Son of Sam and the Long Hot Summer of 1977


By Owen Moritz



NYPD Mug Shot


Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, the .44 Caliber Killer who terrorized New York City during the summer of 1977, and murdered six young people.











NYPD Police File


The first Son of Sam letter to Captain Joseph Borrelli of the New Yorik City Police Department.





New York Daily News


The rampage of murder comes to an end.






Son of Sam and the Long Hot Summer of 1977


By Owen Moritz


It may be hard to believe today, but in the summer of 1977 New Yorkers feared for their very lives.  A serial killer was preying on young people.  In slightly more than a year he killed six people, wounded seven others. No one knew what he looked like and the descriptions from survivors were so sketchy that each new composite drawing bore little resemblance to the previous one. We weren’t even sure if we were looking for Jack the Ripper or Jill the Ripper. There had been suggestions the killer might be a woman.

I was among a number of Daily News staffers writing speculative stories on the police manhunt for someone calling himself Son of Sam. In my case I was getting feeds from Bill Federici and Pat Doyle at police headquarters. Meanwhile, columnist Jimmy Breslin was working his own sources.

We all knew certain things about the killer—he stalked couples in secluded parking spots, used a .44 caliber revolver and fancied pretty girls with shoulder-length dark hair. Thousands of women were so terrified they cut or dyed their hair blond or made a run on blonde wigs at beauty supply stores.

Moreover, there was the manic boast that put everyone on edge. He sent wild notes to Police Captain Joseph Borrelli and Breslin. “Sam's a thirsty lad,” he wrote Breslin, “and he won't let me stop killing until he gets his fill of blood.”

In the early morning of July 31, 1977 the killer struck again, stalking a young couple to a parked car in Bensonhurst. He crept up silently as the pair kissed and fired away at close range. Stacy Moskowitz, 20, died within hours and Robert Violante, also 20, lost an eye.

Ten days later, on Aug. 10, 1977, by a turn of fate, I was assigned to the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift as a vacation fill-in. The fateful evening started slowly. But toward midnight we were hearing murmurs from headquarters that detectives were pursuing a lead in Yonkers. We were getting leaks—the suspect was a post office worker and investigators had found his battered car.

The news travelled fast. We awaited an official press conference. But 1977 was an election year and Mayor Abraham B. Beame, fighting for his political life, wanted to be on hand for the announcement. That meant nothing definitively until after 1 a.m.

Meantime, rumors of an arrest were swirling and I was told to start writing. Like a mirage, the news room filled up with veteran reporters, offering their services for one of the great news stories of that or any era. Editor Mike O’Neill arrived from his home in Westchester, a copyboy having dropped him off at The News before parking his car.

O’Neill promptly bumped Bill Umstead, the night assistant managing editor, from the news slot—a humiliation the late Umstead never forgot. Some minutes later, into the now busy and humming news room, came a police officer in uniform, escorting a black youth.

He asked to see O’Neill. “He was driving your car,” the officer told the editor. “Do you know him?”

“Yes,” O’Neill said. “He’s my driver.”

More facts were coming in from Doyle and Yonkers sources. The suspect, arrested outside his Yonkers apartment, had told detectives: “Well, you got me.” Inside his cluttered car, cops found not only the Bulldog .44 caliber weapon, but also a fully loaded submachine gun and a letter addressed to Suffolk County police. He apparently planned to hit the Hamptons next.

Meantime, it occurred to me that in the pell-mell fury of writing we didn’t have the suspect’s name from police. I turned to Brain Kates, in the next seat, who was phoning everyone he knew in Yonkers where he used to work.

“Do you have a name for the perp?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “David Berkowitz.”

It was one of those jarring moments.  Any name is possible. But Berkowitz? I knew a few people named Berkowitz and none of them was a serial killer.

Finally, well after 1 a.m., in a scene of bedlam, the mayor made the announcement that his constituents were aching to hear: “I am happy to announce that the people of the City of New York can rest easily this morning because the police have caught the person known as Son of Sam.”

Back in the news room, O’Neill shouted, “Keep writing.” Pages were added to the news hole to make room for sidebars and pictures.

My lead remained unchanged. (“A 24-year-old, gun-loving mailman was arrested late last night as Son of Sam, the .44 caliber killer who has terrorized New York for more than a year and murdered six young people. ‘Well you got me…’”). But inserts and urgent updates were added through the night.

Staff members called the victims’ families for comment.  When we got information that Berkowitz may have grown up in the Glen Oaks section of Queens, reporters scoured the now-quaint cross-street phone book for the names of residents to call.  A reporter was dispatched to Glen Oaks, presumably to knock on doors at 3 a.m. and ask if anyone knew Berkowitz. Another tip: he had attended high school in the Bronx. These developments became grist for the following day’s editions.

Another mystery was solved. Where did Berkowitz get the weapon? He had served with the Army in Vietnam, a detective explained, and “it was a gift from a buddy” in May or June, 1976. He had also been trained in guerrilla warfare, which could explain his stealth moves in tracking his victims.

A front page proof came up. A copyeditor, Harry Demarsky, didn’t like the headline—thought it had Berkowitz arrested and convicted-- and so told O’Neill. The editor redid the headline to its iconic state: NAB MAILMAN AS .44 KILLER.

We learned how police broke the case. A vigilant dog-walker had come forward four days after the Bensonhurst attack and told police she remembered seeing a cream-colored Ford Galaxy parked illegally near a fire hydrant.  The killer “looked right in her face,” a detective said. Berkowitz’s car had been ticketed and detectives were able to trace the ticket back to Berkowitz’s Yonkers address.

At 5:10 a.m., a police official confirmed the .44-caliber gun seized in Berkowitz’s car was the weapon used in the murder of his last victim. Also in his car was the trove of a sick mind:  A pair of men’s underpants, soiled maps, newspaper clippings of his six murders--and the parking ticket.

Dawn came up through the big windows of the Daily News Building. It was now the morning of August 11th.  The thunderous presses downstairs were still running. Then, suddenly, we were told to stop.  “Hold your notes,” someone yelled. From unionized drivers came word that at 7 a.m. their night was finished. With their stranglehold on delivery, there was no other way to distribute the paper.  Many drivers also worked shifts at Murdoch’s Post, an evening paper.

The Son of Sam edition flew off the newsstands.  The Daily News had been selling fewer than 2 million copies a day since the mid-1970s, down from the highs of its halcyon days. But it’s a safe guess the paper sold more than 2 million copies on Aug. 11, 1977. No one doubted we could have sold more if the drivers stayed on the job.

In the end, Americans saw a paunchy, nerdy-looking man with a disturbing smile who had set off the greatest manhunt in city history. Berkowitz admitted to some of the crimes, but not all. He claimed members of a satanic cult were involved. While some experts put credence in his claims, no other persons have ever been charged. He contended he got his orders to kill from neighbor Sam Carr’s black Labrador retriever—hence his Son of Sam moniker. Reputed to be a model prisoner, Berkowitz is serving life in prison.

A postscript. Dreary news stories exploring Berkowitz’s upbringing, drug use and demons ran for days without relief. Then, six days after his capture, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died. The relief in the office was palpable. The King’s death brought a new cycle of stories, while Berkowitz’s saga, though not his murder spree, drifted into history.

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