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Serial Killers

The Rise of the Son of Sam

A glimpse inside the evolution of a serial killer.

Key points

  • David Berkowitz murdered six people and wounded seven others with a .44 revolver five decades ago in NYC.
  • He ignited a public panic of epic proportions during the so-called Summer of Sam in 1977.
  • By 1975, isolation, fantasies, and delusions progressed to the point that Berkowitz lost touch with reality.
  • Berkowitz is a visionary-style serial killer because he murdered for Satan.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
1977 NYPD Mugshot: David Berkowitz
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

David Berkowitz murdered six people and wounded seven others with a powerful .44 Bulldog revolver during his reign of terror five decades ago in New York City. He ignited a public panic of epic proportions during the so-called Summer of Sam in 1977. In an earlier article here, I presented a summary of my personal correspondence with Berkowitz and my insights into his current thinking. What I did not previously provide, however, is a detailed description of the events that led up to the murderous rampage of Berkowitz. Responding to a number of requests, the following explains the rise of the Son of Sam.

David Richard Berkowitz was born Richard David Falco on June 1, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York. David was the child of an affair between Betty Falco and Joseph Kleinman, who were both married to other people. When Betty became pregnant, her lover Kleinman threatened to abandon her if she kept the baby, so she put David up for adoption and listed Falco as the father. Within a few days of his birth, David was adopted by Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz of the Bronx. They were Jewish, working class, middle-aged, and childless.

David had a troubled youth. He told me that he “hated school and would run home every day” after the final bell sounded. Although he was above average in intelligence, David was hyperactive and surly, so he lost interest in school at an early age and became obsessed with petty theft, bullying his peers, and pyromania. Although David claims to have started more than 1,000 fires during his adolescence, he was never in trouble with the law prior to becoming a serial killer at the age of 23.

Morbid thoughts about death and his adoption haunted David during his youth. He learned that he was adopted at the age of 5. He was told by his parents that his biological mother had died during childbirth. David grew up feeling responsible and guilty for his biological mother’s death.

He also had disturbing and conflicting thoughts about his biological father. David also wondered why his father had abandoned him after his mother’s death. He thought that perhaps his biological father had given him up for adoption because he hated him. He says that he became “afraid of the dark and thought that his father would come and get him for killing his mother.”

David grew up feeling extremely lonely and longing for a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. He thought that perhaps he might find a sense of purpose by serving his country in the war with Vietnam, so he joined the U.S. Army in 1971. He told me that he felt like he was embarking on a “special mission,” and it gave him a sense of pride to be in the military. Instead of sending him to Vietnam, however, the army stationed him in South Korea, which Berkowitz recalls as a “boring time.” After serving a self-described “disastrous” three years in South Korea, Berkowitz left the army with an honorable discharge. Ironically, he had entered the army in 1971 looking for meaning, but he left it in 1974 feeling more lonely and unfulfilled than ever before.

When he returned home from the army, David became obsessed with determining his roots. He found out that his natural mother was still alive and that he also had a sister following an exhaustive search of public records. He was shocked but excited about the prospect of finally meeting his birth family.

Upon locating his mother and sister, there was a brief family reunion. After a few visits together, however, Betty Falco disclosed the details of David’s illegitimate birth, which greatly disturbed him. David fell out of contact with his mother, and he drifted into a series of blue-collar jobs. He was employed full-time as a letter sorter for the U.S. Postal Service throughout his killing rampage.

The forensic anthropologist Elliott Leyton, PhD, has described David’s discovery that his birth mother was alive and he was born out of wedlock as the “primary crisis” of his young life, which effectively shattered his sense of identity. Upon discovering the truth about his origin, David’s feelings of guilt and shame over being responsible for his mother’s death were replaced by rage over having been deceived and abandoned by his birth parents. David’s rage was given direction as well as an illicit purpose through his growing interest in Satanism, which began shortly after his release from the army at the age of 21. Before long, he became obsessed with Satan and the occult. By 1975, isolation, fantasies, and paranoid delusions had progressed to the point that David lost touch with reality.

On Christmas Eve, 1975, his self-described demons drove him into the streets with a hunting knife to find a victim to kill. After his capture in 1977, David confessed to plunging the knife into two female victims that first night. However, only one of the two alleged victims was ever confirmed, and David was never under suspicion for the crime. The one confirmed victim from that first night, 15-year-old Michelle Forman, survived the attack and was treated for six knife wounds. He would never use a knife again in his subsequent attacks. Soon afterward, he moved out of the Bronx to Yonkers. It was in his new home in Yonkers that the Son of Sam was born in 1976.

David Berkowitz is categorized as a visionary serial killer because he was driven to kill by an obsession with the belief that he was carrying out the work of Satan. The first Son of Sam shootings took place in the Bronx on July 29, 1976, when Berkowitz killed Donna Lauria, age 18, and wounded her friend Jody Valenti, age 19. Although the killer seemed to focus on young white women with long, dark hair, he frequently targeted male-female couples who were seated in parked cars. A few of his victims were shot with his powerful revolver in public out in the open. He normally struck either in the evening or late at night.

When the news media began to report that an unknown serial killer was targeting women with long, dark hair, a public panic erupted. It was David Berkowitz himself who coined the iconic pseudonym “Son of Sam” in handwritten letters to the police and press, including a letter to the legendary New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. In his threatening letters, Berkowitz said that Satan was ordering him to kill “pretty, young girls.” When his bizarre letters to authorities were published in sensationalized fashion in the New York news media, the Son of Sam became a larger-than-life monster in the public’s consciousness.

After the largest manhunt in New York history, Berkowitz was finally arrested without incident outside his apartment on August 10, 1977. Berkowitz received six consecutive life sentences for his crimes. Incredibly, he became a born-again Christian in 1987 after having a self-proclaimed spiritual awakening one night in his cell at Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, NY. He is now 70 years old, and although he has periodic parole hearings, he will almost certainly remain behind bars for the remainder of his days on Earth.

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