Carl Denaro: Interview With the Man Who Was Shot In The Head By “Son of Sam”

Carl Denaro (middle) in the seventies [Courtesy Carl Denaro]

Everything changed for Carl Denaro (above, middle) in the early morning hours of October 23, 1976. After a night of fun, the 20-year-old Denaro, who had recently enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, sat in a Volkswagen Beetle parked on a “Lovers’ Lane” block in Flushing, Queens. Eighteen-year-old Rosemary Keenan was with him.

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As the young couple did what young couples do, an explosion of glass interrupted their make-out session. A .44-caliber bullet had pierced the car’s front window. Several more shots sounded. Denaro, not yet realizing he’d been hit, shouted to Rosemary, who was sitting in the driver’s seat, “Go! Get out of here!” She gunned the engine and sped off.

The shocked duo pulled up to a local bar where Denaro regularly hung out. Carl stumbled inside, whereupon the doorman’s eyes bulged at the sight of blood pouring from Denaro’s head. An ambulance arrived quickly.

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It would come to light that Carl Denaro sustained a bullet wound from “The .44-Caliber Killer,” later known as “Son of Sam,” and ultimately identified as world-class headcase David Berkowitz.

August 11, 1977 New York Daily News cover

August 11, 1977 New York Daily News cover

Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer premieres on Saturday, August 5 at 9/8c.

Surgeons repaired Denaro’s damaged skull with a metal plate, and his only take away injury remains some limitations to his vision. Rosemary Keenan, miraculously, suffered only minor cuts from flying glass shards.

Unlike most victims who fell prey to the Son of Sam, Carl Denaro is alive and well in 2017. Forty years after the capture of David Berkowitz, Denaro is on hand to talk about what it was like to survive the Son of Sam.

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CRIMEFEED: Does it feel like 40 years since the “Summer of Sam”?
CARL DENARO: Wow. I guess so. The difference now that is that I feel like, with the 40th anniversary, there’s more attention to the case than ever. The 25th was big, and it seems like every five years, the attention comes around again. But I’m more involved now at 40 years than ever in the past, though, so maybe there’s something to that amount of time.

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The attack on you happened early in the Son of Sam cycle. About six months later, the NYPD announced that a serial killer was at work. How did it feel to be part of a larger case?
It was vindication, quite frankly. For those six months, I was really under the gun. I was a suspect in a drug deal gone wrong, because of the shooting. I had long hair at the time, and I guess that’s just what everybody figured. The cops had nothing else. So, in that sense, [the serial killer revelation] was a relief. For me.

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New York City was notoriously dangerous and violent in 1977, so did the shooting come as a total surprise, or was there an element of, “This is just how things are now”?
Total shock. [Flushing, Queens] was an upper middle class neighborhood, quiet, very safe. New York was crazy at the time, but not there. People getting shot was definitely not the norm.

I didn’t travel in circles with drug dealers. That’s just not who my friends and I were. I smoked pot sometimes, but, in fact, we were known as “The Loverboys,” because we didn’t fight, we didn’t get into trouble. We were just all about having a few drinks, meeting girls, maybe smoking a joint, and having a good time.

Related: Crime History — NYC’s 1975 Terrorist Bombing At Fraunces Tavern

Have you ever made any contact with David Berkowitz?

A police sketch of the Son of Sam

A police sketch of the Son of Sam

I tried about 12 or 13 years ago, working with a late investigative reporter named Maury Terry. He was in touch with Berkowitz regularly, and he said, “Carl would like to ask you some questions.”

At first, Berkowitz agreed, and we set it up. Then two weeks before the meeting, he backed out. And ever since then, he won’t talk. He’ll only talk about being born-again. He won’t talk about Son of Sam.

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You’ve said you believe that a woman shot you, and that Berkowitz didn’t act alone. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes. I put that information together over 15 years.

First, Harry Lipsig, who was a lawyer, was representing victims of the Son of Sam shootings to receive damages, and we were at a hearing to see what percentage of money was involved, and how it would be divided up. Lipsig kept saying other people were involved, it wasn’t just Berkowitz. Other people were involved in doing the shootings.

Then, in 1986, I read Maury Terry’s book, The Ultimate Evil. That really laid out a conspiracy, really clearly. In 1990, then, I met a retired ballistics detective who said it was probably not Berkowitz who shot me, but I don’t have more specifics from him than that.

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Why do you think, specifically, it wasn’t Berkowitz who shot you?
The fact that I’m still alive and that four or five large-caliber bullets were shot and only one bullet hit me makes me think whoever was shooting didn’t have very good aim or control of the gun.

In 1993, Maury Terry interviewed Berkowitz and asked him if somebody else shot me. Berkowitz said yes. Then he asked if it was a man. Berkowitz said no. So he asked if it was as a woman, and Berkowitz said, “I’d rather not say.” And that’s all he’d say.

In all, there are probably between 150 and 250 pieces of circumstantial evidence that point toward there being more than one shooter.

Related: Prison Pen Pals — True Crime Writer Amanda Howard On Her Collection Of Letters And Gifts From Serial Killers

Carl Denaro today [Courtesy Carl Denaro]

Carl Denaro today [Courtesy Carl Denaro]

Obviously, this was a life-altering experience. In what ways do you think the attack changed your life?
Well, it changed things right away. I was enlisted in the Air Force, and I was scheduled to go in on October 28. I got shot on October 23. So, obviously, I couldn’t go in then.

My mother called the recruiter to explain the situation, and they said, “Well, seeing as how he’s in the hospital with a hole in his head, we’ll make a change.”

Related: A Look Back — Necrophiliac Serial Killer Joel Rifkin Arrested, Confessed To Killing 17 Victims

What changed?
I was hoping I’d get a deferment, and be able to go in six months later. Instead, they gave me an honorable discharge. So that ended my Air Force career. I was going in with the intention to study aerial photography — so it ended my Air Force career and my photography career.

When I was 20, I had dropped out of college, and I was just floundering. My uncle was in the Air Force, so I figured, “Why not?” So after joining, in my mind, I had my life mapped out, and it all changed right there. A year later, then, I was right back where I had been, looking for what to do next. So that was a big change, a really big change.

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What did you do next?
It took some time, but I was able to find a career. I worked for Merrill Lynch for 20 years, and in the telecommunications financing field for 30 years.

What are you up to now?
Well, I had a business that went under, so I have a job interview tomorrow, back in the telecommunications industry. Wish me luck!

Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer premieres on Saturday, August 5 at 9/8c.

Main photo: Carl Denaro (middle) in the seventies [Courtesy Carl Denaro]