults continued even then, as he asked police, “what took you so long?”.
One of the reasons for the extensive press coverage and interest in the Son of Sam killings and court case was due to the claims he made to police. Berkowitz told the court that he was guilty of the murders and attacks but only because of the possession of his neighbor’s dog. According to Berkowitz, his neighbor Sam had a black dog named Harvey. He stated many times that some type of supernatural being possessed the dog and used the dog to speak to him. The demon told him that he was evil and that he needed to kill others. Berkowitz even went so far as to claim that some type of supernatural being stopped him from killing the dog in the hopes of escaping the demon.
Not long after finding himself in jail, Berkowitz reached out to the media and some of the publications in NYC. He told reporters that the demonic being inside the dog frequently spoke to him and gave him advice on his attacks. The Son of Sam also warned the general public that he wasn’t the only “Son” out there. In interviews, he stated that demons told other people the same thing the demon told him and that others might follow in his footsteps.
Despite frequent claims of supernatural intervention, Berkowitz later retracted his claims. He admitted to his psychiatrist that he made up the stories, and he later went public and claimed he never heard the dog talking to him. Berkowitz made it clear that the attacks occurred because of the violent thoughts he had towards the pretty women who often rejected his advances.
It’s hard to believe that a man like David Berkowitz could care or help another person, but Berkowitz has a deep connection to other men today. Though his biological father passed away, Berkowitz continued the relationship he had with his adoptive father up until that man’s death. Nathan Berkowitz visited his son in prison, spoke with him over the phone and exchanged letters with him. Though it isn’t clear if Nathan ever forgave his son for his actions, the two remained close for years.
The man formerly known as the Son of Sam also forms relationships with men behind the prison walls. He works closely with the Intermediate Care Program, which is a program designed to help inmates struggling with mental illness. Though it might surprise some that a man who once acted insane now helps some who truly are insane, many think it’s a good fit.
Due to his convictions, Berkowitz spends most of his days locked inside a cell or wandering through a tiny courtyard to get some fresh air. He also spends most mornings and some afternoons in the Intermediate Care Program to give advice and lend an ear to inmates. Berkowitz is also active in a Christian prison group that serves to spread the word of God and talk with others about the Christian faith. He claims that God sent him to prison and sent those inmates to him because God wanted him to help those individuals. Berkowitz also works with those outside of prison, who created a website for him, to speak with teens about the importance of making the right decisions in life.
Despite killing six people and injuring another seven, Berkowitz may receive parole. The court convicted him of murder in the second degree and attempted murder in the second degree, and he received a sentence of six consecutive life sentences. Life in prison at that time actually meant 25 years to life, and it allowed prisoners to appeal for parole after serving a portion of the total sentence. While some thought Berkowitz would remain in prison for 150 years or until his death, he actually had a chance at parole in 2002.
During a parole hearing, the inmate will appear in front of a parole board to talk about his or her crime. The victims of the inmate and the families of those victims have the right to speak, and those associated with the inmate may also speak. Those granted parole will typically need to remain in contact with a parole officer, register an address with that officer, find a job and meet any other requirements of the parole.
Berkowitz reached out to the then mayor of NYC and requested that the mayor not grant him a parole hearing. Two years later, in 2004, Berkowitz came up for a second parole hearing. He once again reached out to officials and requested that they cancel the hearing. The Son of Sam told authorities that he believes his actions were serious enough that he should remain behind bars. The parole board oversaw hearings for Berkowitz every two years and turned down parole for the serial killer each time. He will continue receiving a new parole hearing every two years until his death.
The Son of Sam law was enacted because of Serial Killer David Berkowitz
It’s not surprising that the Son of Sam law didn’t exist until the arrest and later conviction of the killer of the same name. Berkowitz reached out to a priest, journalists and several writers not long after beginning his prison term in the hopes of finding someone to help him write his biography. He also accepted money from people to do interviews over the phone and in person. Rumors spread throughout the city and later around the world that book editors, authors and publishing houses offered him thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rights to his story.
New York was the first state that enacted the Son of Sam law, but many other states quickly followed suit. The law essentially prohibits those convicted of crimes from profiting off those crimes. NY bans criminals from obtaining any sums of money for talking about their crimes or selling their stories for a period of five years. Any money the inmate makes goes into an account that later goes to the victims of those crimes. In the case of Berkowitz, any money he made would directly benefit the survivors the families of his victims that did not survive.
Son of Sam laws stopped several criminals from profiting off their murders and other actions since its enactment. Ira Einhorn, the so-called Unicorn Killer, came close to signing a book deal before a Texas court determined that any money he made from the book would go to the family of his victim, Holly Maddux. The law also bans the selling and profiting of murder memorabilia associated with crimes online and in person.
What does the infamous Son of Sam say about his killing spree today? According to some reports, he expresses sadness and remorse for the lives he snuffed out so early. A college professor who met with Berkowitz in prison says that the inmate told him, “I was once an evil man and I truly believed that Satan would come and release me.”
Berkowitz, as many inmates do, found religion while in prison. He now claims that he is a born again Christian and that he regrets the things he did in the past. Berkowitz even went so far as to speak out against violence in the media. He denounced newspapers for publishing stories about a young girl killed in a random act of violence, and he also gave interviews where he called out the media for frequently publishing stories on gun violence. The serial killer believes that highlighting those crimes will only encourage young people to experiment with guns.
Just 24 when captured by police, Berkowitz is now in his early 60s and reportedly regrets the lives he took. He told one reporter that he prays for his victims every night, but he then made the mistake of mentioning the victims he left alive. That led some to wonder if he truly regrets what he did or, if in his twisted mind, he believes his violent actions only injured his victims and did not cause their deaths. Despite claims of being born again, some point out that Berkowitz still craves attention as he continues meeting with reporters and granting interviews while locked in a jail cell with no possibility of parole.
What is it about serial killers that fascinate so many people? Some claim that it’s simply the fear of what goes bump in the night. Murderers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy prove that no one knows quite how their neighbors think or feel. Bundy played the part of the good citizen so well that even fooled true crime writer Ann Rule. Rule worked closely with Bundy and considered him a close friend until reports went out about his murderous side. Gacy was so convincing that he hid his dark side even from those living in the same house with him with the bodies of some of his victims inside.
Berkowitz was a little strange and a little off, but no more strange than anyone else. The strange fasts surrounding the Son of Sam prove that anyone is capable of murder, even those working in the post office or living next to you.