BERKOWITZ, David Richard
New Yorkers are accustomed to reports of violent death in every form, from the mundane to the bizarre. They take it all in stride, accepting civic carnage as a price of living in the largest, richest city in America. But residents were unprepared for the commencement of an allout reign of terror in July 1976. For 13 months, New York would be a city under siege, its female citizens afraid to venture out by night while an apparent homicidal maniac was waiting, seeking prey.
The terror came with darkness on July 29, 1976. Two young women, Donna Lauria and Jody Valenti, had parked their car on Buhre Avenue in Queens, remaining in the vehicle and passing time in conversation. If they saw the solitary male pedestrian at all, they didn’t take note of him. In any case, they never saw the pistol that he raised to pump five shots through the windshield. Donna Lauria was killed immediately; her companion survived and got off “easy,” with a bullet in one thigh.
The shooting was a tragic incident, but in itself was not unusual for New York City. There was scattered sympathy but no alarm among the residents of New York’s urban combat zone . . . until the next attack.
On October 23, Carl Denaro and Rosemary Keenan parked outside a bar in Flushing, Queens. Again, the gunman went unnoticed as he crouched to fire a single bullet through the car’s rear window. Wounded, Carl Denaro survived. A .44-caliber bullet was found on the floor of the car, and detectives matched it to slugs from the Lauria murder.
Just over one month later, on November 26, Donna DeMasi and Joanne Lomino were sitting together on the stoop of a house in the Floral Park section of Queens. A man approached them from the sidewalk, asking for directions, but before he could complete the question he had drawn a pistol, blasting at the startled women. Both were wounded, Joanne paralyzed forever
with a bullet in her spine.
Again the slugs were readily identified, and now detectives knew they had a random killer
on their hands. The gunman seemed to favor girls with long, dark hair, and there was speculation that the shooting of Denaro in October may have been an “accident.” The young man’s hair was shoulder length; a gunman closing on him from behind might have mistaken Carl
Denaro for a woman in the darkness.
Christmas season passed without another shooting, but the gunman had not given up his hunt. On January 30, 1977, John Diel and Christine Freund were parked and necking in the Ridgewood section of New York, when bullets hammered out their windshield. Freund was killed on impact, while her date was physically unscathed. Virginia Voskerichian, an Armenian exchange student, was walking toward her home in Forest Hills on March 8, when a man approached and shot her in the
face, killing her instantly. Detectives noted that she had been slain within 300 yards of the January murder scene.
On April 17, Alexander Esau and his date, Valentina Suriani, were parked in the Bronx, a few blocks from the site of the Lauria-Valenti shooting. Caught up in each other, they may not have seen the gunman coming; certainly they had no time to dodge the fusillade of bullets that killed them both immediately, fired from pointblank range.
Detectives found a crudely printed letter in the middle of the street, near Esau’s car. Addressed to the captain in charge of New York’s hottest manhunt, the note contained a chilling message.
The note described “Sam” as a drunken brute who beat the members of his family and sent his son out hunting “tasty meat,” compelling him to kill. There would be other letters from the gunman, some addressed to newsman Jimmy Breslin, hinting at more crimes to come and fueling the hysteria that had already gripped New York. The writer was apparently irrational but no less dangerous for that, and homicide investigators had no clue to his identity.
On June 26, Salvatore Lupo and girlfriend Judy Placido were parked in Bayside, Queens, when four shots pierced the windshield of their car. Both were wounded; both survived. On July 31, Robert Violante and Stacy Moskowitz parked near the Brooklyn shore. The killer
found them there and squeezed off four shots at their huddled silhouettes, striking both young people in the head. Stacy died instantly; her date survived, but damage from his wounds left Violante blind for life.
It was the last attack, but homicide detectives didn’t know that yet. A woman walking near the final murder scene recalled two traffic officers writing a ticket for a car parked close to a hydrant; moments later, she had seen a man approach the car, climb in, and pull away with squealing tires. A check of parking ticket records traced an old Ford Galaxy belonging to one David
Berkowitz, of Pine Street, Yonkers. Staking out the address, officers discovered that the car was parked outside; a semiautomatic rifle lay in plain view on the seat, together with a note written in the “Son of Sam’s” distinctive, awkward style. When Berkowitz emerged from his apartment, he was instantly arrested and confessed his role in New York’s reign of terror.
The story told by Berkowitz seemed tailor-made for an INSANITY DEFENSE in court. The “Sam” referred to in his letters was a neighbor, one Sam Carr, whose Labrador retriever was allegedly possessed by ancient demons, beaming out commands for Berkowitz to kill and kill again. On one occasion he had tried to kill the dog, but it was useless; demons spoiled his aim, and when the dog recovered from its wounds, the nightly torment had redoubled in intensity.
