The following is an excerpt from Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers by Scott Bonn.
From Son of Sam to Son of Hope: The Strange Journey of David Berkowitz
Over a period of two years I forged a relationship with the incarcerated serial killer whose self-assigned pseudonym, “Son of Sam,” is synonymous with evil in our society. The murderous exploits of the man behind the pseudonym — David Berkowitz — have become a permanent tale of horror in the popular culture. Berkowitz is one of the most notorious serial predators and criminals of all time. Jeff Kamen, Emmy-winning journalist who covered the Son of Sam case extensively, astutely observed that before Berkowitz “leaped from hating women to killing them, he had been one of millions of worker bees [in New York] who lead anonymous lives… [Then] Berkowitz bought a revolver and shot his way into the headlines and infamy.”
David Berkowitz murdered six people, and wounded seven others, with a .44 Bulldog revolver during his reign of terror several decades ago in New York City. He ignited a public panic of epic proportions during the so-called summer of Sam in 1977. After the largest manhunt in New York history, Berkowitz was arrested without incident outside his apartment on August 10, 1977. As he was being taken into custody he mildly said, “Well, you got me. How come it took you such a long time?” 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, New York, where he now permanently resides.
Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer premieres on Saturday, August 5 at 9/8c.
My Personal Reflections on David Berkowitz
My interactions with David Berkowitz have given me a very different and far more nuanced perspective on the motivations and actions of the serial killer known as Son of Sam than what is offered in mainstream media accounts of his crimes. I corresponded extensively through letters with David in preparation for this book, and I also visited with him in prison to conduct a lengthy interview. During our prison visit together he provided me with his unique insights into why so many of us are fascinated with serial killers and the dark side of the human condition. David also told me that [the late FBI profiler] Robert Ressler’s version of their 1979 prison interview and many aspects of the popular Son of Sam legend are inaccurate.
On Wednesday, March 13, 2013, I spent nearly five engrossing hours one-on-one with the man whose self-proclaimed moniker still elicits tremendous fear in our society. He gave me a rare in-depth interview that I will never forget. David is housed in the general prison population at Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Sullivan is a chilling fortress made from Israeli sandstone that looms high on a lonely hill overlooking the Neversink River Valley in the Catskills. As a criminologist, I have visited prisons over the years, but none before like Sullivan Correctional Facility. A maximum-security prison that specializes in housing mentally and physically impaired inmates, as well as those serving life sentences for murder, Sullivan appears lifeless and indestructible from the outside. Once inside the facility, I encountered corrections officers who were efficient, but very detached and somewhat intimidating — by design, no doubt.
As I waited for David to arrive in the visitation area, I wondered what his reaction toward me would be. It seemed to me that I had gotten to know him quite well through our written correspondence, but this was to be our first meeting in person, so I was unsure what to expect. I had been told by a mutual acquaintance, Roxanne Tauriello, a Christian TV talk show host and evangelist, that David today is nothing like the brooding, angry, and disturbed predator that held New York in a grip of fear in the 1970s. When he arrived, David nearly bounced into the visitation room wearing a bright yellow polo shirt and khaki pants. He appeared genuinely pleased, and even excited, to see me. He gave me a firm handshake and then a manly hug. Unlike the sullen young man with dead eyes who sat in court 36 years earlier, the 59-year-old David Berkowitz was full of youthful energy, and his eyes were clear and bright.
My time with David produced a number of revelations about his personal life, as well as his crimes. As we talked and had lunch together, I found him to be genuinely warm, candid, and engaging. With regard to his personal life, David told me that he deeply mourns his adoptive father, Nathan, who died in 2012 at the age of 101. He said that his adoptive father never abandoned him and always loved him, despite the horrible things he had done. As David spoke lovingly about his father and shared with me the deep regrets he has today for putting Nathan through so much misery over the years, his face became crimson and tears filled his eyes. I was moved by David’s display of vulnerability, humility, and remorse in my presence.
Debunking the Son of Sam Mythology
As a result of my discourse with David, I have come to believe that certain aspects of the Son of Sam legend are pure mythology that has been promoted by the media and law-enforcement authorities over the last few decades. For example, David did not kill young women at the command of a demonic dog. Although it is true that David hated the nightly barking of Harvey, his neighbor Sam Carr’s dog, and he tragically shot the animal to end the noise, he never believed that Harvey was a demon or that it was ordering him to kill women.
Contrary to the legend, David was never a member of a demonic cult, although it is true that he became obsessed with the occult and worshipped Satan prior to becoming a serial killer. Despite his obsession with the occult, David had no accomplices in his murders. He told me first hand that he acted alone during his killing spree. He also told me that he recanted his claim of demonic possession during his 1979 prison interview with FBI profiler Robert Ressler in order to pacify the agent. More specifically, David claims that Ressler pressured him into saying that he had fabricated the story of demonic possession. David told me that he complied with Ressler and changed his story simply to end the interview with the aggressive FBI profiler.
