On July 29, 1976, serial killer David Berkowitz – who would become known as the Son of Sam – committed the first of his murders in New York City. I remember these events because that was my senior year of high school and the first shooting occurred just blocks from where I lived. One of the future victims was a classmate of mine from elementary school.
Over the next year, he would kill again five more times and injure seven, despite being the target of what became one of the largest manhunts in New York history. He would also change the face of journalism which was still basking in the glow from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Not for the better.
Just after 1 a.m. on July 29th, 1976, a man carrying a paper bag approached a car where two young women were chatting. The friends had just returned from a club and were parked in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of the Bronx just a few blocks from where I lived. The stranger pulled a .44 caliber Charter Arms Bulldog out of the bag and fired three shots, killing one woman instantly and wounding the other.
Berkowitz shot four more victims in Queens neighborhoods that year, but it wasn’t until January 1977, when a young couple was attacked on their way home from a movie, that police realized the crimes were connected. One of the victims in the January attack died, marking the second young woman murdered by Berkowitz.
Another murder in March and two more in April began a wave of fear that started in Queens and, following a massive push from the local press, saturated the city.
At the scene of the April murders, investigators found a letter addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borelli – the first of the notes Berkowitz would send. In it, the killer referred to himself as “the Son of Sam” (the birth of the nickname) and suggested he was following orders from his “father.”
Fresh off a round of layoffs, the police department was ill-equipped to handle an investigation of that magnitude. Also, the concept of serial killers was still relatively new. Above is the cover of a pamphlet distributed by laid off police officers at airports and train and bus terminals.
At the time, The Daily News was the city’s most popular newspaper. Rupert Murdoch purchased the New York Post in late 1976, when he was still just a relatively unknown Australian media mogul. But he was already famous in the U.K. and Australia for his tabloid sensibilities. Murdoch had earned the nickname the “tit-and-bum king” in the UK for his breast-centric makeover of The Sun newspaper. I used to deliver the NY Post door-to-door in the Bronx in the early ‘70s before Murdoch’s takeover.
Murdoch set out to remake the Post, originally founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801, into something more than just news. Emotion, especially fear, was more important than reporting the news. Former New York City Mayer Abe Became would comment that Murdoch’s Post made Hustler look like the Harvard Law Review.
The Son of Sam case inspired a battle between the Post and the Daily News to see who could descend the deepest and fastest to the lowest common denominator. Berkowitz liked the attention so much that he sent a letter to the Daily News’ star columnist Jimmy Breslin which read:
Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine and blood. Hello from the sewers of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed in the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks.
Police asked the News to publish the letter with a plea for Son of Same to turn himself in. The News did so, but only after several days of teaser articles about the pending publication.
Having been scooped, Murdoch ordered the Post to come up with something. One angle was that there was a hidden track in a Jimmy Hendrix song saying “help me, Son of Sam.” The fact Hendrix had been dead for years before this didn’t seem important.
Son of Sam targeted young women with long dark hair. This led to record sales in wigs and women getting their hair cut and dyed. Since he haunted lovers’ lanes and parking lots, discos in Queens and the Bronx became ghost towns. Ironically, Saturday Night Fever was filming that year and released in December 1977.
It is possible that all the media attention provoked Son of Sam to kill again. Serial killers will sometimes use press coverage as impetus to commit further crimes.
Son of Sam’s final attack occurred on July 31st, 1977. He shot another young couple. A Post reporter managed to arrive at the hospital where they were taken at the same as the victim’s parents. Donning a white coat, he pretended to work for the hospital to get a scoop from them. The reporter wrote a front-page story imploring SOS to give himself up— to the Post, not the police.
An eyewitness account at the last murder scene led police to a parking ticket issued to David Berkowitz, which led them to his Yonkers apartment and brought about his arrest. In custody, he told police that he received his instructions to kill from his neighbor who communicated through his demonic dog.
Despite this, and believing it was an insanity dodge, the state declared Berkowitz mentally fit to stand trial. He was sentenced to 365 years in prison and currently resides in a correctional facility in upstate New York. He converted to Christianity in the late Eighties and now goes by the name “Son of Hope.”
Four journalists, from the Post and the Daily News, and Time and Washington Post – the paper that had helped break open Watergate – were arrested trying to break into Berkowitz’s Yonkers apartment.
While Son of Sam’s crimes were horrific and the victims had their lives cut short, perhaps of more lasting and wider ranging implications is the change in media reporting because of this case. Where sensationalism wins out over getting the facts.
My novel, New York Minute, takes place before Son of Sam is captured, not long after his next to last shooting, which involved a girl I went to grammar school with in the Bronx. William Kane, the protagonist, is consulted about the case by his uncle, NYPD Detective Nathan Riley.
Excerpted from: New York City Little Black Book 1: Secrets, History, and Trivia of the World’s Greatest City.