A number of psychiatrists described the suspect as a paranoid schizophrenic, suffering from delusions and therefore incompetent to stand trial. The lone exception was Dr. David Abrahamson, who found that Berkowitz was sane and capable of understanding that his actions had been criminal. The court agreed with Abrahamson and ordered Berkowitz to trial. The gunman soon pled guilty and was sentenced to 365 years in prison.
Ironically, Berkowitz seemed grateful to Dr. Abrahamson for his sanity ruling and later agreed to a series of interviews that Abrahamson published in his book Confessions of Son of Sam (1985). The interviews revealed that Berkowitz had tried to kill two women during 1975, attacking them with knives, but he turned squeamish when they screamed and tried to fight him off. (“I didn’t want to hurt them,” he explained, confused. “I only wanted to kill them.”) A virgin at the time of his arrest,
Berkowitz was prone to fabricate elaborate lies about his bedroom prowess, all the while intent upon revenge against the women who habitually rejected him. When not engaged in stalking female victims, Berkowitz reportedly was an accomplished arsonist: a secret journal listed details of 300 fires for which he was allegedly responsible around New York. In his conclusion, Dr. Abrahamson described his subject as a homicidal exhibitionist who meant his crimes to be a public spectacle and harbored
fantasies of “dying for a cause.”
There is another side of David Berkowitz, however, and it surfaced shortly after his arrest, with allegations of his membership in a satanic cult. In letters mailed from prison, Berkowitz described participation in a New York cult affiliated with the lethal “Four P Movement,” based in California. He revealed persuasive inside knowledge of a California homicide, unsolved
since 1974, and wrote that “There are other Sams out there—God help the world.” According to the story told by Berkowitz in prison, two of neighbor Sam Carr’s sons were also members of the killer cult
that specialized in skinning dogs alive and
gunning victims down on darkened streets. One suspect, John Charles Carr, was said to be the same “John Wheaties” mentioned in a letter penned by Berkowitz, containing other clues that point to cult involvement in the random murders. Calling themselves “The Children,” the cultists operated from a base in Untermeyer Park, where mutilated dogs were found from time to time. Cult members represented the “Twenty-Two Disciples of Hell” mentioned in another “Son of Sam” letter.
Suspect John Carr fled New York in February 1979 and “committed suicide” under mysterious circumstances in Minot, North Dakota, two days later. Brother Michael Carr died in a single-car crash in October 1979, and New York authorities reopened the
“Sam” case after his death.
Newsman Maury Terry, after six years on the case, believes there were at least five different gunmen in the “Son of Sam” attacks, including Berkowitz, John Carr, and several suspects—one a woman—who have yet to be indicted. Terry also notes that six of the seven shootings fell in close proximity to recognized occult holidays, the March 8 Voskerichian attack emerging as the sole exception to the pattern. In the journalist’s opinion, Berkowitz was chosen as a scapegoat by the other cultists, who then defaced his apartment with weird graffiti, whipping up a bogus “arson ledger”—which includes peculiar, out-of-order entries—to support a plea of innocent by reason of insanity.
Berkowitz himself confirmed the occult connection in conversations with fellow inmates and letters mailed from prison. One such, posted in October 1979, reads: I really don’t know how to begin this letter, but at one time I was a member of an occult group. Being sworn to secrecy or face death I cannot reveal the name of the group, nor do I wish to. This group contained a mixture of satanic practices which included the teachings of Aleister Crowley and Eliphaz [sic] Levi. It was (still is) totally blood oriented and I am certain you know just what I mean. The Coven’s doctrine are a blend of Druidism, the teachings of the Secret Order of the Golden Dawn, Black Magick and a host of other unlawful and obnoxious practices.
As I said, I have no interest in revealing the Coven, especially because I have almost met sudden death on several occasions (once by half an inch) and several others have already perished under mysterious circumstances. These people will stop at nothing, including murder. They have no fear of man-made laws or the Ten Commandments.
As Maury Terry noted, both the satanic Process Church of Final Judgment and its spin-off successor, the “Four P” cult, were “offshoot, fringe-type” movements spawned by Scientology. Both groups were also linked to the Charles MANSON FAMILY in California—as was convicted killer
William Mentzer, named by Berkowitz in prison interviews as the triggerman in the January 1977 shooting of John Diel and Christine Freund. Investigation of the alleged cult continues, supported by testimony from convicted cannibal killer
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