I believe David was driven to kill by an obsession with Satan and the occult that began shortly after his release from the Army in 1974. David joined the Army in 1971 at the age of 18 with the hope of finding purpose and direction in his life after experiencing a troubled and lonely youth. Unfortunately, his time in the Army left him feeling even more unfulfilled and lonely. After returning home from the Army at the age of 21 and still searching for meaning and purpose in his life, David turned to Satan and the occult. In his tormented and delusional mind, Satan gave David a new purpose in his life. He became convinced that Satan would free him from his emotional pain and loneliness as a reward for committing murder on the devil’s behalf. In addition to his inner turmoil, David was unable to sleep at night due to the incessant barking of Harvey, but shooting the dog did not stop his emotional pain, loneliness, rage, or compulsion to kill.
David explained to me during our visit that he felt like “a soldier on a mission” every time he went out to kill. A successful mission did not leave him feeling satisfied, however. Although he experienced a brief period of exhilaration following the act of murder, each killing ultimately left David feeling more empty and unfulfilled than ever. Given the repetitious cycle of agonizing pain and temporary relief that defined his serial murders, it seems to me that killing became both a physical and psychological addiction for David during his 12-month homicidal odyssey. Like a heroin addict, he lived for the momentary high that each murder gave him, but shortly thereafter he would crash and experience a desperate new emotional bottom. Throughout his killing spree, like a junkie in need of a fix, David believed that just one more murder might finally provide permanent relief from the pain and emptiness that haunted him. Despite shooting 13 people and causing a massive public panic, the relief he sought never came to him.
David’s Thoughts on His Public Image
During our prison visit together, David told me he realizes that the terrifying public image he constructed for himself in the 1970s, with assistance from the news media and law-enforcement authorities, may be indelibly burned into the minds of the public. He fully recognizes that he is perceived by many people to be the very personification of evil. He admits that he knowingly and deliberately contributed to the social construction of his monstrous public identity when he sent those bizarre and threatening letters signed “Son of Sam” to the news media and police during his reign of terror. He told me that he enjoyed shocking the world and derived fiendish pleasure from seeing his own words printed in the headlines of major New York City newspapers.
It is clear to me that David relished his evil celebrity status and that he enjoyed terrorizing the city of New York throughout his murderous rampage. I believe that his criminal infamy boosted his otherwise fragile ego and gave him a twisted sense of identity and purpose. Of course, the results of his criminal labor were truly horrible. David also admits that he deliberately resisted authority following his capture. He tried to intimidate everyone in the courtroom during his trial and in prison during the early days of his incarceration. Of that time, he now says, “I was once an evil man. I truly believed that I was working for Satan and I embraced the mission.” His own words reveal that David was the principal author of the Son of Sam legend through his own terrible crimes and aggressive self-promotion.
Central to this book, I asked David why the public seems to be so fascinated with serial killers. He told me that it has to do with a morbid attraction to the dark or pathological side of the human condition and the fact that everyone, in his opinion, has the potential to do terrible things under the right circumstances. He offered these powerful insights:
“In general, people are drawn to the darker side of life. With regard to why people are so fascinated by serial killers, mass murder, and violent crime, it could be that deep inside, everyone has the desire to take out one’s anger and frustration upon someone else…. Man can become violent and beast-like in a moment’s time…. Concerning ‘evil,’ perhaps everyone has the potential, under the right conditions and circumstances, to do terrible, horrendous things…. People want to understand why.”
David also told me that the news media are complicit in fueling the public’s interest in the dark side of the human condition. He said:
“The media take a part in this, too, especially with serial crimes. Serial killers are very rare. All of the media attention makes them look more prevalent than they really are. In my opinion, this is part of the inner spiritual decline of western society as we slowly slide towards anarchy.”
David’s words suggest that he has a rather apocalyptic view of the world. He told me that he believes the public is easily manipulated or “programmed” by the news media. He also believes that the media frequently misrepresented the Son of Sam crime story and sought to exploit his infamy, particularly regarding his alleged Satanic cult affiliation and obedience to Harvey the demonic dog.
Scott Bonn, Ph.D., is a professor of criminology, media commentator, public speaker, and author of the best-selling book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers. He is an expert on the behavior and the motivations of criminals. He examines many types of crime, including white-collar, state crime, terrorism, sexual assault, and serial homicide via his Psychology Today blog Wicked Deeds. His expert commentary frequently appears in the major news media. He is @DocBonn on Twitter and his professional website is DocBonn.com
Son of Sam: The Hunt for a Killer premieres on Saturday, August 5 at 9/8c.
Main photo: Author Scott Bonn with David Berkowitz, Sullivan Correctional Facility, 2013 [courtesy Scott Bonn]